How do I address embarrassment, shame, and stigma?
Sometimes people who find out something about themselves, or just worry about something that might be different about them, and are too worried to talk to anyone about it. They are afraid of being blamed, looked down on, rejected, ostracized…stigmatized!
Embarrassment & Shame
There are really two things at play here: The first is embarrassment or shame. People often feel embarrassed or ashamed about sexual health related things because they think that engaging in sex means they have done something wrong, or having an infection makes them bad or dirty, or having a non heterosexual sexual identity makes them strange or even immoral.
The second thing is called stigma. Stigma is social disapproval. This means that other people think that something you’ve done is wrong or bad. It is similar to embarrassment and shame but it is the perception that other people will think bad things about you.
They get in the way
Together, embarrassment, shame, and stigma can keep people from doing important things to protect and fix your health, like talk about concerns or go to a doctor. They can keep young people from being happy and healthy, sexually or otherwise. That’s just not good.
The TRUTH is that young people have nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed about and that people shouldn’t look down on them. If we want to help them, we have to talk to them in open, non-judgmental ways, otherwise, shame, stigma, and eventually possibly anger, resentment, or depression can get in the way.
STIs are fairly common and all types of people get them. A person can get an STI the first time they engage in sexual activity. Anyone who is sexually active, whether it’s their first time or 20th can get one. STIs are an equal opportunity infector.
In fact: It is very common for someone to have an STI and not even know it, because they often have no symptoms. And even though they don’t know they are infected, the infection can cause long-term complications and, of course, the infected person can still infect his or her sexual partners.
In fact, it is likely that you already know someone who has, or has had, an STI…although since most people don’t go around bragging about getting an STI, it may seem like no one else has ever gotten one.
Sexual identity is fluid. Although the majority identify as heterosexual, a healthy minority identify with different or even mixed sexual identities and to stigmatize people based on who they are, or who they are perceived to be, is wrong and hinders their development into healthier, happier adults.
You also likely know people with different sexual identities just as you know people with different genders, different races, and different religions.
Beginning in early childhood children are learning about expectations their family and others have based on their male or female(ness). Gender identity begins to emerge at very early ages. As young people move through adolescence, sexual development moves to the forefront of their lives in every way. The many influences on this process include their family, friends, ethnicity, media, religion, and cultural norms as well as their own attitudes and feeling about themselves.
Doubly so for young people
Being different, or having a problem that makes them feel different, can be very very hard to handle, even for mature adults. Its doubly so for young people struggling to fit into their often highly challenging social milieu. Struggling with issues is nothing for them to be embarrassed about…
BUT hiding issues, whether an STI, a pregnancy, a relationship concern, or a concern about one’s sexual identity, well, that IS something to be embarrassed about… because the situation causing stress will likely only get worse….psychologically, physically, emotionally….
And because the situation can be dangerous, young people need access to information and caring adults.
So we try to do no harm: Being open and non-judgmental
So, stigma is social disapproval based on perceived differences. Stigma can heighten embarrassment, the self-perception that something about me isn’t quite right and doesn’t fit the accepted norm. Both get in the way of self and social acceptance and we need to recognize them, help mitigate them, and certainly not exacerbate them.
How? By being vigilant for situations where other people are stigmatizing someone through words or actions, and diffusing those situations, and by being open and non-judgmental when talking to your people about their issues. You may have a very strong personal opinion about something someone does, is, or says, but if you express that opinion and are not open, do you think the young person will be more or less embarrassed or stigmatized? Will they be open to you?