Getting REAL about HIV and STDs

Dorothy Black is over the stigmatisation of HIV/Aids and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to be honest. Especially when it comes to sex. At best we withhold information about something small, like not telling your partner you have a fetish for gimps in latex, at worst we lie about something big, like our STD status.

Recently, I found myself in the curious position of having to tell someone (let’s call them X) that their deceased partner (Y) had been HIV positive. While X and Y had always practised safe sex, they’d never been for a test and X assumed that Y was being honest when he said he was negative.

While there were many reasons to be angry, what enraged X the most was that he had been lied to.

Later, while sifting through some letters and diaries, it became clear that Y had lied for one simple reason: fear of rejection, of not being loved, of not being seen as acceptable.

This is what a lie does. It creates the very alienation we hope to avoid.

And it’s not merely the lie about having an STD that perpetuates prejudice, it’s the stigmas around STDs in general that do the most damage.

We have vilified sexually transmitted diseases to the point of silence and shame, where it is better to remain silent than risk rejection. We have marked any illness associated with sexual intercourse with a bigger, blacker brush than any other. After all, we pick up all manner of bacteria and viruses, some deadly, from the simple act of daily interaction. Why would something like herpes or chlamydia or HIV be any more unacceptable?

I suspect it is a consequence of the whole unfortunate ‘sex is a sin and God shall smite thee for fucking’ thing. We treat it as a punishment for deviant behaviour rather than a lack of education about safer conduct and self-empowerment; it is a scarlet letter etched on our body rather than just par for the course of being human.

And human we are. We struggle to have those uncomfortable conversations about STDs when we should and fiddle with the idea of condoms when they ought to be an imperative. We don’t know how to ask for tests. We don’t know how to look after ourselves and take responsibility for our lives beyond cultural imperatives and societal norms and then blame the other when we find ourselves with a case of gonorrhea.

The other day I did a Dot Spot on 5FM about a woman who had withheld her status (positive) from her new partner when they engaged in unprotected sex. She found herself in the tricky position of having to tell him.

Listeners raged about how terrible she was and how physical violence should be visited upon her. No one questioned once why he had agreed to unprotected sex without a test? And, while it was obviously a very serious thing she had knowingly done, the boorish response from the peanut gallery had all the awareness of rock.

Unfortunately, it’s this same response that adds weight to the stigmatisation of STDs in general and HIV/Aids in particular. And it is the same response that sways people to lie, to withhold, to withdraw...

STDs, including HIV, are not in themselves a death sentence. Left undiagnosed and untreated, only a few lead to life-threatening complications. But then again, so can the common cold. Most, however, are curable and, if not curable, treatable to the point of being easily and non-invasively managed. Your life, your love, your sex life will not come to a grinding, painful halt.

I was considering leaving this column off until December and World Aids Day. But the fact is, this isn’t a conversation better suited to one month in the year. It is a conversation we should be having far more regularly with ourselves and with others. And if that makes you uncomfortable, you might want to start asking yourself whether you’re part those creating a new, more inclusive, world view or if you’re going to keep sitting on the gallery with the other peanuts.

Follow Dot on Twitter and/or browse her blog.

- Women24

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