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What does it mean for a disease or a condition to be "socially stigmatized?"

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Updated February 04, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What does it mean for a disease or a condition to be "socially stigmatized?"
Answer: Many STDs are said to be socially stigmatized. In other words, people are judged or condemned for being infected with them. Although other types of disease may also carry some level of social stigma, it is particularly an issue for STDs, because people are often so incredibly judgmental about sex. When someone is diagnosed with an STD and lets people know about it, they may find that people think of them as dirty or slutty, but this type of judgment is not only irrational, it's actually extremely counterproductive. Why?
  1. STDs are just infections. They have no inherent moral or immoral component. They infect people regardless of race, gender, religion or sexual orientation.
  2. Since most STDs are asymptomatic, the only way to know if you have one is to be tested regularly. The profound degree of social stigma associated with a positive diagnosis, though, makes many people decide they'd rather not know their status: people often spend years spreading diseases before they experience any personal consequences, thinking that if they don't know, then they don't have to lie about it or risk rejection.
  3. It only takes one sexual partner to end up with an STD. Having an STD says nothing about your sexual history except that you, probably, didn't reliably practice safer sex.

Note: Two STDs that are associated with particularly high levels of social stigma are HIV and herpes.

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