Are STDs Stigmatized on TV?

“You are what you eat.” You know the phrase. If you consume massive amounts of donuts, you will become a literal donut. Just kidding, you know what we mean though. If you eat well, you will live well. The same can be said for what you’re feeding your brain, i.e. your media consumption. Propaganda is a real thing Y’all, and we’re here to talk about it.

We’re here to talk about the way media intake affects our brains. Captain Planet taught us to care for the environment, Full House taught us to always do the right thing, and modern television has taught us that STDs do not exist outside of a punchline.

We first must ask the question:

Do STDs Even Exist in the Television World?

In some shows, yes. STDs are an actual topic of conversation, but it is oh so rare. We see TV characters get it on pretty regularly. A lot of times, this can be the climax (pun intended) of the show. Some may say that television has gotten a bit too steamy. We, on the other hand, are all for normalizing and destigmatizing sexual health. So… we don’t really care what you’re doing per se, we just want you to be doing it safely and in an open/informed way.

tv and stds

In 2017, fans pointed out that the popular HBO show Insecure did not do the best job at showing its characters’ decisions when it came to safe sex. There was no pause for any kind of discussion about sexual status or protection before engaging in casual sex.

Prentice Penny, showrunner of Insecure, responded to the criticism on Twitter saying, “I really hope people can watch #InsecureHBO without asking if they use condoms. In the writer’s room, we always assume they do.” He goes on to say, “I guess because we are a TV show and it’s fictional. And there’s a lot of things we don’t show but people assume it anyway. We are not a PSA, documentary, non-profit organization. I’m done discussing this.”

It doesn’t necessarily fall on one show’s shoulders to spread public awareness on any issue that their fans seem to be interested in. Equally, even though no show portrays every single time that someone burps or flushes the toilet, it’s not like we assume that they literally never do these things. However, it is concerning how few storylines, in general, include anything to do with safe sex at all.

Does Television Talk About Safe Sex?

The best example of a show that loves sex but hates talking about safe sex, may be Game of Thrones.

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Westeros obviously isn’t a real place, but there certainly seems to be lots of sexy time, and there don’t seem to be any repercussions outside of the occasional pregnancy and penis removal. This is especially weird because aren’t the GoT writers trying to kill off characters at every chance possible anyways? Apparently there have been subtle implications of condoms being used, however, condoms don’t protect from all STDs, and there weren’t exactly convenience stores on every corner of those long journeys, so our bet is they either had to pack them and lug them around across the countryside, or simply do without.

So anyway, yeah, in 2017, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill did a study which analyzed a sample of popular television programs and found that 0.02 percent of sex scenes feature any kind of conversation around contraception. That’s kind of crazy right?

But don’t All Sexually Active Adults Use Condoms?

A national health report released by the CDC in 2017 revealed that only about one-third of those who are sexually active in the U.S. use condoms. While that may seem like a dismal statistic, it’s actually pretty high compared to the .02 percent of times that condoms were featured on screen surrounding sexual activity. But just imagine how many more people would be encouraged to wear condoms if they witnessed their favorite characters doing the same! Now, this is not to say that television should be a moral compass for your personal life, but we do subconsciously pick up what we digitally consume. We want to be like our TV idols. I think we’ve all gone to our hair salon at one point or the other, stating that we want to look like Rachel from Friends. In the words of my ever-so-wise hairdresser, “We can cut your hair like that, but your face will still look the same.”

tv and stds

What’s the Big Deal?

So I know what you’re probably thinking at this point, “Well, STDs aren’t really that common, so what is even the point of showing them on tv?” We’re glad you asked.

The CDC estimates at least 20 million new cases of STIs occur per year, and ASHA (American Sexual Health Association) measures that one in two sexually active individuals will contract an STI by the age of 25. The estimated total direct cost of STIs to the U.S. is about $16 billion. That’s right: It costs us money to have STIs!

And how much does it cost to show our favorite TV characters talking about safe sex? Nada. Zilch. Nothing. Taking this route could easily reduce the growing rates of STDs and could save the U.S. literally billions of dollars.

Are TV characters immune to STDs?

All TV characters must be immune to sexually transmitted diseases, as we’ve established that they don’t use protection (unless you’re really sticking to your guns that we should all just assume they use protection).

But yes, back to the question, everyone in the TV world is immune. Let’s go through three examples.

  • Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother was said to have dated a total of 200 women by the fourth season of the show, with five seasons after that, it’s reasonable to believe that number went up drastically. While it should be noted that he actually does use a lot of condoms, these do not always protect against STDs. Being as experienced as he is, you’d really think he’d have some sort of conversation with his numerous lovers about his status.
  • Jerry Seinfeld from Seinfeld was said to have dated 73 women throughout the course of the show. There is an episode with a condom mishap for George, but their main concern is pregnancy! You would think that Jerry would be a little more knowledgeable, and warn his friends of the other dangers of not having safe sex.
  • Don Freaking Draper from Mad Men. Obviously, he had lots of sex, right? He (officially) slept with a total of 17 women throughout the course of the show, but we feel that there may have been more. A lot of this sex was super spontaneous, like, he had just met them. In the 50’s/60’s there definitely wasn’t as much awareness surrounding safe sex, so the show could technically have just been being historically accurate. Side note, Betty Draper does get lung cancer from smoking all the time, so there are some health consequences in the Mad Men world. Just nothing in the nether regions.

Notice anything missing in this list? Oh yeah, women! We had a hard time finding a super sexually active female TV character to add to this list. Maybe because women aren’t usually written as players? Or sexually active? Never to fear, we have a few femme fatales to discuss, but we’re saving them for last.

TV Shows That Do Talk About STDs, Get it Wrong

Yes, now we’re getting to the brass tacks of the matter. When TV does discuss STDs, it is incredibly misinformed! Again we’ve got three stellar examples of misinformation being spread when it comes to STDs.

  • Girls is a TV show that’s all about destigmatizing all kinds of things when it comes to women’s reproductive health. They even talk about peeing after sex to avoid UTIs! The “protagonist” of the show, Hannah, is tested for HPV. This is strange, as most women under 30 are encouraged to screen for cervical cancer using a Pap test instead of testing for HPV.  She tests positive for HPV and is extremely distraught. She exclaims that she will now need her cervix “scraped out,” though this is not a medical treatment for HPV at all, in fact, there is no treatment for HPV. Hannah accuses her boyfriend of giving it to her, and he informs her that he was tested the week before and that he’s clean. Funny enough, there is no form of HPV testing for men.
  • Michael Scott of The Office is well known for blowing things wildly out of proportion. Upon the development of a cold sore in The Office episode, “Sex Ed,” Michael calls all of his former lovers to inform them that he has herpes and to find who gave it to him. Dwight Schrute encourages Michael to seek revenge from whoever transferred the disease. The entire episode is written with the viewpoint that Michael is acting ridiculously. One of his ex-girlfriends even states, “you don’t have herpes, it’s just a cold sore.” Obviously, Michael should have been tested to be sure that he even had herpes or HSV. Herpes can lie dormant for years, and it can be contracted by even receiving a kiss from a relative as a child. To assume that one of Michael’s ex-girlfriends must have given it to him was just silly, and let’s not even talk about seeking revenge (We’ll save that for another blog post). “Just a cold sore” is herpes. Herpes is very common and really not that big of a deal. Doctors often discourage getting tested unless you show symptoms because the emotional trauma is said to often be of higher impact than physical.
  • Dr. Gregory House of the TV show, House, is a pretty quirky dude. He deals with an assortment of abnormal medical conditions throughout the show. In one particular episode called “Clueless,” he diagnoses a man with herpes and informs the man that his wife is cheating on him with their son’s karate teacher. House has never met the wife or the karate teacher. So, the couple comes back to House and demands to know which one cheated, the wife stating that she has never slept with the karate teacher. House explains that herpes can also be transferred through the use of infected toilet seats. The husband accepts this as a resolution, but the wife says that it’s not possible, and is still in disbelief. House proclaims the husband the cheater, as only a cheater would believe such a thing, and view it as an easy out.

So we’re clear herpes can not be spread by a toilet seat, but it’s also most certainly NOT only spread by cheaters! This is one of the biggest lies that television has spread regarding STDs. When a TV character contracts an STD, it is often because they did something wrong. Anyone can contract an STD, and it does not necessarily make you a cheater if you are in a long-term monogamous relationship. Many STDs can be transmitted outside of sex.

Does TV Ever Get it Right?

tv and stds

We all know the age-old phrase, “when in doubt, look to the Golden Girls.” Just kidding, we just made that up, but it’s actually pretty true.

Betty White’s character, Rose, receives a letter in the episode “72-hours” where she is informed that she may have contracted HIV from a blood transfusion six years prior during gallbladder surgery. It takes 72 hours for her to receive results, and during those 72 hours, she gets a glimpse at what life with HIV may be like. Sophia, the oldest of the Golden Girls begins to avoid using Rose’s bathroom, or even any of the dishes that she’s ever used. Blanche consoles Rose, stating, “AIDS is not a bad person’s disease, Rose. It is not God punishing people for their sins.” Sophia conceded, “I know intellectually there’s no way I can catch it, but now that it’s so close to home, it’s scary.”

In the end, all four of the golden girls visit the hospital together for support. Rose is given the clear and ultimately does not have HIV, but the episode reinforces the idea that HIV is not just a “gay disease” and that it can truly happen to anyone.

This episode aired in 1990, when there was still a great deal of stigma surrounding people with HIV and Aids. So, who’s really more woke, a show made in 1990 or modern television? Either way, just remember that TV is not real life. Just because your favorite character doesn’t get tested, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t! It’s important to be aware of your status. If you aren’t, get tested today!

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Author: Lauralei Like

Lauralei graduated from SHSU in 2017 with a B.A. in Mass Communication: Public Relations and Advertising. Mass Communication is the perfect term for what she loves to do: Communicate to the masses the importance of destigmatization and promoting an honest conversation surrounding sexual health. Before Lauralei joined, she worked for a branding and marketing agency, but she longed to work with a company that was committed to creating a meaningful sense of community and making the world a better place; turned out to be the perfect fit. Lauralei is the official relationship expert and pun-master. She believes that it is her sworn duty to provide the internet with reliable, well-researched, and probably funny information when it comes to whatever she is writing about. Her writing has been featured in numerous publications, including Bustle, The Epoch Times, Romper, MedTraveler, and Healthable. When Lauralei isn’t writing, she’s playing with her pet bunnies, sewing dresses, or searching for the best new brunch spot.