STDs Are Socially Stigmatized

Many STDs are said to be socially stigmatized. In other words, people are judged or condemned for being infected with STDs. Other types of disease may also carry some level of social stigma. However, the STD stigma is often particularly strong.

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Why is STD infection associated with such strongly negative responses? In part, it is because people are often judgmental about sex. When someone is diagnosed with an STD and lets people know about it, there is often a very negative reaction. They may find that people think of them as dirty or slutty. They may lose partners or experience intimate partner violence.

STD stigma isn't always directed. Sometimes it's more general, like when people make jokes or play songs that equate herpes to being dirty. But even undirected stigma can be very painful and have a negative side effect. Stigma is a problem no matter how it's enacted.

The truth is, there's no logical reason to stigmatize STDs. This type of judgment is not only irrational. It's actually extremely counterproductive. Why?

  1. STDs are just infections. They have no inherent moral or immoral component. They infect people regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation.
  2. Most STDs are asymptomatic. That means that the only way to know if you have one is to be tested regularly. The profound degree of social stigma associated with a positive diagnosis is a huge problem. It makes many people decide they'd rather not know their status. Therefore people often spend years spreading diseases before they experience any serious personal consequences. They think that if they don't know, then they don't have to lie about it or risk rejection.
  3. It only takes one sexual partner to end up with an STD. Having an STD says nothing about your sexual history except that you probably didn't reliably practice safer sex.
  4. STDs are common. Some, like HPV, infect more than half the sexually active population. Some of the people shaming people with STD stigma might actually have an STD themselves.
  5. An STD diagnosis has the potential to contribute to self-hatred and depression after diagnosis. For example, herpes stigma can be bad enough to leave people feeling suicidal after a new diagnosis. Further, a lack of openness with others about health issues may predispose to depression.

In my opinion, the only real cure for STD stigma is better sex education. People need to learn how common these diseases are. They need to learn how easily they're treated. Then, maybe, we can start working on making screening more common. After all, one of the worst parts of STD stigma and stereotyping is that doctors can experience it too. Sometimes that makes it hard to get tested, even if you don't suffer from STD stigma yourself. 

6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Cunningham SD. Attitudes about sexual disclosure and perceptions of stigma and shameSexually Transmitted Infections. 2002;78(5):334-338. doi:10.1136/sti.78.5.334

  2. Young SD, Nussbaum AD, Monin B. Potential Moral Stigma and Reactions to Sexually Transmitted Diseases: Evidence for a Disjunction FallacyPersonality and Social Psychology Bulletin. 2007;33(6):789-799. doi:10.1177/0146167207301027

  3. Cunningham SD, Kerrigan DL, Jennings JM, Ellen JM. Relationships between perceived STD-related stigma, STD-related shame and STD screening among a household sample of adolescentsPerspect Sex Reprod Health. 2009;41(4):225–230. doi:10.1363/4122509

  4. Leval A, Sundström K, Ploner A, Dahlström LA, Widmark C, Sparén P. Assessing perceived risk and STI prevention behavior: a national population-based study with special reference to HPVPLoS One. 2011;6(6):e20624. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020624

  5. Rosenthal SL, Zimet GD, Leichliter JS. The psychosocial impact of serological diagnosis of asymptomatic herpes simplex virus type 2 infectionSex Transm Infect. 2006;82(2):154–158. doi:10.1136/sti.2005.016311

  6. Ford JV, Barnes R, Rompalo A, Hook EW 3rd. Sexual health training and education in the U.SPublic Health Rep. 2013;128 Suppl 1(Suppl 1):96–101. doi:10.1177/00333549131282S111

Additional Reading

By Elizabeth Boskey, PhD
Elizabeth Boskey, PhD, MPH, CHES, is a social worker, adjunct lecturer, and expert writer in the field of sexually transmitted diseases.