What’s this stigma thing?
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.
Fact: STIs are fairly common.
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.
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 very 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.
Fact: Sexual identity is an important part of our self-identity.
A lot of our sexual identity is built from the partners we are attracted to, and who are attracted to us. It seems beyond question that people are happiest and healthiest when they are able to form relationships (including sexual relationships) with the people they are attracted to. Stigma contributes to unhealthy behaviors by causing people to hide their true selves from others.
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. Because sexual identity is so complex, many young people go through several years of questioning as they try to best understand who they are.
In fact, it is very likely you, and the youth you serve, know people with different sexual identities just as you know people with different genders, different races, and different religions.
Fact: People have relationships and engage in sexual activity.
Sometimes it can be hard to talk about these things, but remember:
Sexuality is a part of being human, even if we aren’t always comfortable talking about it. Stigma, shame, and embarrassment are the main reason why…
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. It’s 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…
…because 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 recognizing that diversity is a normal part of life. By remembering that stigmatizing others because of who they are is fundamentally unfair. By remembering that each person has their own special story. By listening for words that cause shame. By commitment to seeing those who feel left out because of who they are. These are all skills that can be practiced. Most importantly, these are skills that work with all young people, not just those thought to be gay, trans, bi, or lesbian.
Remember your open-ended approach to discussion (LINK) and be vigilant for situations where other people are stigmatizing someone, whether through words or actions or both (LINK). Seek to diffuse and address those situations and rememeber that although 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?