Let’s talk about sex: ending STI stigma

Following a herpes diagnosis, Rukiat Ashawe had to confront her own shame around STIs and in doing so realised we need to provide better sex education for young people. As a sex educator, she is determined to de-stigmatise sex and sexual health.

As I was leaving the sexual health clinic after finishing a shift, I heard two young men outside debating whether to venture inside. One had made the comment, ‘Imagine going in there? You’ll catch chlamydia!’ 

I sighed in disbelief, but the ignorance didn’t surprise me. This kind of misinformed view on sexual health is common amongst young people due to the decades of stigmatisation sex has gone through, as well as the way that sex education has been taught (or not) over the years.

I work with young people teaching them about sexual health and always hear things like, ‘If I got an STI I would die.’ and, ‘I don’t want anybody to see me entering a clinic!’ 

It has become apparent to me that the problem is how we stigmatise sexual health at home, at school and amongst our family and friends. Young people aren’t getting the right sex education at school and at home, which then influences how they perceive and talk about sex amongst the people around them. 

For many years, scare tactics have been used to get people to test and know their status. Looking at the AIDS prevention posters in the 80s this is evident with phrases such as, ‘AIDS is not a quick kill.’, ‘stick to one partner.’ and, ‘AIDS is deadly.’ 

By using fear to urge people to look after their sexual health, you leave no room for healthy and honest discussions about sex and how to keep safe. 

Speaking to other women about the sex education they received growing up, many disclosed how they were simply told to not get pregnant and to practice abstinence. When I think back to when I was in school, there was hardly any salvageable sex ed either, apart from my PSHE teacher giving a demonstration on how well tampons could soak up liquids. 

In my household, there was no talk of relationships, love, let alone sex and how to stay safe. This was also the case for most of my friends who, might I add, were all from black African backgrounds. When you grow up in a religious family with cultural values the word, ‘sex’ is often simply non-existent. 

When I first found out that I had herpes I was clueless on what to do next or who to talk to.

I also felt like having an incurable STI could potentially be the end of my sex life. I had so many misconceptions of herpes because I lacked awareness on STIs and what they were. This made it incredibly difficult to speak to even my close friends about having herpes, and left me in denial. 

I realised that there was this huge amount of stigmatisation of sex that had been drilled into me by the world around me. It consisted of inadequate and inaccurate sex education that had spanned decades and generations. I realised that to overcome the shame I was feeling, I had to destigmatise myself through the process of unlearning and re-teaching. 

I believe this is exactly what young people need today; unlearning and reteaching. 

The process of unlearning needs to happen through busting common myths around STIs and testing. For example, many people don’t know that cold sores are a strain of the herpes simplex virus, and herpes is way more common than the average person thinks.

There is also a huge amount of fear and stigma surround HIV and a lot people still assume a diagnosis is a death sentence. But recent data shows that the mortality rate among those living with HIV is low and on the decline. Additionally, 97% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK who are receiving treatment have an undetectable viral load, meaning they can’t pass the virus on.

By clearing misconceptions young people have about sexual health and testing, we can make way for more reformed and progressive sex education. School teachers and parents need to get comfortable with the word, ‘sex’ when speaking to young people. Teaching them about sexual health doesn’t encourage them to have sex, but it encourages them to make more informed choices if they choose to have sex.

The right sex education equips young people with the tools they need to make mature and well thought-out decisions in relation to sex. The right sex education doesn’t leave young people helpless if they do encounter an STI. It tells them where to go, it doesn’t shame them, and it gives them answers. It doesn’t paint a bleak future, but a bright one. The right sex education is sex-positive and stigma-free. 

Speaking to young people positively about sex and ending the stigma is perhaps one of the most powerful ways we can aid prevention when it comes to STIs.

Late diagnoses, refusing to get tested, not using protection, fear of disclosing one’s STI status to potential partners, etc – all these things are a result of the negative perceptions of sex that are fed to young people. By changing the approach and changing the tone, we can change how young people view sexual health and empower them to look after their own, leading to lower STI rates and better sexual health for generations to come. 

Rukiat is an award-nominated sex educator based in London and is determined to destigmatise sex and sexual health as well as encourage others to be more sex-positive. Her approach is one that is research-based, pleasure-focused, inclusive and misogynist free. Connect with her on Instagram @__rukiat  

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