VD, crabs, the clap ... depending on the era you grew up, any of these terms may have been tossed around when talking about sexually transmitted infections or diseases. And with them, (un)healthy amounts of shame and embarrassment. Today, these old expressions are used less and less, but even saying STD is becoming passé in favor of the often more accurate STI. This may just sound like semantics, but how we talk more constructively about STIs begins with the language we use to describe them and the ways we approach conversations around them in our personal lives.
Why? The reality is, according to data collected by the CDC, the STI rate has reached an all-time high for the sixth consecutive year. To a degree, that can be attributed to reduced testing and treatment when there were COVID-related obstacles to getting care.
That's just part of it, though. Because they remain a taboo subject, STIs aren't being discussed openly among partners or even allowed out in the mainstream in the same ways that other infections not related to sex, intimate touch, or the genitals are (the common cold, pneumonia and even food poisoning, for example). And, because they're often reduced to whispers and sideways glances, there's a tremendous lack of knowledge, as well as misinformation, surrounding STIs.
Yet, untreated or unacknowledged, some STIs can cause long-term health problems or simply spread from person to person unnecessarily. Because there are many facets to this complex issue, we brought in Nisha McKenzie PA-C, Owner and Founder of Women's+ Health Collective, to share her expertise. McKenzie, who has specialized training as a sex educator and sex counselor, is an enthusiastic advocate for more open dialogues around STIs. Let's dive into some advice.
UNDERSTAND YOUR SPECIFIC STI AND COMMIT TO BECOMING INFORMED.
If you've discovered you have an STI, your first thought might be that your love life is doomed. You might also toil over how to broach the subject either with a current, prospective or future partner—whether your relationship intent is casual or monogamous. Though these conversations are necessary, they shouldn't be entered into without first becoming educated. McKenzie recommends tapping into resources, including consulting with a certified sex educator, or seeking information and support from organizations such as Planned Parenthood, American Sexual Health Association (ASHA), The STI Project, and Scarleteen, as well as the CDC and the Health Department.
"It's pretty safe to assume that most people are uninformed or misinformed about STIs," McKenzie said. "Be prepared by going in with some factual data, resources and websites to share. When you're disclosing your STI status to somebody, it's likely they're going to have an idea about it that may not be true."
Doing your best to head off misperceptions is an important first step. And, with knowledge comes greater calm and confidence, too.
RECOGNIZE THAT SEXUAL HEALTH IS A MUTUAL CONVERSATION.
Once you're armed with information about your STI, consider how you want to frame your exchange. But, note that even if you don't have an STI, a conversation around sexual health and safety, before engaging in intimacy, is vital. Treating this type of discussion as a precursor may also help with the timing, if you're worried about either being presumptuous about where the relationship is going or concerned that disclosure of your status might have needed to occur sooner. Whether you're STI positive or not, centering your talks around shared responsibility is key.
McKenzie notes: "You're worth it; you're worth having the conversation about how to keep your body safe. This is what informed consent is and it applies to all parts of life. You have the right to know what you're getting into. Everyone has the right to know."
PROTECT YOURSELF EMOTIONALLY AND PHYSICALLY.
Knowing that this may not be an easy conversation, McKenzie recommends making sure you're in a private environment where you feel safe and empowered. And that you're also sober and have your clothes on. Because you want this to be an intentional discussion regarding sexual health, she also suggests not springing it on your partner and, instead, allowing them to have a say in the timing of the conversation.
Remember, no matter how it unfolds, disclosing an STI is not an admission of guilt, nor is it a matter of being dirty or clean. And, if your partner needs space to process, that doesn't immediately equate to rejection.
Allison Kay Bannister has been a West Michigan resident since 1987 and a professional writer since 2002. A GVSU alumna, she launched her own freelance writing business in 2017. Allison is a cookie connoisseur, word nerd, aspiring gardener, and metastatic breast cancer thriver who loves traveling in Michigan and beyond, and enjoys art, world cuisine, wine, music, and making homemade preserves.
This article originally appeared in the Dec '22/Jan '23 issue of West Michigan Woman