Having grown up in a rural Midwest town, our sex education class was text-book abstinence-only birds and the bees type stuff. I don’t remember much of the experience itself aside from its lack of influence on my sexual health and subsequent risky behavior.
While not all people contract STDs how I did – practicing less than safer-sex with partners (not using barriers consistently and correctly, testing before and after each partner, or talking about safer-sex with partners) – abstinence-only sex-ed did nothing to help negate those risks. It also did nothing to inform those who’ve managed to contract an STD how to be ok with themselves and sexually healthy post-diagnosis.
At 16, I was diagnosed with genital herpes by our family practitioner. Not having been taught about STDs, I thought my doctor’s treatment was standard – he quickly ushered my mother and me out of the office with little more than a prescription after telling me my case was the worst he had ever seen. During my early 20’s I would have persistent vaginitis and in the years that followed, abnormal pap smears, a colposcopy, and finally, a scabies diagnosis after being cheated on by my ex-husband.
Immediately following my genital herpes diagnosis, I was treated like a pariah among friends and quickly found myself spiraling into depression coupled with continued risky behaviors. Not knowing how to live with my infection or that I deserved to be treated with respect, I entered into a plethora of unhealthy relationships - some of which I told about my STD in advance, others through tears and apologies after having initially put them at risk, and a couple not at all.
It wasn’t until years later and after a bout of incredible self-discovery via finally pursuing my dreams, achieving career success, and an overall building of my self-worth when I finally realized what I wish I would have been taught years prior:
• Many People Live with STDs – despite having felt very alone and not having been provided with any resources upon initial diagnosis, millions and millions of people contract STDs every year – some curable, some not. STDs are not rare. Rather, they are a common consequence of sharing your body with someone else.
• Anyone Can and Does Contract an STD – STDs do not discriminate based upon race, social status, or otherwise distinguishing factors. When I became sexually active, I knew STDs existed, but I thought only certain types of people contracted them. As a result, birth control was my only consistent preventive approach toward reducing unwanted consequences. Even though I was not always treated as I know I now deserve, I was always monogamous within those relationships and consequently, was rather blind-sided when STDs happened to me.
• An STD Does Not Have to Define You – Knowing very little about STDs to begin with, once I contracted one, I thought it meant I was a slut and I was being punished for having been sexually active before marriage. I also figured I deserved to be treated poorly by both friends and significant others, because I had brought such a fate upon myself. It took quite a few years for me to buck the negative stigma I accepted and internalized – the stigma which continues to persist for many due to a lack of knowledge about STDs, those who contract them, and how one can manage or treat an infection after their diagnosis.
• People with STDs are at a Higher Risk of Contracting Additional STDs – Not only did I contract one STD, I contracted another, because I did not know what a comprehensive approach toward safer-sex included until years and years after my diagnosis. People who have STDs are naturally more susceptible to STD transmission and thus, should be even more mindful of getting tested before and after each new partner, talking about safer-sex practices before engaging in any sexual activities, and making sure to use barriers consistently and effectively.
• Being Sexually Healthy is Possible with or without an STD – Even though I’ve not always chosen relationships wisely, nor have I always approached my health with the respect and self-love I deserved, being sexually healthy is possible regardless of an infection. Interestingly, I’ve not had anyone decide not to pursue a relationship with me because I have an STD, however, there were certainly some relationships I shouldn’t have pursued had I been as confident and as empowered as I am now. Through learning to be sexually healthy the hard way while navigating an often challenging road to self-discovery and respect, I’ve come to a place where I can both accept my STD status and expect others to as well. Should a suitor choose not to pursue a relationship with me after disclosure, I also respect their choices and know I am capable of being loved, cherished, and desired even while living with an STD. Hence, the very rewarding relationship I am in presently – a man who supports my work and loves me as I (and everyone) deserve to be loved.
At 30, I take full-responsibility for my actions and years of overall ignorance surrounding my sexual health, albeit, looking back, I am certain a comprehensive approach toward sexual education would have reduced the likelihood of my contracting not one, but at least two STDs over the course of 14 years.
Nevertheless, the experience has found me in an incredibly unique and exciting place. I am now working as an STD advocate – sharing my stories, providing access to resources, and allowing others to share those via The STD Project. My significant other has begun to write his side of the story for the website as well. It’s as if I’ve finally come full-circle, to a place of a healing and where I can now use those years of strife and self-discovery to help usher others through the process too – hopefully, in much less time than it took me.