What Will It Take to Finally End STI Stigma

Even in a sexually liberated generation, people are hell-bent on upholding their disgust.
sti stigma
A fun illustration of a syphilis pathogen.

Credit: Istock

Ketamine Hag Summer is around the corner for New Zealand. Sweaty bodies grinding up on each other; lips locking on the grassy dance floor; fumbling around in a tent with someone you met 25 minutes ago. These are the well-known scenes of every classic gin-and-spliff fuelled summer festival. This is not the season for couch burning, this is the season for love. Well… something like love. 


In the heat of the moment, sexual safety – and all of the in-school courses and dodgy teacher presentations it reminds us of – is not front of mind.  

This has led many of us to experience the concerning itch of condomless paranoia. But the big issue isn’t the remarkably treatable itch itself: it’s the shame of being plagued with an STI. 

Speaking about an unfortunate encounter she had with an on-the-sly hook-up recently, Amy* told VICE about the day she woke up to an Instagram message she received: “So I’m pretty sure you gave me chlamydia”. 

After a couple of days of mildly aggressive back and forth, thumbs frantically firing accusations at one another, both parties received negative STI results. Turns out he had a small cut on his penis which was the source of his “chlamydia” symptoms. Safe to say they didn’t speak again.

But positive or negative, an STI test result doesn’t need to be Earth-shattering news. The stigma surrounding STIs that has been instilled in our minds is outdated and, quite frankly,  ridiculous. It reaches everywhere, from physical exclusion to online. 

From a young age, the mere existence of sexually transmitted infections can be communicated like the black plague: something to be feared and avoided at all costs. From our parents to our health teachers, the message is well received - STIs are bad. Having one is scandalous. 

Maybe it's the false idea that STIs are a result of promiscuity and that’s why there’s a cloud of shame surrounding it (myth). Maybe it’s because they’re seen as an indicator of bad hygiene (myth). From graphic images of genital warts in our sex-ed books, to tween tales like blue waffle, we have been programmed to believe that STIs are incomparably revolting. People maintain an idea that having an STI makes you “dirty” and that contracting one is something to be deeply ashamed of. 


And sure, for many of us it’s not that deep anymore. We crack-up when we find out our messiest friend has gonorrhea again – but we make sure they know that no one is actually grossed out. We take hungover group trips to the clinic before heading out to brunch. We message our group chat declaring that we’re burning below and asking for everyone else’s experienced advice in soothing it. 

But, even in a sexually liberated generation, some people are hell-bent on upholding an awkwardness and disgust around STIs. Not everyone feels able to laugh at themselves – let alone others – about a sexual health slip-up. 

Chief Executive at the Burnett Foundation Aotearoa, Joe Rich, told VICE that the stigma “prevents people from getting tested and accessing treatment”, which only helps continue the transmission of STIs.

Rich emphasised that there is a “lack of standardisation of the Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) curriculum across different schools”.  Sex education in Aotearoa has its issues across the board, but STI education seems particularly impacted by our cultural prudishness. 

Director of Health Promotion at Family Planning, Fiona McNamara, told VICE “STI education is taught as part of RSE in Aotearoa” but the education ends after Year 10.  

“RSE education should be extended into years 11-13,” said McNamara, “when rangatahi are most likely to need education about safer sex.”


A government health report in 2014/15 found that the average age of first heterosexual sex experience in Aotearoa is 17 years old.  So why are we stopping sexual health education at Year 10, before most people have even lost their virginity?  

LGBTQIA+ youths are disproportionately affected by STI stigmas, “often dealing with intersecting issues of homophobia and transphobia as well” said Rich. According to McNamara, this kind of underlying bigotry in the classroom prevents “equitable access to quality education about relationships and sexuality.”

So what can be done to get everyone on the same page – so that we can end the paranoia around being a sexual pariah? 

”For all young people, but especially our LGBTQIA+ youths, the conversation around sex and sexual health needs to change,” said Rich.

“We need to remove the taboos around sex that still exist and instead see it as an enjoyable and important part of life” 

To break the vicious cycle of STI stigmas and getting tested we need to normalise the conversations around it. Hammer the idea home that getting an STI is nothing to be ashamed of. Set a standard of honesty that allows others to feel unburdened by the social stigma.  


While there will be plenty of people who cling needlessly to their pride around never having had an STI, they’re much more common than we all think. If you have sex, it’s on the bingo card. 

In 2022, there were 25,039 reported cases of Chlamydia and 6,972 cases of Gonorrhea in Aotearoa.  These stats are based on the cases that were actually reported, and those numbers are probably even higher with the lack of testing amongst young people.

Squeezing in doctors visits and health clinic appointments can feel like a chore, but STI testing is as quick and easy as it’s ever been. Family Planning has great sexual health services around the country, offering free STI tests for people under 22. The Burnett Foundation website also has a great tool to help find a nearby STI testing location, as well as at-home testing kits. And yes, a GP visit ain’t cheap, but it’s available, and it could prevent an infection from causing you bigger problems if left untreated.    

Home testing kits – also on the pricier side – are great if you’re anxious about heading into a clinic.  Easy-to-follow instructions and prepaid envelopes to send off your samples make it a confidential, convenient and reliable way to test.

If you’re sleeping with more than one trusted sexual partner, get tested and don’t be weird about it. Take your friends, don’t be shy, and kiss your past stigmas goodbye. 

And if you’re drafting a you-gave-me-chlamydia message to a past fling – take a breather, mate. It’s much easier not to be an asshole about it, when you’ve accepted that it’s no biggie to begin with. 

Natalie Sheers is a freelance writer based in Auckland, Aotearoa.