Talking About STIs Without Shaming People

One of the first safer sex messages I ever heard was the line about how if you have sex with someone, you’re having sex with everyone they’ve ever had sex with, and everyone those people have had sex with, and so on. While that makes for a great soundbite, it’s not actually true since even the most contagious STI isn’t transmitted 100% of the time. And it doesn’t say anything about the sexual acts your partner might have done with those other people, or what their safer sex practices were. For that matter, it doesn’t say anything about the sex acts you’re engaging in with this person or the safer sex choices you’re making. It’s a fear and shame tactic, which rarely creates useful behavioral changes when it comes to sex.

There’s also a way in which that sort of thing reinforces the idea that having an STI makes you dirty, and by extension, not having one means you’re clean. It’s amazing to me how often people who think that STI = dirty don’t think twice about coming to work with the flu, or sneezing into their hand and then holding the handrail on a train or bus, or don’t bother washing their hands after they go to the bathroom. But then, my partner is a public health nurse, so I know more about how people practice personal hygiene than most folks.

So when I saw these photos, which came from the Finnish AIDS Council’s Facebook page, I had to wonder whether they had the intended effects.

At least they didn’t just go with a woman. But even so, when I see these kinds of images, I see a few different things.

First, when we send messages that the reason to use condoms is that your partner has had more than X number of sexual partners, we often send the unintended message that if your partner says that they haven’t had many partners, condoms aren’t necessary. Second, we create a disincentive for people to be honest about their sexual histories, which only makes that worse. And third, we make it seem as if knowing how many partners someone has had gives you all the information you need to make an informed decision about safer sex.

While I’m glad that some people are looking for innovative ways to get the word out about safer sex, I wish they could do it with an awareness of these sorts of consequences. Though in all fairness, since this was a campaign in Finland, I don’t know how people there saw it.

What do you think about these photos?

And if you want some info on safer sex, condoms, and lubricants, we have lots of great articles here!

Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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3 Responses

  1. JenSolo says:

    I disclose what STIs I’ve had in the past and how they were treated.  Some people seem very put off by this, others are grateful for the honesty.  Just because I’m clear now doesn’t mean I always was or always will be.  And in one case, although I was given the all-clear, I actually carried an STI for more than 3 years while I was not sexually active, and then gave it to my monogamous partner once we began having unprotected sex.  This was trichomoniasis, something that isn’t tested for regularly in the UK.  If you haven’t been tested for it along with other STDs, request a test, because it can lay dormant and without symptoms for literally years in women, but is very very uncomfortable once the symptoms pop up.

  2. Emily Sims says:

    Such great points! Isn’t it interesting how it always seems more acceptable and expected for men to have more partners?

  3. Stephanie J. says:

    I love this conversation, that STI’s are often implied as meaning someone is dirty yet in reality we aren’t so quick to judge those people who show up to work/school/etc coughing, sneezing and the like and spreading it to us. What is it about STI’s that leave people so mentally jarred? The conversation that more than likely you will encounter someone with an STI on your list of lover’s is more likely than not, so let’s start empowering THAT conversation and educating from a more loving standpoint (and not one from judging!)