The Rise Of Sexually Transmitted Disease-Infected “Influencers”

Natasha Biase

As the United States experiences a catastrophic rise in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs), social media platforms are seeing a spike in influencers promoting the belief that becoming infected with incurable diseases after having casual sex must be destigmatized.

On Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, users seeking to “normalize” STIs have gained massive followings for telling users that there’s nothing wrong with contracting herpes, chlamydia, or even HIV/AIDS.

“STIs are a part of being sexually active; most people will get one at some point in their life,” wrote “queer” sex therapist Casey Tanner on her 250,000-follower Instagram. “Folks will physically and emotionally experience STIs in a number of different ways. How we emotionally internalize a diagnosis usually stems from the stigma that people assign to these infections.”

Tanner is far from alone in her blasé view on STIs, with some even claiming that receiving a diagnosis was a positive experience which helped them gain self-acceptance.

In a recent blog post for “sex essentials” shop Loveability, writer Darcy Rae wrote that her herpes diagnosis helped her to “love her body.” In the article, Rae recounts the moment she was told she has genital herpes after engaging in casual sex, and how she eventually came to terms with her diagnosis and began to use it as a source of pride.

Rae goes on to blame “years of sex-shaming, and conservative and religious ideals about sex” for the current stigma surrounding STIs.

“The mentality of feeling ‘dirty’ because I had an [STI] was something I had to unlearn. I had to effectively break up with myself and everything that had been instilled in me by society. I spent a lot of time reading about herpes and immersing myself in feminist material to empower me when I felt I couldn’t do it myself,” she wrote, continuing: “Herpes helped me love my body by opening up a new relationship with sex and how I allowed other people to make me feel.”

Herpes is one of the more common STIs being targeted for “destigmatization” by influencers, likely due to its increasing prevalence.

37-year-old Suzanna Elzbieta, who boasts over 285,000 followers on TikTok, says she uses her platform to “help raise awareness, debunk myths, and break the herpes stigma.” On her account, she posts videos describing men comfortable with her herpes status as “hot,” and encouraging people with herpes to use their diagnosis as a “filter” for judgmental partners.

But more serious diseases are also being given the “influencer treatment” on TikTok.

Zach Willmore, who has almost 2 million followers on the platform, has been vlogging about his recent HIV diagnosis in the styling of Dylan Mulvaney.

Willmore, who describes himself as “your internet bestie,” was diagnosed with HIV in February after having casual sex with another man. He has since taken his diagnosis public, first announcing his status while doing a makeup tutorial.

“It’s Friday, [February] 17. I’m 19 years old. And yesterday, I found out that I got diagnosed with HIV,” he casually explained while getting ready to go out with friends. Since posting his first video on his HIV-positive status, Wilmore has made a number of vlogs describing his “days living with HIV.”

In one concerning video, Wilmore celebrated the fact that his doctor had cleared him to do a “blood pact” with his friends.

While some have praised Willmore for being open about his experiences living with a serious virus, others have found his cheery disposition jarring.

Anna Slatz, co-founder of the pro-woman news outlet Reduxx, responded to Willmore’s content on Twitter. Referring to an Old Testament story in the Bible, Slatz joked that “sodom and gomorrah was a warning not an instruction manual.” The tweet quickly racked up millions of views, with some users condemning the reaction as “homophobia” and targeting Slatz with death threats.

Others, including some gay men, agreed with Slatz that Willmore’s casual attitude surrounding his diagnosis was inappropriate and offensive.

Mike Harlow, an advocate with Gays Against Groomers, added to Slatz’s post, writing: “This is the result of a TOXIC culture that the LGBTLMNOP alphabet industry promotes to impressionable young people. This is the culture that is SO wonderful it should be passed on to your kids…”

Another popular gay TikToker, Chris Olsen, recently shared that he had contracted chlamydia three times. In a January video to his 11 million followers, Olsen exclaimed “stop the stigma!”

But while proponents of STI “normalization” argue that reducing stigma could result in more people feeling comfortable getting tested, others have pointed out that that STIs are on the rise despite how “sex positive” western culture has become.

According to Daily Mail, America saw an explosive increase in Sexually Transmitted Infections from 2017-2021, particularly syphilis, a sexually transmitted disease that can lead to organ damage and gonorrhea.

Although experts cite riskier sexual behavior and less condom use as causing the influx of STIs, others are pointing to the normalization of these infections. In recent years, multiple mainstream media outlets have penned articles promoting STI influencers and their platforms while taking strides to diminish shame around contraction.

“Learning you have herpes can be worse than actually having it,” wrote Katie Camero for Buzzfeed. She added that it was “important to have positive role models” who champion “mental health support for STI diagnoses and stigma.”

Julia Bennet, Planned Parenthood’s director of digital education and learning strategy, shared Camero’s sentiments, explaining that “having positive models for others coping with a herpes diagnosis is a must if we as a society want to dismantle the stigma.”

In an op-ed for The New York Times, Jen Gunter an obstetrician and gynecologist said that it shouldn’t be more shameful to catch an infection from sex than it is from shaking hands, kissing, or being coughed on. “Having an S.T.I. should have the same stigma as having influenza,” she claims.

Despite data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) showing that the current STI epidemic in the United States shows no signs of abating, it suggests that to “turn the STI epidemic around” it must expand local public health services to offer STI testing and treatment, make STI testing and treatment for accessible, and advance research to explore new interventions like vaccines to prevent STIs.

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