Sex and stigma: What’s a little gonorrhoea between friends?

Johnny: Hey Andrew – I’ve had a bad last few days. I’ve had norovirus. Andrew: That’s gross Johnny. Why would you even tell me that? Johnny: I know it’s not […]

Health Sexual Health Kevin Moroso

This article was published on June 3rd, 2015

What’s a little gonorrhea between friends?

Johnny: Hey Andrew – I’ve had a bad last few days. I’ve had norovirus.

Andrew: That’s gross Johnny. Why would you even tell me that?

Johnny: I know it’s not a nice virus to get but why are you so grossed out?

Andrew: Because obviously you’re eating at places where someone’s shit or vomit is getting into your food.

There’s some logic in why Andrew thinks it’s gross that Johnny would admit to having norovirus but it’s highly unlikely anyone would react the way Andrew did. However, switch norovirus for an infection such as gonorrhea or chlamydia and suddenly the conversation is more realistic. After all, how many people would say to their boss, “do you mind if I leave work early today to see the doctor – I’ve got gonorrhoea.” And there’s a simple reason for that. Stigma. And it’s less about the stigma of having an infection and more about stigma around sex.

Sexually transmitted infections, even minor little bacterial ones like gonorrhoea and chlamydia, have a huge amount of stigma around them that other infections, the non-sexual kind, do not. And there’s really no good reason for that. People become worried that they’ll be seen as dirty, gross, sluts, unsafe, or just plain ‘unlucky’. But let’s take away the sex part and compare some infections, sexually and non-sexually transmitted, in a more rational way.

Strep throat is not fun to get at all. It makes it painful to eat, you get a fever, you may vomit, and you’ll likely feel extremely tired. Because of these symptoms, people often miss work causing a big drain on the economy. It’s easily preventable if you remember to wash your hands frequently and you don’t share food or drinks. Fortunately, you can usually treat it with antibiotics, though there are many drug resistant strains out there.

Norovirus is equally not fun. You get diarrhea, you vomit frequently, you feel nauseous and have pain in your stomach, you may get a fever, and you’ll get dehydrated and feel fatigued. Because of these symptoms, people miss work and, even worse, are highly contagious. The virus is transmitted by getting an infected person’s feces or vomit in your food. It can be prevented by washing hands thoroughly before preparing food and by cooking food thoroughly (raw or steamed shellfish eaters are practicing unsafe eating). There is no treatment for the virus – you just need to treat the symptoms until it goes away.

Gonorrhoea? Meh. If it’s in your penis, you’ll having some itching or possible light burning in your urethra when you urinate. You may not even notice much of a difference. And some white or discoloured mucous may come out the tip of your penis, much like precum. You won’t need to miss work or do anything differently – in fact you still feel great having sex though you shouldn’t as you’ll transmit it. You get it from having sexual contact with someone – oral and anal. You can reduce the risk of transmission by using condoms for both oral and anal sex – though it’s not certain by how much. To treat it, you take a one-time dose of antibiotics and symptoms should go away in one to three days. Drug resistant strains are becoming less common now that more sexual health clinics are following proper procedures, with cases of drug resistant strains having gone down from 1.4% of all gonorrhea cases in 2011 to 0.4% of all cases in 2013.

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Based on the above, the reason for shame around bacterial STIs is baffling. The symptoms barely affect you and it’s easily treatable. It’s no more or less preventable than other common non-sexually transmitted infections. So what is this shame really about? Sex.

It’s so ingrained in Western and other cultures, particularly those influenced by the Abrahamic religions, that sex is a shameful dirty act and that there needs to be negative consequences to it. If it’s not hell, it’s disease. Even when those consequences are relatively minor, we still see them as badges of shame – signifying that you crossed a taboo by engaging in non-monogamous sexual relations.

Sex is as natural as eating food or sharing food. Humanity wouldn’t exist without plenty of either. Sharing food is even more prevalent in non-Western cultures and monogamy, while technically enforced in many cultures, is far from being widespread in reality. So it should be fairly obvious that the stigma and shame around STIs like gonorrhea is really just another form of sex shaming, something prevalent even amongst gay men.

The next time you get gonorrhea, don’t feel dirty, ashamed, and worried. Pop into your local clinic, gulp a few pills, and one week later you should be all good to give and receive yummy, delicious, non-shameful cock.

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