Sex, STIs, & Being Clean

May 14th, 2014

A clean bill of health. Those are words most of us like to hear from the doc following a visit. There’s nothing wrong with feeling healthy. But this saying has morphed into a stigmatizing way of viewing STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections). If you spend anytime on dating and hook up sites, you’ll see some people write that they’re “clean” and they’re hoping that you’re “clean” too…clean being a euphemism for not having an STI. The implication is that if you have an STI, you are dirty. It sounds awful. And dehumanizing.

I take offense at this for several reasons. First, practically speaking – an infection or virus doesn’t make a person clean or unclean. When we have strep throat or a wart on our finger, we are not all of the sudden dirty. You simply need to take some penicillin or get the wart burnt off. But since an STI is a by-product of sex, it is somehow more distasteful. This language exposes our culture’s discomfort with sexuality. In this culture, an infection born of sex is VERY bad. It’s as if your morals or character are put into question. Step on a nail and get an infection? No big deal. No moral failing. Get chlamydia from a blow job…you’re judgement is questionable.

Secondly, this perspective has a serious impact on people’s self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-worth; especially if they contract a chronic STI, like HIV or herpes. While both of these conditions are treatable and controllable, people are still judged and stigmatized for being positive for either. So many people internalize that they are, by society’s standards, “unclean.” This make dating and relationships harder. It becomes more difficult to get support from people who aren’t lovers. It simply makes a person feel bad about themselves.

So, I encourage people to educate themselves about STIs and the real impact, risk, and prevalence. Use fact-based knowledge to help change and inform your emotional, gut-based reaction. And never use the word “clean” to describe someone who doesn’t have an STI. Those who have chronic STIs…find people to support you and work on the shame that you feel. You don’t have to think and feel so badly about yourself.

If you’re looking for a therapist in Dupont Circle, Washington, DC, feel free to contact Mike Giordano, LICSW at 202-460-6384 or

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