Shattering the stigma
Student shares her experience contracting, coping with STI
MSU student Jane Hombach, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, discusses contracting HPV and the stigmas having an STI brings.
On a warm summer night in early August, Jane Hombach — an MSU senior who requested to use an alias to protect her identity — sat on her friend’s bed wearing shorts and a T-shirt. It was what she described as a very “typical summer night.”
But slowly, their conversation topics started to get a little bit more risqué — something not so common for the student.
The pair threw around questions such as, “Who would you sleep with?” One thing led to another, and eventually it happened.
It was a casual, unprotected sexual encounter Hombach had with a guy she had known for a couple of months. The evening was a rare occasion with an exciting “one night stand” type of feel, in which the thought of any potential health consequences was one of the last things on her mind.
Let’s just do it, she thought.
Now, Hombach said she sees how irresponsible this was — as she and her partner did not use a condom.
In hindsight, she said it was very bad decision not worth the sex.
After one lapse in judgement, she now is living with an STI and all the baggage that comes
After finding out the guy she slept with had been with about 20 partners before her, Hombach decided it was time to go to the doctor and get tested for STIs.
Hombach said she is lucky the Human Papillomavirus, or HPV, was all she contracted from him.
“I knew what HPV was, but I got the Gardasil shot when I was 16, and so I (thought) that protected me from HPV,” Hombach said. “(And I) guess I associated STIs and STDs with people who slept with a lot of people, (and) I haven’t slept with a lot of people at all, and so I never even thought that I could get anything … so it’s just kind of shocking.”
Hombach said this was the first time she ever had sex without using a condom and has never before taken the topic of sex so lightheartedly.
But Hombach is not alone.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HPV is one of the most common STIs among sexually active people. If left untreated, the infection can lead to cervical cancer in women, but it often goes unnoticed in men. Of the estimated 19 million or so STIs reported each year, more than half are found in young people.
Hombach has since acknowledged and said she regrets her actions and, with several MSU faculty members and health officials, feels as if there is a stigma of promiscuity and uncleanliness that runs with people who are infected — something they assure her is not true.
According to health professionals and MSU sex and gender professors, the stigma toward STIs often runs on false speculations.
Anyone who is sexually active can contract an STI, whether it be through anal, oral or vaginal sex. Someone can get an STI when a person’s mucous membrane comes into contact with the bodily fluids of another who is infected, or vice versa, or their genitals are touching skin to skin, said Gail Widener, a women’s health nurse practitioner at Planned Parenthood Mid and South Michigan, in the Lansing Health Center, 300 N. Clippert St., in Lansing.
Unfortunately, this interaction only will have to happen once for a person to get infected with an STI, which is contradictory to an assumption that people have to have had more than one partner to get infected, Widener said.
“You’re still at risk, even if you have sex with someone for the first time, if that person has an (STI), there’s still a chance of you coming in contact with it,” Widener said. “People (can) think it takes several times, and I would say that is probably not true.”
Hombach said she had the thought a lot of other college-aged students have when it comes to having sex; she thought it would never happen to her because she is not promiscuous.
“You associate (STIs) with people who are sluts, with people who sleep around, and I never even thought of myself as that at all,” Hombach said. “I’m very timid and cautious when it comes to relationships like that, and so, I never even thought about (myself) being able to get anything like (an STI).”
The way to resolve this stigma is to have an open dialogue about sex, professors said.
It is just one request: Can we use a condom?
It’s an insistence that can make a big difference, but a question men and women tend to shy away from, in order not to disrupt the “mood,” professors said.
This was exactly what happened in Hombach’s situation; she said she would much rather prefer to face an awkward situation about a condom, then, than face one about an STI, now.
“It’s a pain in the ass to stop the whole moment and be like, ‘We need to do this,’” Hombach said. “(But) it’s really not even a decision that you have to think about — it’s the awkward moment for sure. I would definitely take that over having an STI.”
Assistant professor Stephanie Nawyn, who teaches a course called the Sociology of Sex and Gender, said the people who are ashamed of STIs are often those who are ashamed of sex in general.
Nawyn said although sex is commercialized and mainstream in media, the talk about sex in society is not as accepted — especially when it comes to talking about the risks.
In the eyes of American society, Nawyn said sex is supposed to be spontaneous, fun and exciting, which makes planning, using protection and stopping to put on a condom a hassle.
And this fear of “ruining the mood” has led to higher rates of unplanned pregnancy and STIs in the U.S. than other countries, Nawyn said.
Nawyn said in other countries, sex is something people plan and talk about much more. Individuals will plan who they are going to have relations with and communicate much more explicitly their desires about how to protect themselves.
“In the Netherlands, for example, if teenagers are in a relationship and when they want to have sex, they talk to their parents,” Nawyn said. “It’s not something in the backseat of a car or in someone’s basement, and Americans think (planning) ruins the mood and excitement of sex.”
Theatre senior Eric Eilersen said talking about sex is something MSU students need to be more proactive about, noting STIs do exist at MSU and students need to educate themselves on sexual health, in terms of protection, prevention and treatment.
Eilersen is the director of the In Your Face Theatre Troupe, a sexual education skit program performed by students run by Olin Health Center. The group’s goal is to give students tools to be knowledgeable about safe sex, whether or not they are currently active.
“We bite the bullet for you,” he said.
The troupe puts on entertaining skits for audiences at numerous venues, including at residence halls, and has the conversations students don’t usually feel comfortable talking about, including sexual topics such as STIs, STI testing and condoms.
“(We are) kind of taking away the fear (of) how to put on a condom (and) information about condoms in general,” he said, as an example of topics the group addresses.
Eilersen said this is an effective method, and although a student might not want to show it to their friends, he can tell some are happy to have been enlightened.
Although many students at MSU do use condoms when having sex, according to the 2012 Spring MSU Student Health Assessment, Nawyn said some of the failure to have safe sex in college-aged individuals can be attributed to the consumption of alcohol.
This was the case in Hombach’s situation.
“(At) universities in general, (people) are having sex when they’re intoxicated, and when they are intoxicated, they are less likely to use protection,” Nawyn said.
Hombach said although she was not “blackout” drunk, alcohol was a factor that evening, and looking back, she desperately wished things would have gone differently.
Life goes on
The entire situation was “a big wake-up call,” Hombach said — a wake-up call she now has answered to and hopes others can educate themselves about as well.
When receiving the news about having an STI, Hombach said she was completely shocked and speechless at the time.
“(I) asked (the woman from the physician’s office) what it meant for me and what I had to get done, and she told me about the pap smear and cervical cancer (screenings),” Hombach said “I was in such shock, (and) that was the only question I asked, and I said, “Have a nice day,” and I went back into my apartment and I bawled my eyes out with my roommate.”
Hombach said she now has to go to the doctor’s and continue to get pap smears and cervical cancer screenings, but she is lucky she has had no physical symptoms, such as genital warts, from her HPV. She is continuing her life normally, still looking for an intimate, sexual relationship with someone.
Couple and family therapist Sheena Horsford, an instructor of the human sexuality course offered through the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, said people with STIs still can want to be sexually active and can have sex without spreading it to their partners.
“(Having an STI) doesn’t mean you still can’t enjoy a sexual relationship with your partner,” Horsford said. “There’s that stigma of ‘Oh, if this person has and (STI),’ (or) ‘Oh, they don’t want to have sex or nobody wants to have sex with them,’ (but) they still desire it and they still want a partner just like anyone who doesn’t have it.”
Horsford said those infected should be open with their partner and use condoms in any type of sex — anal, oral or vaginal.
At times, Hombach feels as if the stigmas continue to hover around her.
Hombach said now, when trying to date at MSU, she’s experiencing backlash.
After telling a boy she had been seeing and slept with about her infection, he wanted nothing to do with her.
Despite feeling hurt, she said by no means does having an STI define her or change her morals when it comes to sex.
“I’m still the same person,” she said. “I still have the same morals. I had a lapse in judgement, but I still have the same morals about everything, and (it’s not) like it completely changed me.”