While watching an episode of 2 Broke Girls the other day, the topic of sexually transmitted infections came up as the focal point of the storyline. One of girls got a rash in her private area, and, assuming the worst, thought that she may have had herpes. They went the whole episode of course making jokes about the situation, with cheesy punchlines and poorly timed jokes, at which I frowned with delight. When it was all said and done, the girl had gotten the rash because she had changed her laundry detergent, but in discriminatory fashion there was still one more scene left. They saved the worst for last. The roommate who hadn’t had a rash, but had a sexual history longer than the Alaskan pipeline decided to go get tested as well. That was when the show called for the final scene, where the roommate busts through the door and yells in excitement “I’m Clean.”
I immediately got hot, as the trigger word for so many in the HIV community was used yet again to insist that those dealing with sexually transmitted diseases are somehow “dirty.” If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times—the language in our community must change from this stigmatizing separatist narrative if we are ever going to change the views of those who contract HIV or any other STI, for that matter. People living with HIV have, for the past thirty-five years, dealt with the pressure of being labeled the “dirty” people in society. This country, through its sex work laws and lack of a progressive view, has supported the notion that those who contract viruses from sex are irresponsible and risky, which unfairly gets the labeling of being unclean.
I often see these terms used on gay dating apps Jack’d, Grindr, and Scruff. Within people’s profiles, they are defining themselves as “clean” while also saying that they will only mess with others who are also “clean.” This false notion that one is “clean” is problematic for several reasons, especially when we talk about testing, status, and how truthful that statement could ever be.
1. You are only as “clean” as your last sexual encounter.
You go and get tested. Your results come back negative across the full panel of syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, hep C and HIV. That night you go out and party and then have a hook-up with someone that you met at the club. You go home you have sex and you part ways. Guess what? You can now no longer claim that you are “clean.” The truth is, you are only as negative as your last sexual encounter. So, the belief that, because you tested three months ago, and had eight sexual partners, you can still say you are “clean” is misleading and dangerous to your health and the health of others.
2. The term “clean” is shaming to those who live with the virus, or any affliction for that matter.
People who live with HIV are not dirty. They are productive members of society who work, party, travel, and sleep in many of the same circles that you sleep in. More likely than not, you have slept with someone who is HIV-positive, either knowingly or unknowingly. People who contract an STI are not dirty. Contracting an STI is an unfortunate part of having an active or mild sex life. A person can contract an STI or HIV during their first-ever sexual encounter. It truly has nothing to do with whether a person was “clean” and practiced safer sex during the encounter.
3. Language matters.
Finally, society needs to do a much better job at using appropriate language when we are discussing sex and the way we stigmatize those who participate in sexual activity in the manner they best see fit. You can use the term that you are negative in a way that is not stigmatizing to those who are not. You can say the last time you were tested and what those results were in a way that does not make others feel like they should live in shame. What you can’t do is run around with the privilege of saying that you are “clean,” as a replacement for the former, knowing that the opposite of clean is dirty which would then equal “positive.”
There is a nation full of people who refuse to get tested because of the language and imagery that we as a society project as normal. The reason people won’t and don’t get tested regularly is because there is a fear of having to live with that type of stigma placed upon them. The reason that more people don’t live publicly with their status is because of the fear of rejection and being known as dirty. We are not dirty people. We are just trying to live our lives the best way that we know how. So please, stop with the language.
George M Johnson is a black queer journalist and activist. He has written for Ebony, TheGrio, JET, Teen Vogue, Huffington Post, Black Youth Project, and several HIV publications. Follow him on Twitter @iamgmjohnson.