When I was in high school, we all were required to take a health class that informed us of our changing bodies and what dangers lurked between the sheets when sleeping with others. They threw some numbers at us, and all I can remember was thinking, “Wow, those odds of getting ____ are so small!” That likelihood was never something I needed to worry about.

At that point, I was a naïve, young girl who didn’t know much about sex — let alone anyone who was “doing it.” The dangers seemed like some far-off mythical creature that could never be in my life, but it was at college that I realized just how often sex-related infections and life-changing experiences could occur.

That was all people would talk about: sex and hookups. The whole “hook-up culture” consumed the lives of a bunch of horny freshmen who were glad that alcohol could make a lot of bad decisions happen very quickly. We knew about the basic dangers: sexually transmitted infections, pregnancy and the emotional damage that came with getting busy with a lot of different people. But did that resonate with all people? No. And that’s why there are so many instances of STIs, especially on college campuses.

I have had the opportunity to meet people who have experienced STIs — those that are curable, and those that are not. For some people, it was something that had been a part of their lives for many years; for others, it was friends that had just recently found out. And from what I have seen and heard from those people, the stigma is the worst part.

There’s such a bad reputation that accompanies STIs — that you are some slut who played the numbers game, and of course you got a disease. It’s the look of disappointment in others’ eyes that solidifies the shame. Sex is something that every damn living organism does in some form, and somehow, we are constrained by the societal standards of when we should open our legs and for whom, and humiliated when we go outside of those lines. If we manage to get a disease? Well, of course it’s our fault.

Have you ever considered that there are other ways to contract STIs outside of having sex? Did you know you could have herpes your entire life due to it just being in your body? You could have contracted it in a sandbox when you were a child when some other kid with a cold sore touched the same Tonka truck that you did, and still never know to this day. What about a partner who lied? Say, a one-night stand that would rather get it in than admit some dark truth. For some diseases, it’s a crime to knowingly have sex with someone if you have a contagious STI and do not inform them. What about if you get it from your partner, but you knew about it going into the relationship? Can you be OK with that decision down the road if you get the disease, or if you give it?

To the naïve girl back in high school who thought that her chances were pretty low, think again. It’s all around you. Because we are so scared to tell the world that we have a disease, it’s likely you’ll never actually know who has what. The person sitting next to you could have just conquered chlamydia, or the guy behind you in line at a coffee shop could have just found out he has herpes. You never know. But we need to get rid of this notion of the blame game that comes with STIs. It isn’t necessarily the person’s fault, and we must be more sensitive to the issues.

The disappointment in self; the fear of telling family, friends and partners; and the worry about the future are things to which only those going through it can relate. By putting extra societal blame on those who are either just finding out or are living with a sexually transmitted infection, it only makes the process of living that much more difficult.

Sara Shamaskin can be reached at scsham@umich.edu.

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