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People Have Been STD Shaming Since Medieval Times

A brief and bumpy history of overblown STD stigmas.

Elizabeth Brown

"You have a bunch of very small warts on your labia," my doctor said. "I don't treat those, but I can refer you to a doctor who does."

And so she did. And I showed up and spread my legs in the office of a 70-year-old dude doctor who brushed something that seemed akin to nail polish over my outer hoo-ha while telling me to tell my boyfriend that is was nothing to be worried about.

"I don't have a boyfriend," I wanted to say. But I didn't. I was too humiliated. I'd only had a handful of sexual partners. No, not even a handful. I'd had four—an old friend from high school I gave my virginity to one summer because I was too embarrassed to return to sophomore year of college a virgin, two one night stands, and one extremely occasional fuck buddy. Not a boyfriend in the bunch. I'd always used condoms during intercourse, and now my life was over. I was a marked whore. And I'd barely sown an oat.

I returned to my OB/GYN every year expecting to hear that a gigantic crop of cauliflower shaped growths had sprung up on every part of my privates, but they were never seen or heard from again. I've never told anyone about this in my entire life, but Tonic readers seem cool and you guys won't tell anybody about it, so, here you go.

That was 17 years ago, and I only added two sexual partners in that entire time—one of them my husband and partner of 16 years. And yet, I have always thought of myself as tainted. Then Ilana from Broad City acted as a true healer in a recent episode by stating:

"Of course I have HPV. I'd almost be embarrassed not to have HPV at this point."

Apparently I'm in great company. Comedians Amy Schumer and Ali Wong have both outed themselves as fellow HPV carriers as part of their stand up routines.

Here's a quick pass through STDs that have been around as long as people have been banging, and the related stigma associated with them. It's estimated that 50 percent of Americans will contract an STD before the age of 25, which seems like a great reason to kick STD stigma to the curb for good. Unfortunately, syphilis is far easier to treat than stigma now. There's no antibiotic for shame.

Ancient Times
Sexually transmitted infections have been considered a punishment by the gods since Mesopotamian times. And it wasn't always about slut-shaming. It was likely inspired by the fact that for most of history, STDs were considered impossible to treat and, in many cases, a death sentence.

STDs have also suffered from bad branding—all the way back to when the Greeks came up with the name "herpes," which derives from "herpein"—to creep or crawl. And "syphilis" translates to "swine love." Speaking of bad branding, Roman Emperor Tiberius's attempt to stop the spread of herpes by banning public kissing was followed up by a movement to burn the sores by cauterizing them with hot irons.

And of course, no one does shame like the Bible. Revelations says that the "sexually immoral" (I can only assume that this refers to those who contracted any sort of downstairs itchies after extramarital sex) would end up with the murderers and the faithless "in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur."


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Medieval Times

In 1495, a syphilis outbreak spread across Europe, killing 5 million people. Those left behind turned the outbreak into a xenophobic blame game with Italians calling it "the French disease" following the French invasion of Naples, while the French called it "the Italian disease." The Russians called it "the Polish disease" and Arabs called it "the Christian disease." Basically, it was the disease named after any group of people you really disliked.

18th Century
The case of Flora Price has been cited as an example of how gender and poverty have contributed to STD stigma. Price was a Londoner who contracted "the pox" (gonorrhea and syphilis were not distinguished from each other at this time), sought help from her church, and was rewarded by being sent to a workhouse and given mercury treatments. Her case is a prime example of how STD stigma was fed by the perception that disease is closely associated with poverty. Wealthier people who contracted syphilis could afford to pay out of pocket for their own discreet, private treatments, while the poor were at the mercy of judgmental religious or social services.

20th Century
The 20th century was a real STD rollercoaster. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928, which was a game changer for treating bacterial infections like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis. But the stigma continued and is perhaps best exemplified in the World War II military posters warning soldiers to beware of "Booby Traps" when fighting abroad. "She May Look Clean," warns one poster. But "Pick-ups, Good Time Girls, Prostitutes Spread Syphilis and Gonorrhea." Apparently, women were spreading these diseases all by themselves with absolutely no male involvement whatsoever.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when a whole new, deadly STD made itself known with a whole new set of stigma. AIDS wasn't just a fast and furious killer, it was also labeled a "gay disease" because of its prevalence in the LGBT community. Then, in 1984, a 13-year-old Indiana boy named Ryan White contracted the disease from an infected blood transfusion and rocked America's perception of who AIDS affected.

Hollywood took over from there. In 1985, "An Early Frost" became the first TV movie to address AIDS followed quickly by a mind-blowing storyline on the popular drama "St. Elsewhere," in which dreamy, heterosexual Dr. Caldwell, played by Mark Harmon, contracted the disease. In 1987, AIDS made it's soap opera debut on "Another World."

Then NBA superstar Magic Johnson announced that he was HIV positive in 1991, shaking the perception that the wealthy and famous were protected from the disease by their privilege. Two years later, Tom Hanks won his first Oscar for portraying a wealthy lawyer who fights discrimination from his own firm after being fired because he had AIDS. HIV education advocates reached another milestone in 2002 when "Takalani Sesame," the South African version of "Sesame Street," featured its first HIV positive puppet character, Kami. In 2013, Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto both won Oscars for "Dallas Buyers Club" for a film not only about characters with AIDS, but also about the struggle to get access to effective, affordable, approved medications for AIDS.

STD Stigma Today
In 2017, STDs are at an all-time high. I spoke with Maria Trent, a physician and professor at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health about how doctors and public health officials are still battling STD stigma.

"There's been in a shift in how we hope people are thinking about testing and getting treatment. I do know that at a person-to-person level, as a clinician who sees patients in care, I think that sometimes there is still stigma and emotional issues attached to having an STD diagnosis," Trent says. "It's one thing to say 'this is very common' amongst that population…but that doesn't change how people often react to having a sexually transmitted infection when their test comes back positive, or how they communicate with their partners."

Trent says young people need more support when dealing with this and points to the YesMeansTest campaign that aims to link the decision to start having sex with the responsibility of starting to get tested. The program helps teens connect to free confidential STD testing without having to get approval from their parents. Trent says there is free confidential testing available to adolescents in all 50 states.

I asked Trent for a definitive answer on which STDs carry the greatest stigma, but she stated that the opinions are "highly variable." She did admit, though, that those diseases which require ongoing care like herpes, HIV, or Hep C can be particularly difficult for patients to deal with emotionally because they're ones that can't be cured quickly or at all. "Those issues carry more weight because people are having to disclose over and over again," she says.

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