Just a few years ago, the mere mention of STDs was enough to get classes full of sex ed students fidgeting in their seats, and people nervously sitting in doctor’s offices, waiting to hear the worst. But increases in treatment options and more open dialogue about the diseases have people rethinking what it means to be diagnosed with an STD.
For example, writer Michelle Shaffer has herpes, and she wrote about her experience in a piece on Thought Catalog entitled, “I Have Herpes, and It’s Not the End of the World.” The mere fact that she chose to use her real name to publish it is revolutionary. Twenty years ago, most people with STDs wouldn’t, for fear of the stigma they would face.
There are an estimated 1 million new cases of genital herpes each year, according to the CDC. Latest estimates indicate that chlamydia infects 3 million people each year; gonorrhea infects 650,000 people each year. These diseases are treatable with antibiotics, although they are often asymptomatic. If you do test positive, it’s often advised to let former partners know, since untreated STDS can affect reproduction later in life. Above all, it’s important to know that you’re not alone.
“Just because your friends and family members aren’t marching down the streets waving “I HAVE HERPES” flags doesn’t mean they don’t. I knew of three people who had it before my being diagnosed, I know countless people now,” Shaffer writes. If you know you’re not the only one with the condition, it doesn’t seem as bad. People with STDs are living normal lives and having normal relationships.
Many people with STDs worry about what they will tell potential sexual and romantic partners when the subject comes up. Will they be looked as disgusting or less than? Shaffer says communication is the key.
“You can (and you will) have a sex life, and it will possibly be a less-depressing and mature one in which you and your partner(s) communicate clearly about health issues, risks, and fears,” she writes.
If you have herpes, it is also now possible to protect the people you have sex with by using suppressive therapy, which Shaffer describes as “bout as convenient and effective as birth control.”
Earlier this month, actor Charlie Sheen came clean about being HIV positive, and he was applauded in the media for being honest about it. He’s undergoing treatment for his condition and is still healthy. He also made it clear that even though he is infected with the HIV virus, he does not have AIDs. The two are no longer synonymous.
HIV is still an issue. According to the CDC, an average of 40,000 to 80,000 new cases of HIV are reported each year in the U.S. About half of all new infections are among people younger than 25.
But part of the reason the stigma is gone is because treatment has improved. Whereas HIV used to be a death sentence, HIV-positive people are living long, healthy lives. So long, in fact, that they may die of other illnesses before they succumb to AIDS.
For example, Sheen’s doctor, Robert Huizenga, told The Today Show that Sheen takes four pills a day for his condition and is at “very, very low risk” for transmitting to anyone.”
“There is no shame in being HIV positive,” Anthony Hayes, spokesman for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, told Today. “And we should stop shaming one another and we should certainly not shame someone for their sexual history.”
More and more, people with STDs are going onto lead long, fulfilling lives.