5 Advocates Who Are Taking The Shame Out Of STIs

Courtesy of Jenelle Marie Pierce

Despite the messages we get from our sex-negative culture, it's easy to think sexually transmitted infections (STIs) won’t affect you. But STIs can affect anybody — they don’t discriminate. At first, getting an STI diagnosis can be scary, surprising, shameful, you name it. That's why it's so important to have the right resources and support to fight through the stigma surrounding STIs.

Luckily, there are certain advocates out there who will make getting the news — and living with an STI — more manageable and less stigmatized. Plus, these advocates often separate fact from fiction when it comes to making you more aware and knowledgeable about STIs overall.

In a recent Bustle Trends Group survey of 226 women ages 18 to 34, one participant said the biggest stigma around women’s sexual health is, “If you have or have had an STI, it means you sleep around a lot.” Another’s response was, “That women are somehow less clean for having sex (which makes it harder for them to come forward in the early stages of STIs).” Suffice it to say, knowledge is power, and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to being thoroughly educated about STIs.

“Anyone who has had sexual contact can get an STI — this includes men and women of all ages, nationalities, ethnic backgrounds, and economic levels,” Dr. Martha Tara Lee, relationship counselor and clinical sexologist of Eros Coaching, tells Bustle. “While we can do what we can to prevent them ... we may still get a STI.” She believes that education, communication, and safe sex are key. “It is important to not slut-shame or guilt-trip ourselves so much so that we stop living our lives and expressing our sexuality,” she says.

All that said, the five advocates below, who are all in favor of destigmatizing STIs, should definitely be on your radar.

1Laureen HD

Laureen HD

Laureen HD has a YouTube channel dedicated to helping people cope with the herpes stigma. She first tried doing so through a blog and podcasts, but found that YouTube was the best forum for her. “I knew people would find my message more easily on YouTube, and that it would resonate much more if I could say it rather than write it,” she tells Bustle. She says the lack of YouTube channels, too, that talked solely about what she was going through also made her want to start hers.

“I couldn’t find a channel where a friendly face would consistently show up to help me make sense of what I was going through with herpes, and appease my worries about it,” she says. “[T]here are so many beauty or fashion channels and barely any channels on living with an STI, especially since herpes affects at least two-thirds of the global population under 50 years old.” She says she wanted to find others with herpes and remind them that they’re not alone. “And, through that, I’d remind myself that I’m not alone either,” she says.

One thing Laureen HD likes people to keep in mind is that herpes is a skin condition — and its family includes chicken pox and shingles. “This is reassuring, because you’ve likely dealt with one of these before,” she says. “Also, knowing there are more people *with* herpes than *without* herpes in the world is reassuring, because you’re not alone.”

Laureen HD also wishes that big brands would help destigmatize STIs. “I see more and more big brands talking about issues their audience goes through, or at least cares about, such as mental health, body image, sexism, etc.,” she says. “I hope brands will someday embrace STI stigma as one of those cultural conversations that needs more attention — because again, statistically, most of us have been there in some capacity.” She says this would help remind people that when you contract a curable or incurable STI, you are still 100 percent you and 100 percent worthy of love.

2Dr. Evan Goldstein

Dr. Evan Goldstein

Dr. Evan Goldstein, CEO and founder of New York and Beverly Hills-based Bespoke Surgical, the established leader in providing elevated, concierge-style medical and surgical expertise for the gay community, also recently produced and launched a new video series, Tail Talks. “The web series features a round table of LGBT experts, movers and shakers, influencers, and medical professionals who discuss key issues in the community in entertaining, engaging, and informative dialogue,” Dr. Goldstein tells Bustle.

Overall, through his digital marketing strategy, he utilizes several tactics to not only market his services, but also educate the public on wider health and sexual wellness issues affecting the LGBT community. He started becoming an advocate for sexual wellness issues toward the end of his studies, when surgical training collided with owning his sexuality. “I now think there was a higher purpose in this juncture, because it ended up playing a pivotal role in driving this advocacy,” he says. “Being trained as an osteopath — taking the whole body mind approach and tailoring it to the needs of my own community — has been instrumental to my success.” He said he noticed a serious gap in medical knowledge, which lacked literature on the proper engagement of gay sex. “It was then that I realized I could help change this,” he said. “Game on!”

Dr. Goldstein thinks people need to be more open about STIs and breaking the stigma around them. “Shame and stigma are so powerful,” he says. “As a marginalized community that is constantly trying to maneuver obstacles, the taboo of this subject creates a sort of hidden forum that, unfortunately, won’t disappear until we attempt to destigmatize the narrative.”

He also says that the more people talk and write about it, the more they force the hands of the popular press to freely acknowledge that sex is normal and a commonality amongst everyone — regardless of gender or sexuality. “By taking on the simple topic of STIs and normalizing the conversation, I hope to chip away at years of oppression, with the ultimate goal of removing any stigma that’s associated with them, as well.”

Dr. Goldstein says that sexual health is a product of the decisions you make — most are innocuous, but some have serious consequences. “I don’t believe in preaching to my clients that they shouldn’t do something outright — it never works,” he says. “Instead, we discuss the potential risks involved and whether there are any proactive measures that can be taken to help minimize that risk. We all learned tremendously from the HIV epidemic, and it’s more important than ever to be educated, honest, and proactive about our sexual health — to me, non-judgmental, non-biased health care is at the core of this movement.”

3Josh Robbins

Josh Robbins

Josh Robbins is an HIV/STI activist, as well as the spokesperson for DatingPositives, a social discovery platform for STI-positive (HIV, Herpes, Hepatitis, etc.) people, where you can chat, find love, hook up, or seek advice from others experiencing the same things. Robbins is known for his candor and shameless opinions, he tells Bustle, and he’s done a TED Talk, received a 2017 GLAAD Media Award nomination, and has over 65K followers on social media. As of this year, he’s also single for the first time since his HIV diagnosis in 2012 — and he’s using DatingPositives to document his experiences.

Robbins says that DatingPositives’ aim is to break the stigma against STIs by not only being a fun, fresh dating platform where people can feel safe, but also by providing resources to empower and entertain people through the site’s blog, WAXOH. “To us, it’s all about choice, and DatingPositives is a place where people can choose to go if they don’t want to deal with the negativity that can sometimes be found on mainstream apps, or worry about being judged for something that actually affects most people, whether we want to admit it or not,” Robbins says. He says that, according to a national survey they conducted with 643 people, most who are STI-positive — 72 percent, according to their results — are looking for a site that caters to the fact that they are living with a chronic STI.

Robbins says he told his family within hours of his diagnosis and started to share it publicly within two weeks. “It’s important to talk about STIs, because the only way to reduce the stigma associated with them is through education and discussion,” he says. “I am someone that is still proud of myself, even with an HIV diagnosis. Nobody ever needs to feel shame.” He adds that it’s important for people to be honest about their sexual health with not only others, but also with themselves. “From there, the conversation becomes easier to discuss with a potential sexual partner or dating prospect, and it’s easier to build trust in a relationship,” he says.

Say you’re STI-positive and are afraid to tell people. Robbins says the first step is figuring out where your fear is coming from. “Is it fear of rejection, is it feeling like your self-esteem is lowered, was it a traumatic experience in the past, or is it deeper,” he says. He says that many people struggle with things like reconciling their status after having had a religious upbringing. “Someone may need professional guidance on doing it, and that’s OK,” Robbins says. “Starting with honesty and thoughtful self-reflection made the path to living openly with an STI easier for me.”

4Courtney Brame

Courtney Brame

Courtney Brame is all about spreading positivity when it comes to living with an STI — and he does so through his podcast, Something Positive for Positive People (SPFPP). He started it after he was diagnosed with herpes and covers all kinds of topics to help others with herpes, as well as other STIs. “It’s a place that allows people to get experience based information about STIs and what living with them is like,” Brame tells Bustle. The podcast episodes cover a wide variety of topics, from a therapist doing a mock therapy session with Brame in light of an STI diagnosis to someone with herpes discussing how she dates, post diagnosis.

“Shame is associated heavily with an STI diagnosis, so it’s important for people who develop the courage to even seek out these resources to safely be able to find them without fear of judgment or shame about having an STI,” Brame says. So, it’s important for resources like Something Positive for Positive People to exist, he says, since it meets people where they are with their diagnosis — the podcast is a place they can feel supported and comforted. He also says that it’s for people without an STI, as it’s still an important educational resource.

“These resources show you more than what you may perceive a person living with an STI to be,” Brame says. “For instance, ‘promiscuous’ is a common word. However, stories from people who had herpes as a young child, HIV at birth, discovered 18 years after a blood transfusion that they are now AIDS positive challenges the misconception that a positive person had a lot of sexual partners to have been exposed to their condition.” He says that, hopefully, these stories encourage conversations about things such as sexual health, frequent testing, and precautions with new partners. He hopes that those with herpes, as well as other STIs, will feel less alone when they listen to SPFPP. “Plus, more people close to you than you would think are possibly dealing with the same situation you are,” he says.

Brame says that when he was diagnosed with herpes, someone was a lighthouse for him and now he wants to be one to others. “This whole new world opened up to me after I began to seek out resources,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was looking for, but in the process, someone found me — had it not been for them reaching out and being there, I think I would’ve always seen having herpes as a big deal, so I encourage people to seek support.”

5Jenelle Marie Pierce

Jenelle Marie Pierce

Jenelle Marie Pierce is not only the spokesperson for dating site PositiveSingles.com, but she also founded TheSTDProject.com. She launched the latter almost seven years ago and hopes it helps break the stigma against STIs. “I have genital herpes (mine is HSV2), and I’ve also had HPV and scabies,” she tells Bustle. “Although there were a lot of resources discussing the clinical information about transmission, symptoms, and treatment, there were very few people talking publicly about having an STI and what that’s like.” So, she started TheSTDProject.com. Over the years, it has grown into much more than its initial website. Now, it receives a little over 200,000 views per month and includes 12 websites, a podcast, and a YouTube channel.

“My goal is to empower our readers and listeners to find the resources that serve them and support them best so that they can become their own advocates,” she says. “I think what makes The STD Project powerful is the personal stories — mine and those of others — because everyone is not going to relate to one person or one person’s experience, but when you have hundreds of stories, all with a common theme, people are able to see themselves through someone else’s shared experience.”

She hopes that the more stories are shared, the more people begin to understand and accept that an STI is not as tragic as society leads people to believe, she says. “I felt as though the stigma would never get better if I didn’t talk about how hard it had been for me and how I dealt with it, while also providing a safe space for others to share their perspectives.”

As the spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com for the past few years, she says the site offers more than just dating — it's a supportive community too. “What Positive Singles does well is allow for members to post journal entries, ask questions about symptoms and treatment, and connect with folks who have had similar experiences,” Pierce says.

The number one question she hears after someone is newly diagnosed is, “How am I going to tell a new partner that I have _ infection?” “And even though we walk folks through how to approach disclosure without losing your mind, it can feel like an utterly terrifying thing to have to do,” Pierce says. “While I’ll be the first to say that someone who has an STI doesn’t have to only date people with the same STI, it’s a good way to get your feet wet after a diagnosis.”

Once someone has had an STI for a while, they usually venture back into more traditional dating apps, she says. “Once they’ve realized that they’re the same person they were before, and they still have game, their confidence is restored," she says. "A lot of folks have found partners through the app, but some of our success stories are about how people have met friends who’ve also struggled with stigma and found support groups as well — things they wouldn’t have known about or known how to access if they hadn’t signed up.”

As you can see, the five people above are strong advocates for living your best life, STI or not, and are definitely worth following.