Feeld guide: How to use precise words for taboo topics
May 18th, 2023
When it comes to sexual health and safety, many words carry too much stigma. Sarah Casper details how to speak with equal parts accuracy and compassion.
Discussing sexual health and safety can be a challenge. Between the general lack of comprehensive sex education in the United States, and the taboos created by purity culture, many of us don’t even know what we don’t know. Like many members on Feeld, I’ve used terms like “clean” and “STD-free” to describe my sexual health status. It wasn’t until I was 24 years old that I learned how impractical, imprecise, and even harmful, these phrases can be.
Am I dirty?
In November 2016, five weeks after receiving oral sex from a play partner, I noticed a slight burning sensation on my vulva every time I peed. I went to my doctor and two days later I was diagnosed with a genital outbreak of HSV-1 (herpes simplex virus type 1), the cold-sore virus.
I cried a lot that week. The physical pain wasn’t a big deal. I only felt the blisters when I went to the bathroom. My distress was emotional. What did this diagnosis mean about me? What did it mean for my sex life? I was familiar with using the term “clean” to describe a person with negative STI results. So I figured, “I’m…dirty?”
What do we mean when we say “clean”?
It took me two years to get to a place where I could emotionally tolerate my HSV status and disclosure conversations. My thoughts finally began to shift from: “I’m dirty and too diseased for sex” to: “my body picked up a virus, because that’s what bodies do, and there are precautions that I can take to limit the chances of outbreak and transmission.”
This is when the irony hit. One of the most effective ways to limit the spread of my infection is to talk openly with partners about my status. Yet the fear of being perceived as “dirty” was exactly what diminished my capacity to do so in an open, honest, and shame-free way. The term “clean” isn’t just vague, it’s stigmatizing and discourages important sexual safety conversations.
When connecting with folks on Feeld I’m often surprised by the number of profiles that read “clean” or “STD-free.” It’s a community full of people so precise in their language for desires and wants, so why do we get so imprecise in describing our sexual health status?
In reality, though, I get it. Discussing sexual health and safety isn’t always easy. You might even be confused why I said it’s “imprecise” for someone who doesn’t have a sexually transmitted infection or disease (STI or STD) to share that they’re “clean” or “STD-free.”
What about “STD-free”?
I’m not the first to point out the relationship between “cleanliness” and shame. Many people, especially in the sex-positive world, recognize the harm of this language and have shifted to more neutral phrasing, like “I’m STD-free.” While this assertion is less stigmatizing, it’s no more accurate in describing one’s sexual health reality.
That leads to an important note on language: While STIs and STDs are technically different, for the purpose of this Feeld Guide their difference isn’t relevant. I will be using the term “STI'' throughout the article, as that is often more accurate. When I use the term “STD,” it’s because I’m referring to the terminology I frequently see used in mainstream culture.
Why it’s worth reconsidering your claim of “STD-free”
1. Most of us have an STI.
If you’ve ever had a cold sore, you have an STI. The WHO estimates that 67% of the global population has HSV-1, also known as oral herpes. Many people carry HSV without ever experiencing symptoms. You might have herpes and not know it. (And according to the CDC, you don't need to know it.)
The number of people who have HPV (Human Papillomavirus) is impressive, too. More than 90 percent of sexually active men and 80 percent of sexually active women will be infected with HPV in their lifetime. An average STI screening doesn’t test for this virus, and as a 30-year-old with a cervix, it’s only recommended that I get screened every 3-5 years. So much for “STD-free.” If you’re sexually active, there’s a really good chance you actually do carry an STI.
2. An STI test doesn’t always tell the whole story.
Depending on when you were last tested, what they tested for, and what sexy things you’ve been up to since then, your “STD-free” status might be an illusion. Each STI has its own testing window. Some STIs will show up on a test just five days after exposure while some won’t show up for months. If you’ve had sex within a couple of weeks of being tested, your negative test result could be a false negative.
3. Why does being STI-free matter?
Hi, my name is Sarah and your STI status is not a dealbreaker. Modern medicine, innovative barrier methods, and an entire industry of sex toys have made it so that your STI is something for me to know, not something for me to avoid. If we can imagine a world where STIs can be talked about with neutrality and care, we can create that world.
If you're being treated for chlamydia, you'll be good to go in 7 days. In terms of transmission, your infection will be fully irrelevant to my safety in a week. When learning this information, I might say something like, “Let's hang out next Saturday!.. Oh, you want to mutually masturbate this weekend? Even better!
If you have herpes like me, I’ll probably want to give you a high-five! I can’t catch what I already have. If you don’t have HSV, I’ll tell you about the daily suppressant I take that significantly reduces the rate of outbreak and transmission. If you don’t have health insurance and the HSV risk from penetration feels too high for your comfort level, I get that. I might ask, “How do you feel about wearing a strap-on? Yes? Great!” (True story.) And if that still doesn’t work for you, that’s ok, too.
If you have HIV, that’s no problem for me. Tell me about your detectability and I’ll get on the phone with my doctor to learn more about PReP. In the meantime, I love that you want to grab a dental dam and go down on me.
I actually feel safer about having sex with someone when I know what infections they have because it speaks to their testing regimen and ability to have these often difficult and nuanced conversations. Sometimes it even leads to spicier and more innovative sex.
So what should I do?
You’re better at having these conversations than you think. In the last three years, we’ve all inadvertently built skills for discussing STIs with more confidence and ease. As the COVID-19 pandemic progressed, we developed a shared language for discussing COVID-specific health and safety. Rather than relying on binary phrases like, “I do/don’t have COVID,” we learned to be nuanced in sharing information about risks and precautions: When were you last tested? Do you have any reason to believe you’ve recently been exposed? Have you been masking in public? How many times have you been vaccinated? Are you experiencing any symptoms?
Reflecting on how we use detailed information to protect against COVID-19 provides meaningful insight into how we can discuss STIs and STDs with more accuracy and less stigma, too.
Let’s get practical
Even if you’re not rushing to delete “STD-free,” from your profile, I hope you’re seeing the limitations of common language used to discuss STIs. If you are rushing to open Feeld, yay! Either way, here are some suggestions for talking about your STI status on Feeld in a way that’s safer, kinder, and more accurate:
Option #1: Share what your values are and how you uphold them.
This can look like, "I take safer sex seriously. For me that means…" You can describe what barrier methods you use and when, how often you get tested, and even what safety actions you’d ideally like your partner to take.
Option #2: Be precise.
This can look like, “I was last tested on DD/MM/YY and everything I was tested for came back negative.” Once it becomes relevant, share whether you’ve engaged in partnered sexual activity since and what precautions you took. Within these conversations, be specific about what tests were performed. Typical STI panels don’t test for every STI. If you’re not showing symptoms, what you get tested for depends on your sex, your HIV status, your pregnancy status, and your sexual history.
Option #3: Remove the topic from your profile altogether.
This one is a consideration for people who, as far as they know, don’t carry an STI. If you’re like me and have an STI like HSV or HIV, your choice to disclose your status on your profile is entirely yours to make. It’s cool to see people share their statuses in a shame-free way, but also know that a positive test result is private health information that no one on the internet is entitled to.
For those of you who want to share about STI prevention and health in your profiles (beyond sharing a positive status), it’s worth considering why you’re making this choice. For some, STI conversations need to be at the forefront because exposure presents a heightened risk. If you don’t have access to affordable healthcare, you’re immunocompromised, doctors and healthcare centers are unsafe for you, you live in a marginalized body and already experience too much stress from prejudice and oppression, you’re pregnant or trying to get pregnant, and/or you have debilitating health anxiety, there’s good reason for taking extra precautions.
For some, bringing up STIs in your profile in a shame-free and nuanced way is an intentional way of normalizing the conversation. I see you and you’re awesome. For others, still, stigma might be the main driver of your choice to share your available sexual health status and needs. I understand this. If I still thought that having an STI made me “dirty” or lesser, of course, I’d jump to share my negative results. Especially on an app that uplifts kinky, queer, and non-monogamous humans (who are already associated with dirtiness and immorality) the impulse to distinguish oneself as “clean” and one of the “good” ones can hit even harder. But we don’t need to act from stigma—doing so only perpetuates what we want to get rid of. Stigma doesn’t disappear in an instant. It’s through small choices informed by knowledge and care that make the world a safer place.
However you move forward from here, I urge you to have safer sex conversations with all partners before engaging in sexual activity. Happy Feelding!
Please note: This article should not be treated as medical advice on any subject matter whatsoever.