Life can be stressful when juggling commitments to loved ones, jobs, school, and community. There are many experiences or circumstances that can make enjoying sexual intimacy feel difficult. In particular, being diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI) can be a scary and traumatic experience. Sometimes diagnosis leads people to believe their sex life will be forever impacted.
We are taught many myths about STIs and stigma that are often at the forefront of misinformation. This stigma can be devastating. It can prevent people from accessing important care, cause isolation and alienation, and fuel misplaced self-shame and blame. Stigma also has the power to make sex feel frightening, unsafe, or daunting. It can disempower one’s right to experience pleasure. However, better understanding STIs is an important first step in reconnecting with your sensuality.
To start, here is a little information about STIs. STIs are typically bacterial or viral infections that can spread through sexual contact. Common conditions include Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Herpes Simplex Virus (HSV), Human Papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. STIs are both very common, and happen to anyone—the Center for Disease Control estimates that at any one time, 1 in 5 people has an STI.
There is no reason STIs should be treated differently than any other infection. Many are treatable with antibiotics and/or topical medications. While some STIs are not curable—such as HSV, HPV, and HIV—they are manageable. For instance, HIV is manageable through antiretroviral (ART) medications. For individuals with HIV taking ART, their viral load can become undetectable, stopping HIV from progressing and preventing transmission to sexual partners while using safer sex practices. ARTs can also be effective treatment for those with HSV by shortening or preventing outbreaks and lowering the likelihood of passing HSV to partners. While ARTs are not curative, some individuals produce enough antibodies against the virus to clear it on their own—even without treatment. Recurrent symptoms, like genital warts, can also be treated with medications, topical creams, cryotherapy, or electrosurgery. Regular pap smears can screen for precancerous or cancerous cells that can be removed through noninvasive procedures.
While staying educated about how STIs and treatments work can keep you physically safe, knowing those facts doesn’t always ensure emotional safety. If accessing pleasure feels difficult after diagnosis, here are some suggestions that might help you reconnect with your erotic self:
Take time to journal about feelings and experiences with sex. Building insight into your current thoughts, beliefs, and emotions can help you determine your wants and needs for intimacy. Potential questions to ask yourself:
- How do you currently feel about intimacy in general or while being intimate?
- What are your hopes or desires for intimacy?
- What helps you feel physically safe during intimate connection?
- What helps or could help you feel emotionally comfortable during intimate connection?
Tap back into pleasure. Your genitals can still provide you pleasure, but erogenous zones can be all over your body. Common extragenital, or non-genital, zones are your scalp, ears, arms and wrists, breasts and nipples, and feet and toes. And, because every body is different, erogenous zones can be too. Consider exploring physical touch in new ways with different toys, textures, and pressures—you might be surprised by what you learn about your body!
If you are partnered, make time to communicate with them about your feelings. Creating space for you and your partner to express wants and needs for physical and emotional safety can increase connectedness and security in your relationship. What physical and emotional boundaries feel important to express and maintain? Are there activities you want to continue or try out during sex? You can choose to convey knowledge gained from journaling exercises and continue exploring any new or familiar erogenous zones.
These suggestions are not one-size-fits-all; if they don’t feel helpful to you, that is okay! Taking time to intentionally consider your current relationship with your body, emotions, and sensuality is an important first step. Overall, know that having an STI does not define you or your sexual expression, period. Find strategies to remember and internalize that fact. No one and no condition can take away your right and ability to access pleasure and sensuality.
—Sam Farley, 2023 Clinical Intern
Sam Farley is a former clinical intern who participated in Carolina Sexual Wellness Center’s STAAR Initiative program. To find out more about STAAR/affordable sex therapy options at Carolina Sexual Wellness Center or to schedule an appointment with one of our interns or therapists, please call 919-297-8322.