Aug 252011

This week’s blog post from intern Katie talks about STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and how our society stigmatizes them, which makes it even more difficult to teach about.

“Today we’re learning about sexually transmitted infections!” No matter how enthusiastic my delivery is, that short sentence rarely inspires excitement and curiosity in my students. In fact, the usual response I receive involves a symphony of groans and eye rolls. And really, I can’t blame them: internally, I’m groaning too.

I’m sure there are some superstar sex educators out there who have mastered teaching about STIs, but I’m not one of them. Sure, it can be challenging making transmission statistics and bacterial/viral categorizations “fun” (STI jeopardy only seems to maintain student interest for so long) but the problem is more ingrained than that. For me, the biggest obstacle is tone: how do I convey the necessary information–– about infection types, about barrier methods, about testing availability–– in a way that inspires prudence but not fear? I want to reinforce the reality of STIs and the importance of practicing safer sex behaviors, but I want to do so without (1) scaring them away from sex forever and (2) further stigmatizing STIs and people who have them.

I try to be particularly sensitive to the stigmatizing messages my students receive in and out of the classroom, but these messages aren’t always easy to address in a consistent, coherent manner. If I mention herpes sores and a student loudly gasps “Ewwww,” I have to think carefully about how I proceed. If I respond by insisting, “No, sores are no big deal,” then I run the risk of diminishing the difficulties (social and medical) that people with herpes experience. I would also feel somewhat dishonest: herpes isn’t a big deal in the sense that plenty of people lead happy, healthy lives with herpes, but outbreaks aren’t a walk in the park either. But if I say nothing and let the student feign disgust, I could be sending an even more dangerous message to the other students in the class–– some of whom may have tested positive for STIs or who may have friends, family, or partners who have tested positive–– that people with STIs are worthy of fear or disrespect.

STIs are unpleasant: therefore, people with STIs are unpleasant. It’s a huge logical misstep that society encourages us to make, and that we as educators must vigilantly avoid. And the stakes are high: even if a student does not have any STIs when the lesson takes place, if the takeaway message of the lesson is that STIs are cause for shame, then ze/she/he might be less likely to tell get tested regularly or tell future partners hir/her/his status. My response to the above hypothetical question would then be carefully worded. I might say something along the lines of: “Herpes is like a lot of other chronic medical conditions. Plenty of people live happy lives with herpes, but it’s still an uncomfortable complication that most people would rather avoid. Here’s how you can protect yourself against herpes…”

Again, I still have quite a lot to learn about teaching STI awareness and prevention. Nevertheless, I’ve collected below a few of the important “dos” and “don’ts” I’ve gleaned from my own experience and from the wisdom of other educators. If you have any additional suggestions or comments, I’d love to hear them!

Avoid using the term “clean.” It can be tempting to use popular jargon when teaching a class, but referring to people without STIs as “clean” is highly offensive to folks with STIs. It also sets up a false relationship between STI status and hygiene, wherein students with good daily hygiene are more likely to think of themselves impervious to disease/infection. If students in your class use “clean” in this way, gently but firmly correct them. Someone who gets an ear infection isn’t unclean. Neither is someone with a sexually transmitted infection.

Share the statistics that apply to them. I don’t think fear-mongering is ever a good idea, but it doesn’t hurt to let students in on the information being collected about their demographic. What STIs are most common? How are they being transmitted? If presented without scare tactics, this kind of info can make students feel empowered and less alone.

If possible, act in conjunction with school health services. Obviously, not everyone who works as a sex educator does so via institutions with their own health centers. However, if you are teaching at the high school or college level, try to find out how involved the health center is in student sexual health. If nothing else, it can be incredibly valuable for students to be able to point them towards a known ally in the school.

Make it easy for students to receive testing information. In the past, I’ve written the names, phone numbers, and addresses of clinics that offer STI testing up on the board and asked students to copy them down. In my experience, they’ve become self-conscious, not wanting to look like this is information they need or want, and they’ve refused to write anything down. I’ve started instead to hand each student a printed sheet with test center information; I tell them that they can’t throw the sheets in the trash outside if they absolutely have to, but everyone needs to leave the classroom with that slip of paper.

Acknowledge stigmas. We live in a society that still strongly stigmatizes people with STIs. Don’t be surprised if this message has rubbed off on your students. Listen to their thoughts and concerns, and be patient in letting your perspective sink in.

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