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.
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