Today that wonderful paragon on anti-conservative content the New Zealand Herald (you can tell from my sarcasm that I am often no fan of their journalism) ran the story blow about a mother who impersonated a sexual health practitioner in order to slur the reputation of a competitor of her daughter’s. Quite an outrageous thing to do, you might think, and certainly news-worthy in its extremism.
Two things came to mind when reading the article – the wide-ranging nature of the sexual double standard to which women are vulnerable, and unfortunately contribute, and the gendered nature of STIs.
Within my thesis I discussed briefly the power of STIs over women, both in terms of contraction, and also as a danger to reputations. When we talk about sexual health the risk-based dialogue we hear frames STIs as though they are the worst thing that can ever happen to a woman. Going to the doctor for something you contracted under any circumstance comes with the dread of a possibly judgemental health practitioner, a pharmacist, and then partners, friends and family members. An STI for a woman comes with a lot of baggage – getting one means you were slutty, promiscuous, slept around, are a dog, a skank, slept with some dirty guy, didn’t use protection, were irresponsible about your health, were unnecessarily risky and engaged in dangerous sexual behaviours and practices … the list goes on.
These judgements are wonderfully gendered too. Researcher Adina Nack noted that a man with an STI is just a man with an STI, whilst a woman with an STI is all manner of things, none of them nice, and none of them neutral. Add to that that a man with an STI is one who slept with a skanky woman, whilst a woman who has an STI is that skanky woman. That’s some double standard.
Risk dialogue about women’s health outcomes when contracting STIs is also often framed as though its a life and death, life-determining event. How often do we hear that if you have contracted something that it can be cured, managed, or lived with without necessarily diminishing your health and/or sex life? Yes, there are some pretty terrible STIs and some terrible outcomes, but worst case scenarios appear to be the predominant message for women, and the serious nature of that messaging appears again to be gender-skewed. And generally this category of diseases and infections is unique in our public opinion – we don’t harangue someone with lung cancer the way we harangue women for catching Chlamydia. STIs hold a special place in our social commentary, especially for women.
Taken together, the risk-dialogue around STIs for women can be quite disciplining. What I mean here is that the threat of catching one, or being known to have one, or being in situations where one could be contracted, contributes towards the sexual behaviour of some young women by acting as a significant deterrent. During my research many young women mentioned the threat of STI contraction and its related reputational damage as significant reason for their controlled sexual behaviour. Some noted that if these aspects were not so scary they would likely have more non-relationship sexual interactions, and/or would enjoy the interactions they had, more.
This dialogue about STIs is deeply ingrained in our society, and has incredible power to affect women – something the mother in the above story was obviously aware of. That we feel it is permissible to use this shaming tactic as a way to diminish women (and not men) speaks to the pervasiveness of its underlying idea – that sexually active women are dirty and not to be respected. The ridiculousness of this fundamental idea is obvious to many, but it does not stop women shaming women. Although many of my participants noted that judgement was a factor that dampened their sex lives, some also judged other women for their behaviour by labelling them skanks, sluts, bitches, and so on. Unfortunately, by doing so, by categorising women as dirty by our language, we legitimise the degradation of ourselves by others, and the use of these kinds of tactics against us and other women. We support the double standard we dislike so much.
At its most basic, no one should be shamed for their sexual behaviour. Nor should they be shamed for an unfortunate outcome like an STI. The very nature of these infections dictates that they can be contracted even under the safest conditions. That does’t mean that we ought to be more paranoid about our behaviour per se, but rather that our attitudes to them ought to be less harsh with respect to judging ourselves and others.