STI Research Shows Stigma Impacts Decision Making

A recent study at the University of Michigan published in the International Journal of Sexual Health has opened public health officials’ eyes to the ways that sufferers of sexually transmitted diseases are judged and the potential impacts this can have on treatment.

Dr. Terri Conley, a University of Michigan associate professor of psychology and women’s studies, headed up the project. Her goal was to discover how people viewed the possibility of contracting STIs and STDs compared to other potentially dangerous activities.

To do so, she presented subjects with a series of questions meant to examine their perception over the course of several different studies. In particular, students were asked to estimate how many out of 1000 people would be killed while driving between Detroit and Chicago, a distance of 300 miles and then asked how many out of 1000 would die if they contracted HIV/AIDS.

Data from the Center for Disease Control and prevention compared with data from the National Highway Traffic Safety report shows that an individual is 20 times more likely to die in a car accident during a 300 mile trip than they are to die from symptoms caused by HIV. However, students surveyed on HIV and on a variety of other STIs consistently rated the diseases as being more dangerous.

Dr. Conley believes this may push someone afflicted with an STI to make riskier decisions.

“Individuals who feel stigmatized often make riskier decisions, which can affect potential sexual partners,” said Conley. “When STIs are stigmatized, it prevents people who suspect they have STIs from getting tested or informing their partners about the possibility of disease exposure.”

As a result of her research, Dr. Conley advocates better education on the effects of STIs in the hopes of destigmatizing the diseases and helping people to make calm and informed decisions about their sexual health. What kind of impact this will have on public health programs remains to be seen, but the potential repercussions on the spread of STIs makes studies like Conley’s a priority for public health officials in the future.