Our understanding of STIs starts from government complicity of Black and queer deaths
By Katie Harbinson and Maddie Womack
When it comes to our sexual health, STIs are more common than you might think. The CDC estimates that one in five people have had a sexually transmitted infection. And yet, with that prevalence, there’s still a stigma around STIs.
You might have previously heard these infections called sexually transmitted diseases or STDs, but many professionals and activists are moving away from that term. The American Sexual Health Association explains: “the concept of ‘disease,’ as in STD, suggests a clear medical problem, usually some obvious signs or symptoms. But many common STDs have no signs or symptoms in most of the people who have them. Or they have mild signs and symptoms that can be easily overlooked. So the sexually transmitted virus or bacteria can be described as creating ‘infection,’ which may or may not result in ‘disease.’” Many public health professionals also prefer the term STI, because of the stigma associated with the word “disease.” Stigma around sexual health stems from many factors (don’t even get us started), but today we want to dive into the history of the sexual health field and how it has laid the groundwork for some of those stigmas.
It’s important to start at the beginning. Much of the information on STIs that we have today was discovered due to unethical testing on Black bodies and overall government neglect of queer health—resulting in unnecessary suffering and deaths. We’re going to walk through some of these histories, to help us all better understand and destigmatize STIs. History classes in the education system tend to skip over these stories, and even those who lived through these government-inflicted tragedies were actively fed misinformation. Hell, we still don’t even have the whole story. Not all deaths or illnesses involved in these events were accurately recorded. But these stories contribute to the rightful distrust of the government and its healthcare systems today, as well as the stigmas that resulted from them. In order to properly destigmatize sexually transmitted infections and sexual health in general, we believe we must first understand and learn of its roots.
The cold history of the speculum
Hate the speculum? You know, that cold, metal, pronged contraption used to hold open the vagina? You can blame J. Marion Sims for that one—and for the countless inhumane experiments he performed on enslaved Black women. In the 1840s, Sims performed multiple non-consensual operations on those women without anesthesia (which was available at the time), causing them to suffer horribly. Despite claiming that these women wanted the surgeries because they wanted a cure for fistulas, the New York City Commission states “Free consent to participate in the experiments was not obtainable from women who were not free.”
Activists know of the torture Sims performed because of his autobiography, but we only are aware of three enslaved women by name: Anarcha, Betsey, and Lucy. In his autobiagraphy, The Story Of My Life: J. Marion Sims (so original), Sims says, “I got three or four more to experiment on, and there was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation. But my operations all failed … this went on, not for one year, but for two and three, and even four years.” It is clear that after a while, Sims didn’t bother to document exactly how many enslaved Black women he “operated” on, their names, or how long he tortured them. Additionally, the only evidence available is his own first-hand account of the experiments. This leads many to believe that there are likely additional injuries and deaths than what he bragged about on paper.
Public Health Service’s victims of syphilis
While Sims died in 1883, the practice of nonconsensually using Black bodies to experiment with continued. In 1932, Black men were coerced into a study led by the U.S. Public Health Service on the progression of syphilis. They were not informed of this, but were instead offered free healthcare, free food, and free burial services in exchange for their participation in the treatment of their “bad blood.” The goal of the study was to perform autopsies on the inevitably deceased men, to see what havoc untreated syphilis wreaked on the body.
Like Sims, the scientists involved in this study did not view the victims as people, and therefore were not important enough to record information on the subjects. In 2017, AP News broke the story of the previously unknown Black men who were untreated in the Public Health Service’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study. “Of about 600 Alabama black men who originally took part in the study, 200 or so were allowed to suffer the disease and its side effects without treatment, even after penicillin was discovered as a cure for syphilis,” AP News reported.
The history of racial torture for “science” has lasting effects today. Racial bias in healthcare is still rampant, with Black Americans being under-treated for pain, dying during childbirth at a much higher rate than white counterparts, and frequently being misdiagnosed regarding mental health needs.
The 80s AIDS epidemic
Abandoned by their government, thousands of people died from HIV/AIDS in the 1980s, which was incorrectly referred to as “Gay-Related Immune Deficiency” by medical professionals and media at the time. Anti-gay hatred filled the states due to the epidemic, yet the government not only refused to denounce the violence, but actively participated in it. The exact date the epidemic began in America isn’t clear, but the CDC labeled the disease as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1982. Despite the number of people suffering before the labeling, the CDC did not launch a public health campaign until 1986—four years later.
Years of inaction, panic, and avoidance resulted in countless deaths. In 1987—not yet even the peak of the epidemic, which we now recognize as the year of 1995—it was estimated that 50,378 cases were reported and 40,849 deaths occurred. To this day, educators don’t know the total number of deaths due to AIDS, all because hospitals and doctors were actively and admittedly turning away sick people for years.
Today, the UN urges that correct condom usage is still one of the most impactful ways we can keep ourselves and each other safe from STIs, including HIV/AIDS. But that stigma and fear keeps people even today from getting tested frequently. Jared Horman, a local Kansas City artist, said it best with his World AIDS Day 2020 Mural—located on the side of KC Care Health Center. “Who should I look to be? When AIDS took a generation of leaders & artists, mentors & thinkers & lovers from me… / Don’t let stigma keep you from another generation / Stigma=Hate / World AIDS Day 2020 KC.”
Understanding our history
At Barrier Babes, those who interact with us are on average ages 25-44—meaning the majority of us weren’t alive when the AIDS crisis occurred or were too young to remember it. But this history—our history—is important, and remembering the lives that were sacrificed carries weight. The same goes for the syphilis experiments, Sims’ “research” on Black bodies, and countless other nonconsensual atrocities that were done in the name of medical research. While we weren’t around to see them when they happened, we can witness and recognize them today. Learning our history—remembering the lives that were taken—is the first step in prevention. We don’t ever want people to be taken from us, and especially not at the hands of our government. When we arm ourselves with our past, we can change our future.
We’ll be here every month to answer your questions, give some unsolicited advice, and crack a few jokes along the way. In the meantime, you can find us on our website, Instagram, and Patreon. Have a burning question you’d like us to answer? Send it our way to email@example.com.
Until next time,
Katie Harbinson (she/her) is a Kansas City transplant with a background in political campaigns. She is passionate about disability representation, breaking down the gender binary, and homoerotic undertones in her favorite TV shows. When not trying to convince her partner that they need to adopt another dog, Katie can be found consuming copious amounts of coffee and sarcastically commenting on the current political climate.
Maddie Womack is the Founder/CEO of Barrier Babes. Her degree in Community Health and Minor in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies reflects her passion for healthcare and equality within it. Through an intersectional lens, Maddie strives to find spaces to not only include sex education, but require it.