MESMAC Blog: Sex, STIs and Shame - Why our language matters
posted by Erin Marsh
on 18th January 2024

By Rotherham volunteer Eve Findlay

It’s fascinating how language works and the impact it has in the real world. In a way, language shapes and constructs our reality. Confused? Don’t worry, this isn’t some whack, after-party talk – it is related to sex education (although, truthfully, you could probably find me talking about this at an after-party).

Our language choices are important as they have an emotional impact on ourselves and others. We attach meaning to words; they are, quite literally, an expression of our thoughts and feelings. Whether we are aware of it or not, this plays out in real life scenarios every day, both positively and negatively.

When it comes to sex and sexually transmitted infections, there is a lot of negative and often careless language used when approaching the topic. Whilst words may just seem like, well, words – they are actually much more than. Words play a role in creating a culture which tells us how we should think about particular things. In this case, the negative language inspires feelings of shame, pessimism and a negative attitude towards sex.

Words can have a huge impact. I believe we need to re-think our language choices when discussing sex and STIs and shift into a more conscious and sex-positive dialect.

But why do words matter?

It’s not uncommon to hear the words ‘dirty’ vs ‘clean’ thrown around in conversation when discussing STIs. Personally, I’ve heard this kind of language used repeatedly in schools, the workplace, and in the media/social media. This is a common trope; I can guarantee that if you start paying attention, you’ll begin to notice a pattern of the same recycled herpes jokes in at least a few of your favourite sitcoms. These jokes often depict people with herpes (and other STIs) as unclean or undatable. From language, we have created a narrative about STIs. Whilst seemingly harmless, and often done without ill intent, this demonises STIs and the types of people who have, or have previously had one. When this happens continuously, we digest and store these ideas in our subconscious, creating a collective idea about what it means to get an STI. Sadly, this is often a negative one.

The word ‘dirty’ itself is emotionally charged. It stimulates fear, and makes STIs sound much scarier than they actually are. When you use it to describe a person who has an STI, it creates an idea that getting an STI is inherently negative or wrong. In reality, anybody can get an STI and it’s just an ordinary risk in life if you are sexually active. There is no one type of person more susceptible.

If we continue to describe STIs in a way that makes them seem scary and alienating, it becomes difficult to educate and encourage people to get tested. The stigma continues and there are potential consequences which can follow.

What are the consequences?

Whilst STIs remain highly stigmatised, when diagnosed with one, people offer suffer with a mental battle as well as any physical symptoms. In essence, people suffer twice.

For instance, after testing positive, a person may be labelled as dirty or unclean either by themselves or others, based on the existing narratives around STIs. They may start to believe this label and perceive themselves in such a way. This produces shame, which can be incredibly damaging to a person’s self-identity, self-esteem and confidence. This is particularly true if it is a long-term STI which cannot be cured (yet treated).

This creates a fear-cycle in which people are less likely to test in the first place to avoid these perceived feelings of shame. Likewise, it discourages open and honest conversations about STIs, and incidentally, increases the risk of actually getting one. The best way to avoid them is to communicate effectively, practice safer sex and regularly test to know your status.

Realistically, an STI is just as normal as any other health condition. It is unnecessary and counterproductive to treat it otherwise. People shouldn’t have to suffer twice, especially when the physical symptoms are often minimal or inexistent. Whilst some of the physical symptoms may be unavoidable (although treatable), by shifting our awareness and being more intentional with the way we talk about STIs, we have the potential to create a world where people no longer have to suffer psychologically when diagnosed.

Why all the shame?

You wouldn’t find yourself feeling a deep sense of shame if you passed on a flu virus to a colleague. Whilst a little inconvenient and annoying for the other person, it’s not something you would lose sleep over. We mutually understand that the flu is just a part of life and a natural result of mixing with others. Unavoidable, really. So why is our mindset so different when we transmit an STI?

Sex has long been a taboo subject in society that has been shaped by different societal forces. For example, religion, conservatism, sexism and homophobia have impacted the way we approach sex education.

For a long time, sex was deemed only for marriage between a man and woman and for the purpose of pro-creation. Ideas of holiness and religious purity dominated society for a long period of time. Whilst these ideas seem to derive from a distant past, it was actually not that long ago. Ideas like these are passed down through generations, and whilst the world has definitely changed, some of these ideas still remain and have influence. Sex is still widely considered a taboo, and as an extension – so are STIs.

Sex is normal and happening all the time. Whilst society’s views about sex are changing and education is becoming more accessible, there is still a long way to go. The language choices we make when discussing sex and STIs may seem simplistic, yet the impact can be huge. Don’t forget – language constructs reality. And, by using more mindful language, we can create a safe space in which we’re able to speak more freely about it.

Being more mindful

When we demonise STIs and use language which makes people feel ashamed, it only increases the risk of transmitting STIs as we’re all so afraid to openly discuss it. Shifting into a more mindful vocabulary creates a space in which we can talk about these topics without judgement and with more empathy.

A person could do everything in their power to avoid getting an STI and can still end up with one.  Most of the time, it’s just a bit of bad luck – nobody goes out asking for one. Recognising and understanding this is so important. It is normal to feel a little scared about STIs, but the fear we create is not on par with the reality of living with one. All of them are treatable and most of them are curable.

At the end of the day, we are human beings and it is instinctive to have sex. When we think about any other animal who finds a mate, we just consider that nature. If one animal gives another an infection – that’s just nature. There is no culture or shame around it. Human beings create and sustain this shame through our language and stories attached to it.

The positive outlook is that if we have created it, we can re-create and shift our narrative. This can look like an inclusive, open-minded and non-judgemental approach towards sex and STIs and a safe space in which we can discuss it. 

What might this look like?

So, we recognise that our language creates narratives and leads to feelings of shame about sex and STIs, but how do we actually change that? What does that look like?

Firstly, we need to become more aware of our own language choices and stop using words with negative connotations. For example, not using words like ‘dirty’ to describe STI status or speaking about them in a negative and alienating way. This requires a level of self-reflection if this has always been normal to you. You then need to hold yourself accountable going forwards until you no longer associate these types of words or ideas with sex and STIs.

We can always educate ourselves more, and educate others too. Call out and educate your friends and family, if it is safe to do so. This can be done in a light-hearted way and framed as a learning opportunity. Most people don’t say these things with the intention to cause harm, but out of habit or based on what they hear around them. Explain to them what you’ve just learned yourself. You can link them this article, if you wish.

It's important to normalise conversations about sex and STIs and to speak about it in a way that is respectful. In an ideal world, it would be better for us to have these conversations with our sexual partners before we get intimate. This may feel a little unfamiliar and awkward at first, but over time it just becomes normal. Practice makes perfect.

Some sex positive phrases/conversation starters about sexual health may look like:

  • ‘I’ve tested positive for _____, do you know your status?’
  • ‘I regularly test for STIs, when was the last time you got tested?’
  • ‘I’m _____ positive, do you know much about it?’
  • ‘Just to make you aware, I’ve got _____. Would you like to talk more about it?’
  • ‘Can we discuss our STI status/methods of protection before we have sex?’
  • ‘What methods of contraception/protection do you usually use?’
  • ‘I feel safer in sex if we always use condoms’
  • ‘Safe sex to me looks/feels like…’

This may take a little getting used to, but from my own experience I’ve found that asking these types of questions is usually a good tell of a person’s character. If they answer with respect, curiosity, and honesty, that’s definitely a green flag. And if not? Do you really want to be having sex with that type of person anyway? (I won’t judge you either way).

If you take away anything from this article let it be this sentence:

STIs aren’t good or bad, they just are.