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How to have sex-positive conversations on safer sex and STIs in the time of Coronavirus (and beyond!)

By Zach Eisenstein and Jenelle Marie Pierce

The month of April has historically served as STI/STD Awareness Month. But, this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a week-long observance to take place April 12-18. So, we’re taking this #STDWeek opportunity to remind folks everywhere that we need to go beyond simply reporting on rates of STIs in the US and leaving it at that. We need to focus on encouraging open and honest conversations around sexual health, safer sex and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

This year, as we deal with the new reality of the novel coronavirus, we’re finding ourselves with a lot of unanswered questions. “How long will this last?” “When will things start to get better?” “Will we ever go back to normal?” And while major news networks cover COVID-19 nearly 24/7, questions related to one topic, in particular, are also making the headlines: sex. Pandemic or no pandemic, sex is on many of our minds.

However, as we’ve seen how the menagerie of misinformation, fear-mongering, and conflicting materials circulating about both the coronavirus and STIs can harm our population collectively, it’s imperative we focus on discussing these topics from a comprehensive, medically accurate, inclusive, and evidence-based lens. Which is to say, when we talk about infections, sex, and STIs, in particular, we need to do so without scare tactics or shaming the people who contract them. 

Below, we’ve compiled a quick overview of tips and tricks to help you do exactly that. Whether you are a sex educator, a parent at home with your kids, a medical practitioner, or someone who simply wants to be better informed about STI awareness and education, read our list of suggested ways you can begin talking about STIs from a sex-positive perspective below.

6 ways to talk about safer sex and STIs without using fear, shame, or stigma:

1. Start having conversations about sexual health more often, earlier on, and with young people.

Always call body parts (i.e. penis, urethra, anus, breasts, vulva, vagina) by their names and avoid using trendy language or euphemisms. This will help eliminate the “taboo-ness” that’s too often associated with talking about our sexual and reproductive body parts. Ultimately, we should aim to raise our young people to view sexual health like any other aspect of their health. For example, to maintain dental health, we teach young people the importance of brushing, flossing, and regular dentist visits. Sexual health should be treated similarly.

2. Understand that sexual health is NOT the absence of infection.

From the World Health Organization (WHO): Sexual health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safer sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.

3. Reconsider the language you use to identify or describe a person who has an STI.

Use person-centered language: The general principle to apply when aiming to reduce stigmatizing language is to focus on the person, not the infection. STI language trend has tended to emphasize the infection, rather than the person, and that leads to derogatory labelling, depersonalization or impersonal reference, stereotyping, and many other forms of social discrimination. Beyond person-centered language, folks should also:

  • Use language that reflects what people with STIs call themselves.
  • Use language that is medically accurate and does not assign blame.
  • Avoid the use of “clean” to describe negative test results, because it implies that those who have an STI are dirty

4. Center the stories and experiences of people who have STIs.

We’ve got to acknowledge that many people have STIs. And STIs aren’t a consequence of “bad” behavior. Pathogens don’t care about our ethics and morals, they are simply a natural part of the human experience. Right now, there aren’t a lot of educators and activists sharing their personal stories publicly. But those who do offer tons of resources. Their stories are all remarkably unique, yet strikingly similar–and there’s power in showcasing those parallels.

5. Remember that STIs are common. Like, very common.

It’s ok to use numbers and statistics when talking or teaching about STIs. People naturally look to make sense of new information by quantifying and qualifying. But we need to also back these figures up with relevant and relatable examples, stories, and anecdotes. Numbers and statistics themselves can be dehumanizing or used to support a stigmatized narrative. And, it’s also crucial to understand that, while not ideal, contracting an STI is more likely than not.

6. Encourage conversations around safer sex, STIs, and testing with your sexual partner(s) and within your social circles, too.

In general, we need to talk more about sexual health and STIs in ways that are sex-positive, affirming, and empowering. For example:

  • Call it out if someone jokes about STIs or says something stigmatizing, and reinforce your perspective with facts.
  • Learn how to comfortably and safely disclose a positive STI status.
  • Show empathy toward those who are scared of contracting an infection, and understand that no one wants a new infection. It’s ok to try to reduce risk in whatever ways feel most comfortable, and that can change over time with different activities and with different partners.
  • Hold space for people to make consensual safer sex decisions that are right for them and their partners (some folx will choose to get tested often, others will want to always use barriers or condoms, some will choose to only engage in specific activities).

Even with limited resources, you can still access STI testing and related care.

When you have limited funds, no insurance, or are stuck in a quarantine, you might be wondering how you can be proactive and responsible about your sexual health. 

When should you get tested for STIs right away?

  • If you have symptoms – anything that is out of the ordinary for your body, including but not limited to unusual discharge, lumps, bumps, sores, pain, or discomfort.
  • If you had sex (any kind of sex) with someone who you know has an infection. There may be post-exposure treatment to help reduce risk of contracting their infection.

Where can you go when resources are limited?

  • Usually free: Local health departments (call to see if they offer testing and ask about their appointment procedure).
  • Low cost: Planned Parenthood (call to see if testing is available, and ask about cost and their appointment procedure).
  • Possibly pricey: Urgent care centers or online providers. Below is a non-exhaustive list of some online providers (prices vary):

How do you go about notifying your partners if you learn that you do have an STI?

Curious about your risk of transmitting or contracting coronavirus through sex? Here are some of our favorite resources on the subject.