Professors and health officials say that while sexually transmitted diseases have been stigmatized in the past, it’s still important for sexually active students to get tested regularly.
Carrie Horack, downstate lead clinician for Planned Parenthood Illinois, said the organization is trying to strip STIs of their historical stigmas.
“Unfortunately, a lot of people do associate any kind of infections that are transmitted sexually with a lot of shame — which, unfortunately, that’s been used throughout history just to marginalize certain types of people,” Horack said. “There’s a long-standing history that we’re really trying to break, especially at Planned Parenthood, of course … We’re trying to move from the terminology of ‘Sexually Transmitted Disease’ to ‘Sexually Transmitted Infection’ … just because ‘diseases’ sounds way more stigmatizing than ‘infections.’”
Nicole Holmes, manager of HIV/STI hub/hotline resources with Center on Halsted, said when it comes to STIs, certain stigmas show through our descriptions of others.
“People still will routinely use the words ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ in terms of describing someone’s [STI] status,” Holmes said. “They may make what they consider to be jokes about [STIs], just saying things like, ‘Oh, they’re dirty’ or ‘They’re itching’ or ‘They have fleas,’ saying those kinds of things about [STIs] in general.”
Pharmaceutical sciences professor Catherine Santanello said she thinks public perception is somewhat changing, but that change has been slowest in people her own age.
“I think adults, educated adults, should be able to speak about body parts and [STIs] without any embarrassment. It’s the human body. The more ignorance, the more lack of education there is, the more we’re going to have the spread of [STIs],” Santanello said. “When I have conversations with men around my age, a lot of them kind of clam up and don’t want to talk about it if I say, ‘Have you been tested for [STIs]?’”
Students interested in getting tested may be able to do so right here on campus. Penny Raburn, a charge nurse with Health Service on campus, said they offer a few different screenings at various price points: a $16 HIV screening, $8 syphilis screening, a $10 joint screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea and other screening options for about $20 or less.
Horack said Planned Parenthood Illinois offers a few testing resources with a specific focus on both physical and environmental comfort.
“We do very minimally-invasive testing … Most of the time, it only requires you to come in and leave a urine sample … so you really can do your own testing, you don’t even have to be seen by a provider,” Horack said. “If you come to see us, you’re going to get a lot of education, you’re not going to be judged … and then you get your results within a week or two, and we’re able to treat based on what’s positive, and then we can also treat partners as well.”
Holmes said if someone calls into the hotline she manages, she first asks them about their location and whether they’re looking for free testing or testing with income-based sliding scale pricing. She then asks about their insurance status and what services they’re seeking to match them with the best testing center for them — however, Holmes said she takes a few additional steps to ensure the comfort of all potential patients.
“If someone calls into the hotline and say that they’re trans or they say that they are queer, I’m going to make sure that I refer them to a place that I know for a fact is [LGBTQ+] friendly and won’t stigmatize them,” Holmes said. “And when I say ‘won’t stigmatize them,’ I’m not even just talking about the person conducting their testing or a doctor ... even the front office is in need of some of that same … training to ensure clients are not feeling stigmatized.”
For students anxious about the testing process, Public Health Professor Nicole Klein said knowing your results can help you make better-informed decisions about your sex life.
“If you are tested for an STI and you have a negative test [result], maybe consider ways that won’t put you at risk the next time … Really think about what you’re doing sexually,” Klein said. “There’s a whole world of shared sexual activities or solo sex activities out there that don’t carry that risk.”
Santanello said the best way to prevent the spread of STIs is for students to reach out and stay aware.
“Seeking somebody that you’re comfortable talking to is really important,” Santanello said. “If we’re going to stop the spread of a lot of these STIs, the only way we’re going to stop it is if we know we have them.”
Those interested in scheduling an on-campus screening through Health Service can call their main number at 618-650-2842. Those interested in finding an off-campus testing location can call the Center on Halsted’s Illinois state STD hotline at 1-800-243-2437.