Are you over the age of 15? Are you sexually active? Then you probably have or have had an STD. Most likely, you didn’t even know it. If you have one now, you probably still don’t know it.
Most People You Know Have an STD
At this point, you might feel yourself getting offended. Who am I, and how dare I assert such an accusation? So, let’s back up a tad. My intent is not to offend.
But I am trying to get your attention.
Last week, I spoke for students at the lovely Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in Tallahasee for the Know Your Status Tour with the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, and I told them the same thing – over half of the people in the room had or have had an STD. The entire audience gasped, and Twitter immediately lit up with a cacophony of, “Oh no she didn’ts!”
Had I said, instead, “The majority of the people in this room have had the flu,” I am certain the response would have been lackluster. Crickets. Folks would have wondered where I was going with that, because no one would have cared at all. In the future, I think I’ll start that way to further illustrate my point, which is that STDs happen to most sexually active people, but no one knows that, because we don’t talk about them in the same way that we do other types of common infections.
You’re still probably a bit skeptical, and I can’t say that I blame you. No one believes me until I begin to break down the numbers.
So, let’s talk about the facts as they stand right now:
1 in 2 people will contract an STD by the age of 25.
HALF. So, if you’re older than 25, more than half of the people you know have had an STD - some temporary, some long-term, some life-long.
Most people don’t know they have an STD.
For many STDs, the most common symptom is no symptom at all.
You can only get tested for a handful of the 30+ STDs out there.
According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 30 STDs. Tests aren’t available for all of them, and some are only diagnosed visually (when/if there are symptoms – read bullet above).
A pap smear does not include an STD test.
When someone gets a pap smear - an annual well-woman exam at your OBGYN or clinician of choice, for example - they are not tested for STDs, unless it is expressly stated by the physician. Asking to get tested for everything isn’t clear enough, either – you have to ask to be tested for STDs and then clarify which STD tests they offer, specifically. Remember, a pap smear tests for abnormalities on the cervix, not STDs.
Even if you've recently been tested, you might still be infected.
Even if you know you’ve recently been tested for STDs, you still might have an infection, because most “full” STD panels only test for four or five infections, at best (common tests in an STD panel are chlamydia, gonorrhea, HIV, and syphilis, but those aren’t necessarily the most common infections). And, of course, if you test too soon after potential exposure (sexual activity), then you might miss the accurate window period and receive a false negative.
Men can't get tested for the high-risk, cancer-causing strains of HPV
One of the most common STDs impacting 80% of all sexually active people by the age of 50 is HPV. Men can't be tested for it, and can only be diagnosed visually if they have one of the low risk strains that causes genital warts.
Are you scared now?
Don’t be. All of this really boils down it this this: you cannot get tested for all infections; most infections don’t present noticeable signs and symptoms; even if you’ve been tested and received negative results, you could still have an infection; and simply, STDs are super common.
But you would still prefer to not contract an infection if you can help it, am I right? I get it. I’m not signing up for the next cold, flu, or case of poison ivy either. But some of those things are highly likely to occur over the course of a person’s lifetime – especially when you factor in intimacy that includes sharing bodily fluids and touching someone else’s skin (in particular, their genitals).
What always irks me about this discussion is that the information makes sense, but people are so quick to jump in and assure me that they know they don’t have anything. That’s their No.1 concern - that no one thinks they have an infection. That’s how pervasive STD stigma can be. Who cares about the facts, I want to make sure people don’t think I have an STD! Regardless, unless they have practiced abstinence of all sexual activity, there’s just no way to know for sure. So, where do we go from here?
I believe it’s important to point all of this out, and I do so on the regular, with some humor and empathy (a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down, or so they say), because people don’t think STDs are a relevant risk. They don’t feel like it’s a huge concern for them, even if they have new partners regularly or aren’t consistently using protection, because no one talks about how common STDs are. We don’t realize that we know a lot of people who have had or still have an STD, so they think that’s something that “other kinds of people” deal with, and that it will never happen to them. And then it does happen to them, because it happens to most sexually active people, and then they FREAK out. I freaked out for YEARS, to be honest, so no judgement; this is just how it all goes down. Then the search for answers takes place, they find my website, and I walk them through all the reasons why an STD isn’t the end of the world, why they’re super common but everyone is in the closet about it, and why it doesn’t have to affect their ability to have an amazing sex life and healthy relationships.
It’s a lot of work, and worth the effort, but it would be so much simpler if we all knew that contracting an STD was a likelihood of being sexually active, that there are things we can do to reduce our risk, but that if we still wind up with an infection, while it’s certainly not preferable, it’s not going to ruin our lives, just like having the flu doesn’t ruin anyone’s life. See how easy that was?
Jenelle Marie Pierce is the Executive Director of The STI Project: Breaking the Stigma®, the Founder of the herpes activists network, HANDS, and a Spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com. As an STI+ Sexual Health Educator and content creator, Jenelle has been dismantling stigma by reclaiming STI narratives® through awareness, education, and acceptance since 2012.