On Safe Sex and Stigma: Where Morality Skews the message

This was a twitter thread that I posted on my personal Twitter account. Thought I share it here too.

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I guess this whole conversation on #SafeSex and #Stigma is timely given the announcement of the antibiotic resistance of gonorrhoea. I saw a twitter thread that made me uneasy because it suggested that the safe sex ‘narrative’ stigmatizes testing and those with STIs. I was in agreement with the first part which was that it is ridiculous that stigma exists in the first place, given that you can get infected even from your monogamous partner. There is a reason why there are ads in DC Metro encouraging people to get tested, even if the are in relationships.

STIs are transmitted regardless of your relationship status. However, the thread was arguing for getting rid of the safe sex narrative, since the safe sex narrative stigmatizes testing for STIs, and this is where I disagree. That argument is like saying advocating for the HPV vaccine stigmatizes testing for HPV, or using Prep stigmatizes testing for HIV. The framework of safe “safer” sex acknowledges that people engage in risky behaviors all the time. The purpose of the safe sex framework and its prevention strategies are aimed at risk reduction. All the prevention strategies and interventions are focused on reducing risk. They bring agency and place the onus of prevention on all the partners involved, but it also allows for particular circumstances that people might be involved in: can’t negotiate condom use, social/cultural beliefs regarding sexual behaviours, etc.

The framework itself is not inherently stigmatizing: it does not dictate which behaviors are “better” or more socially acceptable. Safer sex does not penalize you if you did get an STI, it just points out what behaviors will (statistically) put you at less risk, and how to minimise the risk of passing that STI to current and future partners. Same way that advocating and educating you to avoid a diet high in red meats is not stigmatising/blaming those with heart problems since health is multifaceted. The interventions are telling you how to minimize that risk. Where is the stigma here? Your auntie/uncle who is spouting some respectability politics BS? How is that the fault of the safe sex framework? Google “Just World Hypothesis”. Why throw away the framework when people are just reaching for their own morality regarding sexual behaviors?

One last example: social and reproductive health scientists who work in family planning still advocate for abortion as part of reproductive justice and reproductive choice, even in places where people don’t think abortion should be legal or acceptable, e.g. many states in the US, and many other countries. We don’t care that you think abortion is wrong or right, we are advocating for it regardless as part of reproductive health. If people choose to stigmatise those who choose to abort, that is another issue related to what is socially acceptable. Those social/cultural/moral beliefs mean that we have to tailor the interventions, not abandon the education and advocacy efforts regarding abortion. Same goes to Safe Sex.

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When I was catholic…

A little over a month ago, we baptized my nephew on my last visit to Puerto Rico. This was a rude awakening as to why I left the church in the first place. The church is too static, and unchanging.

I grew up catholic and spent my teenage years being an uber-conservative practicing catholic. Catholicism permeated everyday life for me as a child. This everyday was further complicated by our colonial history, in which West African influenced syncretism–in addition to Espiritismo and Santería– were also present: I visited many Botánicas as a kid with my grandma. She didn’t (and still doesn’t) see any conflict between catholicism and her beliefs in the Orishas. I used to judge her for it, and shared said judgment with her given my beliefs, and snotty holier-than-thou attitude. Sorry Abuela, I shouldn’t have. 

Like then, Catholicism nowadays seem to constrain, rather than guide people into their own salvation. Even though I left the church, the dogma is that you can’t actually leave the church. Once a believer, always a believer, it goes—no matter what you call yourself. 
And that’s what we did to my nephew, we made him join this religion. We gave in to the constant worry of one of my grandmothers that my three-and-a-half-year-old nephew wasn’t baptized. Again, demonstrating how much these beliefs permeate my family’s everyday lives, even though they aren’t practicing catholics. I am the kid’s godfather, and according to the class I had to take for this purpose, It will be part of my job to provide this boy with depth and context to whatever journey he decides to take on as a religious person; to fully indoctrinate him in the catholic dogma. My family knows me well enough to be aware that I’m not ideal for how the church envisions this role, and yet they still wanted me to be the godfather.

We went to mass the day of the baptism, and after more than 10 years of attending mass I remembered all the movements, the words, the rites, and when to kneel. Leave it to mass to demonstrate how committed one is to being structured and unchanging. This made sense to me then since a lot of times in my life I found myself seeking structure; I used to love the structure of catholic school, which was weird. And yet I was simultaneously always looking for ways to bend the structure, when I thought it needed to be more flexible.

During the homily, the priest discussed the (then recent) announcement from the Pope regarding priests now having the authority to pardon women who had sought abortions. He explained what that meant both in regards to dogma, and bureaucratic practice to the institution of this local church. 

Of course he shared his views regarding when and how life begins, as well as the equivalency of Plan B contraceptive as an ‘aborticifent’. Following mass, and during the announcements, he reminded the congregation that next week’s collection would go to the Knights of Colombus, who want to pursue a similar strategy as their counterparts in the US (link): but instead of donating to Pro-life non-medical pregnancy centers, they want to have a car equipped with an ultrasound machine, and park it in front of ‘abortion clinics’ (or family planning clinics, he said in air quotes) to discourage women from getting abortions. 

Although the Pope is trying to drag the church through its vestments out of irrelevancy, this is not enough, when women’s choice to abort is still regarded as a major sin. The church’s attempt to soften this view is to promote ‘forgiveness’ towards women for their right to exercise power over their bodies during this year; the so called ‘holy year’. 

My family and I talked about this briefly during the lunch after the baptism. My dad had left with his wife, and only women remained (aunt, sisters, cousin, grandmas) aside from my nephew and I. I don’t think the women in my family are necessarily against choice, they just don’t like the idea of abortion; and I think this is a necessary caveat given that many catholic women use contraception despite the church’s teachings and beliefs in regards to family planning.

During mass, the priest let everyone know that Family Planning is a taboo term. Family Planning, he said, is a coded term for abortion clinic. My family’s lunch conversation concluded by agreeing that it was easy for a cis man who has not and will never marry, who has authority and power over a community, and who does not understand his position in the systematic regulation of female sexuality and reproductive choices, to shame women about their decisions.

Unchanged… it seems that women should just be having kids, or use the rhythm method.