Sure, you’ve probably heard a lot about STIs. But if you’re like many people, you were only half listening because it didn’t seem like anything that would ever affect you. You may have thought STIs only happen to people who have a lot of sex, date a certain kind or person, or look a certain way. If you’re like many who get diagnosed with an STI, you’re likely in total shock. Don’t panic and start imagining a string of worst-case scenarios. Instead, learn the facts.
You’re not alone. To say you’re not alone if you have an STI is an understatement. In fact, you’re not even in the minority. Each year an estimated 20 million people are diagnosed with an STI—and about half of them are teens. Researchers estimate that 1 in 5 people have herpes, and as many as 80% of people will have HPV at some point in their lives. It may not seem like that many people have (or have had) STIs, but that’s only because most don’t talk about it publicly.
Know that many are curable. Bacterial STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia can be cured with antibiotics. There is no cure for HPV (the virus that causes warts or abnormal pap smears in women), but doctors think that our bodies rid themselves of the virus in about two years. Herpes cannot be cured, but the symptoms can be managed, so even though the virus will stay in your body, the actual outbreaks aren’t something you’ll have to deal with constantly.
Don’t beat yourself up. Getting an STI doesn’t mean that you did something especially gross or shameful. The thing about STIs is that they’re equal opportunity employers—meaning that any sexually active person can catch one even if they haven’t had many partners. And while no one wants an STI, there’s nothing inherently dirty or gross about them. We live in a culture where we’re taught that sex is something private and even shameful, so if you’re feeling a lot of shame or embarrassment because of your diagnosis, it’s probably because of the shame or embarrassment we’re engrained to feel about sex in general. Think of it this way: an STI is an infection like any other—it’s just that this infection affects your “private areas.”
It’s not who you are. Having an STI doesn’t mean that you’re marked or unlovable. It doesn’t say anything about who you are as a person; it’s one small detail about you. And yeah, it may not be preferable, but the reality is everyone has things about them that aren’t ideal. Those things don’t define them. They are just part of the tapestry that makes each person a unique individual.
You haven’t missed your shot at love. Most people who have been diagnosed with an STI go on to live happy and healthy romantic lives. If you have herpes (which can’t be cured) or an active STI that can be transferred during sex (even if it will eventually be cured) it does mean that you’ll have to take the step of talking to your partners about it before you become sexual active. But many people who have this STI report that people they tell are understanding. They also say that the ones who react badly likely wouldn’t have been considerate people to be in a relationship with anyway. This diagnosis does not mean the end of your love life. STI or not, you can still find your happily ever after!