In case you hadn’t noticed from the month-long party I’m throwing on my Twitter feed, it’s STD Awareness Month. April is the most wonderful time of the year: publications are popping out STD-related content, weird billboards are pasted up encouraging us to get tested, and there are not one but two hashtags for me to use when sharing my blog posts (not that they are the most interesting hashtags of all time, but still, THERE ARE HASHTAGS). This is the one opportunity that we get to mention STDs constantly, and I’m so goddamn excited.
But look, we need to talk. It’s only been five days but I’ve already noticed a disconcerting trend. In most public health campaigns and media coverage, STD Awareness Month isn’t about awareness of STDs. It’s about fear of STDs. And that, my friends, is not a party I want to attend.
I don’t know what annoys me more, the ugly photoshop jobs done by health organizations or the “FeeltheBern?” STD testing billboard currently getting press in Los Angeles. This Tinder-based “hook-up with an STD” campaign is pretty fucking awful too. You know what increases awareness of STDs? According to these assholes, it’s distorted teenagers, bad puns and sexism. These campaigns focus on prevention, targeting “clean” individuals and encouraging them to stay STD negative. They are often over-the-top and mean-spirited in an attempt to grab attention. I pass two ads made by the AHF (the jerks also behind the Bern poster) at my subway station every morning, and each time the same feelings of shame, pain and anger curdle in my stomach. When my Brooklyn boo comes over to my apartment to do things to my naked and herpes positive body, I wonder how many of these signs he passes en route.
I got a message recently from a woman living in Omaha who was rightfully pissed off about a poster that said, “Love: It’s more beautiful without a herpes outbreak.” Because forget people who already have genital herpes. We’re unlovable and deserve to be mocked via passive aggressive rainbow condoms.
Newsflash: If your campaign is at the expense of people who already have STDs, if you are encouraging suspicion of sexual partners, if you are making STDs out to be the worst thing to ever happen to a human being… you are making it harder for people with STDs to disclose their status. You are creating a hostile environment that leads to judgment, violence and self-segregation. You are dehumanizing people with STDs, and in the process you have made STD transmission more likely, not less. Congratulations. You done goofed.
Even the well-intentioned, less scummy public health campaigns I’ve seen so far this month focus on telling people to use condoms. But condoms don’t keep everyone safe—telling a lesbian to use condoms is like telling a preschooler to file her taxes early if she wants a good return. Having safe sex means using the right prevention methods for your relationship, whether that involves dental dams, rubber gloves, lubricant, or literally whatever else. Stop throwing condoms at people. They don’t even necessarily prevent the transmission of herpes and HPV when the viruses are transmitted through skin contact and not fluids. Condoms are great, but they’re only part of a winning strategy for preventing STD transmission. You know what’s a great way to prevent transmission? Giving people the tools to talk to their partners about sexual health. #TalkTestTreat is not the worst hashtag in the world, so kudos to whoever thought of that. If you’re interested in learning more about talking about STDs, I’m working on a series where I interview people I’ve fucked. You can read the latest installment here.
But, and this is a big “but,” awareness is also being aware of the people who have STDs already. When I search #STDMonth16 on Twitter, I want to see faces, not statistics or condoms. And I want those faces to be of real people, not stock photos. We need more STD Awareness Month content written by people who have STDs, instead of staff writers churning out topical content on a tight deadline. And if publishers aren’t interested in gambling on challenging personal narratives of life with an STD, we need to make people aware of us in other ways: Facebook statuses, tweets, avatar ribbons, blog posts, better hashtags. Awareness is the first step in the path to acceptance, but if awareness of STDs is limited to being aware of prevention, we’ll remain invisible. That’s not good enough for me, and I can’t do it alone. Shout your STD (#ShoutYourStatus, yo). Write a Facebook post. Tweet a cute selfie with a clever caption. Or even just text that friend who you’ve been wanting to confide in anyway. The best way to defeat stigma is through honest conversation. We are the heroes who will dismantle the shitty way people talk about us as if we’re not even in the room.
STD Awareness Month shouldn’t only be about diseases. It shouldn’t focus on the same prevention-based scare tactics that don’t work. It shouldn’t consist of bombarding disinterested parties on Twitter with statistics or facts out of context. STD Awareness Month should be about people. It should be about stories and confessions and questions and support. STD awareness is more than telling people to use condoms when they have sex. STD awareness is celebrating us, the people who live with STDs and dare to be, y’know, okay.
So here’s to us, my friends. Here’s to the herpsters and the HPV queens and the “I still have five days of antibiotics left” gonorrhea gods. Here’s to you, blog lurker who has told his girlfriend and his brother but maybe no one else quite yet. Here’s to me, with my third anniversary of getting diagnosed on the horizon and a TEDx talk less than two weeks away (FUCK). Here’s to April, and to taking it back for ourselves. Let’s be real, awareness is boring anyway. It’s time to celebrate.
WHAT’S UP, FUCKERS. IT’S STD AWARENESS MONTH. pic.twitter.com/KwcuwGA5L5
— Ella Dawson (@brosandprose) April 1, 2016