Should We Tell Our Kids that STDs are Normal?

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This story was originally published on Advocates for Youth's Birds and Bees Blog

In a blog on Psychology Today’s website, Kathryn Stamoulis, a psychologist who specializes in adolescent sexuality and teens’ internet behaviors, suggests that it’s time we take the stigma out of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and start talking about them as a normal risk of a normal behavior. Her argument is quite logical: STDs are extremely prevalent in our society among both teens and adults, treating them like the ultimate social taboo does nothing to prevent teens from contracting them (years of abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and fear-based education have not reduced teen sex or the transmission of STDs), and what it may actually do is prevent teens from taking important steps to protect and treat themselves (like seeking out regular STD screening).

She suggests that STDs are a normal risk of sexual contact similar to how contracting a cold or a flu is a natural risk of being in close contact with others during the winter. “Just imagine what life would look like if people viewed STDs as a normal part of fooling around,” she writes. “Without fear of tarnishing his reputation, a teenage boy could tell his partner ‘you may not want to get too close to me this week; I'm clearing up a case of Chlamydia.’ Or a teen girl may view getting tested twice a year as routine as she does a teeth cleaning.”

She is absolutely right that stigma prevents many people from seeking the protective behaviors they need—be it buying condoms before having sex or getting tested for STDs afterwards. We do have to change our tone when talking about STDs to get rid of the shame and blame. STDs are a health issue; not a sign of poor morals or bad behavior.  

But normal, is that taking it too far?

As a sexuality educator, I have spent a lot of time criticizing abstinence-only-until-marriage programs for their use of fear and shame especially when it comes to STDs. A common tactic of these programs is to show young people slides of STDs in their extremely advanced stages; cervixes that are dripping with pus or penises covered with cauliflower-sized warts. I do not think these are appropriate teaching tools for a number of reasons. First, they’re not particularly educational—these pictures represent late stages of STDs that in all honesty few people ever reach. If we do want to show young people pictures of STDs, at the very least we should be showing them those in the earliest stages in order to help them understand when to seek testing and treatment.

Second, the narration accompanying these slides often says things like “As a result of this Chlamydia infection, this young woman, even though she only had sex with one person, will never be able to have children.” Not only do such statements gloss over important information—like the fact that Chlamydia is easily cured with antibiotics if caught early and that even if caught later infertility can be averted—they also seem to suggest that the owner of the cervix in the picture is to blame for her predicament and, worse, is now damaged goods. Such messages of fear and shame are always inappropriate.

Lastly, I think it is worth noting that those who support showing pictures of diseased genitals are the very same forces who try to censor any curriculum or book that shows pictures of naked people or healthy genitalia on the grounds that they are pornographic and not age-appropriate.  This just further underscores the messages that sex, and even our bodies, are sources of shame.