According to the Oxford definition, stigma it is a mark of misfortune associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person.
HIV is a chronic disease that remains stigmatized long after its initial discovery. HIV, which is the virus that causes AIDS, was first discovered among white men who had sex with men in the early 1980s. The defining and stigmatizing factor about HIV is how it is acquired: through sex and by sharing dirty needles. Unlike other communicable diseases, HIV is in a class by itself. From diagnosis to treatment, people who contract HIV are rarely given empathy in their communities, and instead are blamed for “careless behaviors” or unprotected sex. This type of stigma is a major barrier to improving the health and lives of people living with HIV.
stigma and sex
As humans, we are innate sexual beings. In society, it is evident that sex sells from print ads to social media. Yet America has its roots in a puritanical society that has permeated our schools, religious organizations, and the interior of our homes. In fact, negativity and stigma related to sex and sexuality are so pervasive that the United States has the highest rates of teen pregnancy and the highest rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) of any industrialized country. 1 in 7 people feel uncomfortable discussing STIs with their healthcare provider (KFF 2020). One may wonder, how can this be? The answer is clear. As educators, religious leaders, and parents, we have missed the mark in educating our children and adolescents about sex and sexuality in an age-appropriate way. In turn, misinformed youth experiment sexually and contract sexually transmitted infections.
Additionally, sexuality issues among black women are compounded at the intersection of race, gender, and sex. From slavery to freedom, black women have had little ownership over their bodies. Historically, hypersexualized images and acts of violence committed against black women have given rise to a narrative of promiscuity and general contempt for the black body. Therefore, sexual liberation and pleasure for black women is often a moot point, while shame and embarrassment prevail. The need to appear asexual and adhere to cultural norms that include stereotypes such as “nice girls don’t have sex” either “You will go to hell if you have sex” it has been extremely damaging to black girls and women physically, mentally, and spiritually. In fact, the data suggests that these tropes may influence how Black women make decisions regarding their partners and self-protection. Unfortunately, these decisions result in Black women having the highest rates of HIV among all other racial and ethnic groups. Black women make up about 15% of the population and 60% of new HIV infections. At the root of this statistic is the fact that discourse about sex, itself, is discouraged and stigmatized in the black community. So what can we do?
Solving the stigma
Here are three ways to reduce stigma:
- Normalize conversations about sex and sexuality with friends, partners, and health care providers
- Educate yourself and others about sex and HIV
- If you do have sex, make it a habit to ask your provider to test you routinely for HIV and other STIs.
According to social psychologist, Dr. Earnshaw, “Humans create stigma to enforce social norms.” This means that as a society we can work to reshape the paradigm around sex, sexuality, HIV and stigma in our communities, one conversation at a time.