An unspoken taboo – We need to talk about our shame of STIs

By Chris Williams, updated 5 days ago in Health / Mental wellbeing

Man with beard in restaurant looking pensive

Shame is the intensely painful feeling of being unworthy of love and belonging. We either deny we are feeling it, or refuse to open up and discuss it. The less we talk about it, the more we have it, and the more it makes us feel like we’re a bad person. Our shame of STIs is lethal and it thrives on three things, but there’s something that can eliminate it.

Sexually transmitted infections are not typically thought of as being in the same category as infections like the flu, or a tummy bug. No, these infections are specifically singled out as ones transmitted through the simple act of sex. So why is it that catching a cold is met with empathy, or at least sympathy, yet something we get from intimate human connection can result in blame, judgment, or the crippling emotion we call shame?

Shame seems to be a cultural epidemic among many people who have sex. And let’s face it, as men who have sex with other men, a decent portion of us are having above average amounts of sex as well as sexual partners. Consequently, our chance of exposure to STIs can be a little higher than most. Yet when it comes to our shame of them, we haven’t quite figured it all out yet.

Now I’m not suggesting we all experience shame to the same degree or even at all. However, for those of us who do, shame is a painful social emotion. If you’ve ever felt shame or watched someone else experience it, perhaps you’ve noticed a change in posture, a lowering of the head, a down-turning of the eyes, or uncontrollable blushing. These are some of the culturally ubiquitous, tell-tale physical responses to shame. In fact, the minority of people who are immune to shame are clinically defined as sociopaths. To have the capacity for shame is entirely human, just like our desires for connection and intimacy.

The shame expert

Shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown has made a career studying what she describes as “the most human, primitive emotion that we experience.” According to her definition, shame is “the intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging”. Her hugely popular TED Talk on vulnerability has continued going viral online since 2010 with over 28 million views, and with good reason – as an engaging public speaker with more than 15 years of research under her belt, as well as authoring three #1 New York Times Bestsellers, Dr. Brown knows her stuff. And more importantly, she’s able to impart some of her most significant findings articulately, jovially and with graceful compassion.

In this chat with Oprah Winfrey for the Super Soul Sunday show, Dr. Brown gives us an insight into what shame is, how it works, what it needs to thrive, and how to find the antidote to it.

Dr. Brené Brown – “Shame is lethal”

In her follow up TED Talk about shame, Dr. Brown also mentions something crucial to our understanding of it – shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt relates to our behaviour: I did something bad. Shame relates to us as we define ourselves: I am bad. Shame is something we experience at the level of self identity, and talking about it can leave us feeling vulnerable. As Dr. Brown highlights “…here’s the bottom line with shame: The less you talk about it, the more you got it.” What’s concerning about this is that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression and bullying in society: “shame is lethal”.

So what’s with STIs that leads us to being ashamed? Is it because these particular infections and bacteria are (mostly) acquired through sex? If so, are we more ashamed of having an infection, or more ashamed of how we got it? To be ashamed of our bodies being invaded by one type of opportunistic bacteria and not another seems absurd to me.

My social peers and I seem unaffected by guilt or shame over regular bacterial infections that cause us coughs, sneezes, stomach upsets, and far worse. This leads me to suspect that any shame originates from the way in which we contracted an STI. To be ashamed of having an STI is to be ashamed of the sex we have, and to be ashamed of our sex is to be ashamed of our own identity.

Nurturing shame

“Shame needs three things to grow exponentially in our lives: secrecy, silence and judgment” says Dr. Brown. I wonder if these three key ingredients resonate with anyone who’s been informed about a possible STI exposure. The secrecy of not wanting to disclose to others; the silence from not being comfortable talking about it, or knowing who to talk to; the self judgment of what it means to have acquired one, or the perceived judgment of how others will surely reject us.

For several decades, protective devices like condoms have done a great job of reducing the chance of acquiring an STI. Though they’re not infallible. Condoms don’t always fully cover infected areas, rubbers aren’t often used for oral sex or rimming, and they don’t offer any protection when they’re left in your pocket instead of being worn. Excitingly, following the continuing success of PrEP for protecting against HIV, a new study shows that using medication could significantly reduce the chance of acquiring some STIs. However, there’s still a way to go with further investigation into benefits, and it might be a while before anything of this nature is widely recommended for use in Australia.

One important thing to know is common STIs are easily detected and straight-forward to cure. For anyone who’s experienced symptomless ones, the most challenging aspect might be notifying sexual partners. If secrecy, silence and judgment fuel shame, what is the antidote? Perhaps the first step is to recognise our isolating experiences of STI shame are universal; we share a common experience that connects us, providing an opportunity to cultivate a solution.

The antidote to shame

Dr. Brown suggests that shame depends on someone buying in to the belief they’re alone. Shame is diminished by being spoken about, and shame cannot survive empathy. Fuelled by courage, compassion and connection, empathy is the most powerful antidote we have. Being non-judgmental, having the capacity to understand someone else’s feelings and communicate that understanding back are defining attributes of empathy.

The first time I braved notifying several sexual partners about an STI I’d been diagnosed with, my expectations of the responses I would receive were severely off the mark. Instead of being met with judgment, hostility or blame, every single person thanked me for informing them. And it occurred to me that my partners were treating me the same way that I was already choosing to treat others – with gratitude, compassion and empathy. My shame was coming from a belief that I was not worthy of their empathy and would be rejected. By simply thanking me for caring enough about their wellbeing to inform them, my shame was resolved and I felt even more connected to the people I was enjoying intimacy with.

Break the secrecy, silence and judgment

While I wholeheartedly recommend breaking secrecy and silence around STIs, I also recognise the barriers that shame can create. If you don’t yet feel comfortable disclosing a new STI diagnosis to a sexual partner, a free, anonymous notification service is available to let someone know via SMS or email at The Drama Downunder website

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to being told, I’d prefer to know than not know regardless of how I’m informed. At least I’m empowered to choose to do something that avoids jeopardising my own health, and protects the people I enjoy having sex with too. And I’m always grateful for being informed – it’s my hope that others respond the same way when I inform them. If we are afraid of being vulnerable, we cannot expect to receive empathy. When someone demonstrates enough caring and courage to inform you about an STI, responding with compassion, gratitude and understanding is perhaps the best way to dissolve any shame and build even more trusting connections with people that care enough about your wellbeing to let you know.