According to the Centers for Disease Control, there are more than 19 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the United States every year. And yet, despite this staggering statistic, the prevailing attitude on campus seems blissfully, if not treacherously, ignorant to the idea that Williams might be part of the real world, that people on this campus might have STDs. While the issue of sexually transmitted diseases is problematic in and of itself, what with how it effects the health and well being of the students within this community, the inability to fathom the possibility of STDs here at Williams is indicative of a larger problem: a sexual culture that is swathed, quietly and cripplingly, in shame, intolerance and negativity. This week, the Women’s Center is celebrating our annual Sex Week, a time dedicated to advocating for healthy sexual practices and attitudes, an occasion that seems perfect to bring up issues of how far Williams still has to go in terms of embracing these values.
The recent scare of the spread of a certain STD and the subsequent rumor-mongering it has catalyzed are prime examples of what the sexual climate here actually entails. In the past few weeks, stories have been circulating around campus regarding certain individuals and their status as carriers. Rumors are harmful in obvious ways (we’ve all seen Mean Girls) but in this case, rumors are of particular concern because of how they serve to perpetuate sexual shame. If people are afraid that speaking will force them into a vicious rumor mill, what is their incentive to discuss sex with their partners? How do these rumors affect those who might be carriers for STDs but now feel too ashamed to discuss their status with those who need to know? What incentive do people have to get themselves tested, to walk “all the way” to the Health Center, if they’re too preoccupied with the possibility of being associated with the judgment inherent in the current campus discussion of STDs?
Rumors are not the best way to prevent yourself from getting an STD. Protection is. Accurate information is. Frank discussion is. These are elements that need to be part and parcel of our sexual culture here at Williams and yet are seemingly and unfortunately lacking. When we use misinformation and lies as protection, we put ourselves and others at risk of contracting STDs but also of creating a culture in which the possibility of becoming one in 19 million is unnecessarily easier. When we can’t talk, when we, as a community, victimize the thornier aspects of sex, we put ourselves at risk. Rendering ourselves mute only makes things harder, and not in a good way.
So let’s talk about STDs and let’s talk about sex: Whether you choose to have a lot of it, none of it or fall somewhere in between, there’s much to be gained from learning to think and talk about sex in a positive manner. People don’t deserve to have their private business become campus gossip and the campus doesn’t deserve to have this gossip negatively affect their sexual health: It’s a vicious cycle that need not be so vicious. I feel for those who, whether accurately or inaccurately, have been implicated in rumors about STDs, because the language I’ve heard being used is nasty and unacceptable. Rather than waste our energy on this cruelty, we can turn these rumors into a discussion that not only creates better relationships but can ultimately help ensure better sex. Why would you want to have sex with someone who doesn’t care about your mature decision to talk to them, someone who doesn’t care about what you want? Talking gets a bad rap – it’s too awkward, it’s not sexy – but ultimately the ability to embrace healthy discussion is a necessary part of a healthy sexual culture.