In 2008, I read a book by Adina Nack, Damaged Goods? Women Living With Incurable Sexually Transmitted Diseases. At the time I was blown away by a text that focused on the study of chronic, non-fatal sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at a time when the majority of research on gender and STIs focused on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the United States and abroad. Nack’s study examined the ways in which women diagnosed the issue of non-fatal, chronic, sexually transmitted infections managed the stigma and ultimately came to terms with their sexual selves.
The fact that estimates from the CDC in 1998 suggested three out of every four sexually active adults in the United States have human papillomavirus infections (HPV) and one out of five sexually active adults in the United States has genital herpes suggested to me that an examination of these STIs warranted significantly more attention than they had been given in studies of both sexualities and medical sociology at the time of Nack’s research (Nack 2014). Yet, few scholars have added to the work produced by Nack in the first decade of the 21st century.
Today, approximately 79,100,000 adults in the U.S. are estimated to have the HPV and 24,100,000 are estimated be infected with HSV-2, the virus that causes genital herpes. These statistics illustrate the need to continue open and judgment free discussions of chronic, non-fatal sexually transmitted infections despite suggestions that many students believe sex education programs cover risk-management and sexually transmitted infections adequately (Allen 2008). In addition, the limited literature illustrates how individuals infected with chronic, non-fatal sexually transmitted infections are symbolically labeled as deviant and stigmatized and highlights the many ways we have created a culture of silence around living with these viruses.
Therefore, I felt that including a discussion of chronic, not-fatal STIs would be an important contribution the sexual health and sex education section of the undergraduate Sociology of Sexualities course I was teaching. In searching for an appropriate reading to link to the discussion, I was disappointed but not entirely surprised to find little since the publication of Damaged Goods in 2008. Since time restraints made it impossible to have students to read Nack’s book in full, I resigned to have them read an earlier article by the author “Damaged Goods: Women Managing the Stigma of STDs” published in Deviant Behavior in 2000. It seemed like a good compromise.
In more thoroughly reviewing the article the week prior to our discussion on sexual health and sex education, I soon found myself regretting my selection. In this article, Nack suggests she is “expanding on previous research by sociologically analyzing the impact of genital herpes and HPV on women’s sexual selves” (Nack 2014: 648). She positions herself as a “complete member” of this stigmatized group, disclosing her own status as being infected with HPV. However, throughout the article Nack uses language that was just as stigmatizing as the actual infections.
Nack describes a woman living with HSV-2 “pass[ing] as healthy” (Nack 2014: 651). At another point Nack describes the experiences of a woman who “pass[ed] as normal” (652). These were not quotes from participants. Rather, they were summaries of women’s experiences based on Nack’s interviews. The language used in this article frequently framed women living with HPV and HSV-2 as abnormal, unhealthy, therefore, reinforcing the same socially constructed stigma women living with chronic, non-fatal sexually transmitted infections face when dealing with their conditions.
At this point it is too late for me to change the reading for my class. We will discuss the article on Thursday. The discussion will be slightly different than I imagined. At this point, I hope to use the text as a cautionary tale. In many ways choosing this article was an excellent learning experience for me. In the future I will be significantly more aware of scholars’ language when selecting readings for my students. In addition, I now have an excellent example of how social institutions symbolically constructed and confirm deviance today.
Allen, Louisa. 2014. “They Think You Shouldn’t Be Having Sex Anyway: Young People’s Suggestions for Improving Sexuality Education Content.” Pp. 633-646 in Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society, edited by Michael Kimmel and the Stony Brook Sexualities Research Group. New York: Oxford Press.
Nack, Adina. 2014. “Damaged Goods: Women Managing the Stigma of STDs.” Pp. 646-661 in Sexualities: Identities, Behaviors, and Society, edited by Michael Kimmel and the Stony Brook Sexualities Research Group. New York: Oxford Press.