What does it mean for a disease or a condition to be "socially stigmatized?"

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Question: What does it mean for a disease or a condition to be "socially stigmatized?"

Answer: It means that people are judged or shunned for having it.

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.

Why is STD infection associated with such strongly negative responses?

In part, it is because people are often so incredibly 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 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.
  1. It only takes one sexual partner to end up with an STD. Sometimes, it doesn't take any. Having an STD says nothing about your sexual history except that you, probably, didn't reliably practice safer sex.
  2. STDs are incredibly common. Some, like HPV, infect more than half the sexually active population. Many of the people shaming people with STD stigma probably have an STD themselves. This 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

    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 is that doctors can suffer from it too. Sometimes that makes it hard to get tested, even if you don't suffer from STD stigma yourself. 

    Note: Two STDs that are associated with particularly high levels of social stigma are HIV and herpes.

    Sources

    Friedman AL, Brookmeyer KA, Kachur RE, Ford J, Hogben M, Habel MA, Kantor LM, Clark E, Sabatini J, McFarlane M. An assessment of the GYT: Get Yourself Tested campaign: an integrated approach to sexually transmitted disease prevention communication. Sex Transm Dis. 2014 Mar;41(3):151-7. doi:
    10.1097/OLQ.0000000000000100.

    Morris JL, Lippman SA, Philip S, Bernstein K, Neilands TB, Lightfoot M. Sexually transmitted infection related stigma and shame among African American male youth: implications for testing practices, partner notification, and treatment. AIDS Patient Care STDS. 2014 Sep;28(9):499-506. doi: 10.1089/apc.2013.0316. 

    Rusch M, Shoveller J, Burgess S, Stancer K, Patrick D, Tyndall M. Association of sexually transmitted disease-related stigma with sexual health care among women attending a community clinic program. Sex Transm Dis. 2008 Jun;35(6):553-7. doi: 10.1097/OLQ.0b013e3181685855.

    Young SD, Nussbaum AD, Monin B. Potential moral stigma and reactions to sexually transmitted diseases: evidence for a disjunction fallacy. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2007 Jun;33(6):789-99

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