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Talking About Sex(ually transmitted diseases)

April 14, 2010

Women (or should I say most of the women I know) talk fairly openly about sexual health.  We talk about our periods, those of us who have had children share our pregnancy and morning sickness stories as well as our labor and delivery tales, and as we cruise on in to perimenopause and menopause, we gab about the hot flashes. 

We don’t talk about sexually transmitted diseases with the same candor as we do the rest of our reproductive health. April is National STD Awareness Month and here at PPHP we are getting people talking and encouraging people to get tested.  Since we started our GYT (Get Yourself Talking.  Get Yourself Tested.) campaign, I have been giving plenty of thought to how (and with who)we are talking about sex(ually transmitted diseases).    

There’s an old adage about refraining from talking about sex, politics, or religion in polite company.  My job requires me to talk about sex with politicians, so that advice was rendered useless long ago.   One thing I have learned from talking about sex with politicians is that some people (lots of people) are uncomfortable talking about sexually transmitted diseases.

I recall, quite vividly, an experience with “the ick factor”.  Icky, to quote a favorite former colleague of mine, is the perfect expression of disgust.  It describes that guy who leers at you on the subway.  It also describes the way his leering makes you feel –icky as in uncomfortable, a skin-crawling, nauseating uncomfortable.  Whether it’s to your kid, your partner, or your health care provider, talking about STD’s can make one or both participants in the conversation uncomfortable.  In the throes of advocacy I can forget that.  Once, over salads in a legislative office building cafeteria, I plunged in to a conversation about STD prevention and treatment.  The other participant in the conversation looked calmly across the table and said “I hear you and I am with you, but right now we are eating lunch.  Let’s discuss the icky stuff over coffee, after we eat.”  The conversation – even in the public health context – was just too uncomfortable for him.  

If we, as a culture, aren’t comfortable talking about sexually transmitted diseases as a public health matter, it’s no wonder we can’t (and don’t) talk about them as a personal one.

Our failure to talk to one another doesn’t do anything to increase our awareness of our personal risk of STD’s.  You’d admonish a friend for drinking too much and driving or smoking cigarettes, but would you tell her that not using condoms is just inviting an STD? Several years ago, a recently divorced friend proudly announced to me that she was ready to date again and taking control of her sex life.  She had seen her gyn and was now on “the patch”.  “Great,” I responded.  Then I reminded her that the patch doesn’t protect against STD’s and she would still need to use condoms.  She looked at me, rather incredulously, and told me that people our age don’t get STD’s.  With that, I launched into a rather lengthy explanation about the risks of contracting an STD.

Maybe we are just afraid of STD’s. Let’s face it, most of us are afraid to get an STD.   No wonder we are afraid (and maybe ashamed) to talk about it – after all, what would people think?  Many years ago a friend told me she was getting divorced. Without taking a breath she said “I have herpes, thanks to my cheating husband, that’s why we are getting divorced!” Yes, anyone can get an STD.

Fear, shame, and discomfort should not keep us from taking control of our sex lives, from talking to our partners, or from getting ourselves tested.  So put aside the” ick” factor and get talking.  Put aside the ignorance and learn more – especially about your risk.  Conquer the fear, get yourself tested.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Heather Dean permalink
    May 7, 2010 5:50 pm

    Great job bringing awareness to the newly divorced. There is also an increase in Aids with senior citizens. Not surprisingly, widows and widowers still want and need physical love. Sadly, because of their age, some figure menopause has solved their birth control issue, but they are still susceptible the STDs as well.

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