When Carmex, the popular lip balm brand, was first advertised in the ‘30s, it was a cold sore treatment. Oral herpes (HSV-1) was so common, you probably got it from your Aunt Meryl or your big brother nearly immediately; if you were birthed vaginally, you might have contracted genital herpes as well. Like UTIs and yeast infections, cold sores were treated as minor biological inconveniences — something that might start happening as your body and behavior matured.
What happened? Now, “she has herpes” is the scare-trope of every high school romcom, and my older sister tells me to keep her UTI a secret from mom because you “get them from sex.” I kept my first (and second, and third) yeast infection a secret, treating them at home and working around insurance. Shame has infiltrated American attitudes toward common STIs and reproductive health issues, and it’s hurting our bodies.
Big Pharma happened. Shame sells, and when you’re in the business of expensive medications and treatments, shame and fear are your go-to tactics. With brands like Carmex available cheap and in the skincare section, no one would go to the doctor and shell out a $50 co-pay for an iffy test and medication that doesn’t cure. So, herpes was hyper-medicalized; yeast and bacterial infections were hyper-medicalized; chlamydia and gonorrhea (both usually curable by single-dose medication), various forms of vaginitis and UTIs were all lumped in, too. All were given exaggerated scare-lines: a UTI will give you a kidney infection, chlamydia and gonorrhea are gross and unclean, yeast infections happen when you’re dirty, vaginitis means something is wrong with you. While canker sores, spider veins and eczema are treated over the counter, anything to do with sex or kissing (mono included) is discussed behind locked doors.
UTIs and yeast infections are common bodily reactions to sweat, moisture and bacteria exposure; herpes is a non-life-threatening virus that is invisible or simply a nuisance at most; chlamydia and gonorrhea are normal, treatable and often symptom-less (so get tested). The biggest danger is when these things are ignored; that’s when UTIs become kidney infections and gonorrhea gets passed to a partner. When normal bodily issues are deemed taboo, people get hurt. It’s time we realize that reproductive health is a public health issue, not a moral epidemic, and start learning more about the maintenance of our own bodies.
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