H is Not a Scarlet Letter
It’s (beyond) time to destigmatize herpes, HPV, and other STDs. Dr. Ina Park teaches us how.
Here’s a story I don’t want to tell. To you or to anyone. But two related events have convinced me to sit down and tell it:
1) A three-judge panel in Missouri upheld a Jackson County Court’s decision affirming that a woman, who allegedly contracted HPV in her boyfriend’s car, should be awarded $5.2 million dollars. Not from her boyfriend, mind you, who did not disclose his HPV infection to her, but from Geico, who insured the car in which they had sex.
2) I read Dr. Ina Park’s hilarious and informative Strange Bedfellows: Adventures in the Science, History, and Surprising Secrets of STDs and, speaking to her over Zoom, I promised myself (and, okay, Ina, too, to keep myself honest) that I would tell my story.
Why? Because we need to start talking much more openly, honestly, and without shame about STDs. The more we stay silent about them, the more they remain stigmatized and undisclosed to partners. The more they remain stigmatized and undisclosed to partners, the more we stay silent. Our silence, in turn, leads to further stigmatization and spread of disease, not to mention unpleasant surprises, anger, shame, stress, and depression. (Plus tabloid-ready $5.2 million lawsuits1!)
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“The shroud of shame surrounding STIs is as old as the infections themselves,” writes Park. “Will shedding light on these hidden yet influential genital creatures help us defeat STI-related stigma? I don’t know, but we must start somewhere.” In the interest of paying Dr. Park’s work forward and doing my part to start somewhere, herewith I present my story. I hope it will trigger others to do the same if not publicly, then at least privately with friends and romantic partners.
After my marriage ended, and I was out there dating again, I became reacquainted with both condoms and STD panels. If a relationship became serious, I’d get tested and commit to monogamy. I would ask my partner to do the same. Once we’d both been tested, only then would I feel okay about leaving the condoms in the drawer.
Simple enough, right? A no brainer. But there were—and will always be—two flies in this ointment: 1) partners who claim to be monogamous but aren’t; and 2) partners who say they’ve been tested but haven't. These can be the same person. In fact, all too often they are. They are also the reason middle-aged dating—or any dating, really, no matter one’s age—is not for the faint of heart. Suffice it to say, I never demanded to see the dates and test results of my partners’ STD panels. I believed them when they said they’d been tested and cleared for liftoff. That’s (obviously) on me.
But seriously, I thought, who lies about their STD status?
Turns out? Many people. According to one recent poll, 67% of those who have STDs either deny having them or don’t disclose their status to their partners. I not only did not know this depressing statistic, I literally cannot imagine ever doing such a thing to another person. Framed another way, only 1 STD-infected person out of 3 is ever going to tell you they’ve been infected. 1 out of 3!
And no, just because you’ve reached middle-age without an STI does not mean you won’t contract one tomorrow. In fact, according to a 2020 study, sexually transmitted infections among older adults “have dramatically increased in recent years, especially among those who are widowed and divorced.” For those 65 and older, that number has doubled.
“Age,” said Dr. Park, quoting the late Dr. Stephen Karpiak, “is not a condom.”
I find these statistics shocking. But also, given what happened to me, not.
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