Youth Living With Sexual Health Stigma

by Gary Seward
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Sexual Health Stigma - Fresh Print

Graphic by Jonah Eisen, compiled by Emily Miller VIA queens

It’s a brisk Monday morning in February and your only day off from your two part-time jobs. You press snooze a few times before deciding to finally get up and dressed. You’ve been dreading this day all week because today is the day you have decided you’re going to get some STI testing done at the Hassle Free Clinic. It’s a daunting procedure that gives you a lot of anxiety for a few reasons. You leave your apartment and start your jaunt downtown. Your hands are clammy and your mind is fuzzy as you make your way down to the clinic.

You arrive and check yourself in to see a nurse then sit on their plastic chairs and notice that the waiting room is packed. In order to avoid looking directly at anyone, you scan your eyes around the room to look at anything other than the other people in the waiting room. Maybe your gaze is on the massive wall of condoms and lube, or the sexual health pamphlets. Regardless, you revel in the moment they call your number, mostly because it’s anonymous. You’re not ashamed to be here because it’s mostly a preventative measure but other people aren’t to kind with their judgements.

The anxiety is silly but rather simple; it’s the stigma of even being seen inside this clinic. You may be in a room full of like-minded folk, but you can’t help but obsess with the idea that everyone is judging you and your practices. In fact, this is designed to be a sanctuary, a place to go and be anonymous and responsible, and help combat the growing number of STIs amongst Canadian youth.

Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) are a major threat to the health and well-being of Canadian youth and the insurgence of the most common STIs, like Chlamydia and the Human papillomavirus (HPV), are a particular concern because if left untreated both can have serious long-term consequences for both men and women.

Reported rates of chlamydia infections have increased by 71.3% since 2000.

These are just two of the infections that anyone can get but they are the ones that are the most often diagnosed and the ones that are mostly asymptomatic. Meaning there are, at any given time, lots of people walking around not knowing they are infected and potentially infecting others. HPV can lead to herpes in both men and women and cervical cancer in women.

For decades there has been a lot of literature, media, stories detailing the horrors of HIV/AIDS but what about the ones we can’t talk about? What about the STIs that are easy to be infected with? With HIV becoming a modern day plague, most people know the importance of condoms and barriers in order to help mitigate risk. Even youth are aware of the importance of using them.

In 2009/10, 68% of sexually active people aged 15 to 24 reported they had used condoms the last time they had intercourse.  This proportion was up from 62% in 2003.

So, if more youth are using condoms/barriers then we need to look into another direction to try to answer why these infections have increased so much.

The answer may lie in the Hassle Free Clinic waiting room. All of the avoiding gazes and embarrassed tones may actually hold the answer to this issue. It’s the stigma, but more importantly it’s the stigma attributed from the failure in sex education within our current generation of Canadian youth (Millennials.)

“Sexual health education should be available to all Canadians as an important component of health promotion and services” is the official stance the Health Canada is adopting but it’s one that educational institutions are still reluctant to use.

It may be 2014, a day and age of great technological and medical breakthroughs, but there still seems to be a long cultural history of stigma around STIs being cultivated primarily out of the need of social control. It seems maddening that having an STI is still something “dirty.” Or talking about sex, especially for women, can lead to an outpouring of ‘slut shaming.’ If a woman was seen at the very same clinic she may be ridiculed relentlessly by her own peers rather than praised for taking initiative for preventing potential harm to herself or others.

Canadian Guidelines for Sexual Health Education is intended to inform sexual health programming that:

• Focuses on the self-worth, respect and dignity of the individual;

• Is provided in an age-appropriate, culturally sensitive manner that is respectful of individual sexual diversity, abilities, and choices;

  • Helps individuals to become more sensitive and aware of the impact their behaviours and actions may have on others and society;
  • Does not discriminate on the basis of age, race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, physical/cognitive abilities and religious background in terms of access to relevant, appropriate, accurate and comprehensive information (Public Health Agency of Canada, 2008, p. 11-12).

Source: Siecan

Our culture still seems reluctant to have open dialogues about sex and, in part, that is contributing to the ignorance, misinformation and social stigma. Instead of discussing the medical facts surrounding sex practices. In other words, the idea that scaring people about sexually transmitted illness, or shaming people about it, will make it more likely for them to only have the kinds of sex other people want them to have because of their own personal beliefs or a belief in outdated social mores.

School-based sexual health classes have gotten better in recent years, but they are still largely using the same old “abstinence” based model. Meaning, all information is mostly thrown out the window regarding sexual health and safe sex practices in favour of preaching that the only thing to do is abstain from any form of sexual activity. Which certainly is effective in the combat against STIs but largely ignores the fact that many youth aren’t abstaining.

Sure, going to the Hassle Free Clinic or even your own doctor may be an anxiety-riddled endeavour but ultimately the vast majority of youth above the age of 17 are engaged in some form of sexual activity. Isn’t it better to be slightly embarrassed and seek out help than sit complacent and possibly infect others?

Sex is supposed to be sexy and so should knowing your partners have checked themselves out beforehand. Check out this list of STIs and their symptoms here

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