Rukiat is a writer and sexual health activist. In this interview, Rukiat explains what she means by the term STIgma, what she believes STIgmas tell us about the state of the society we live in, and how STIgmas can be overcome.
Who is Rukiat?
Rukiat’s journey as a political activist began when a friend encouraged her to take to the mic at an event in London. She started with, “Hi everyone, I have herpes”, and was relieved to hear two women in the crowd shout out, “I have herpes too!”. Following that event, Rukiat was invited to submit an article to LAPP (a clothing brand that works hard to empower women through fashion and a diverse blog). Under the title ‘I have herpes’, Rukiat told her story- a transition from shame to knowledge- she explained that the stigma surrounding the herpes virus is misplaced as the majority of the adult population are carriers. She also urged those with the virus to shed their fear and live in their truth. Since that article, Rukiat has continued to write about sexually transmitted infections and sex for various publications.
When Rukiat writes about sexual health, she emphasises that she is writing from a heteronormative perspective. She believes this is important as she wants to let her LGBT+ readers know that she is aware that there are other ways to experience sex. Yet at the same time she believes she can only speak authoritatively about her own experiences, and explains that in order to be an ally to LGBTQ+ people, Rukiat believes she should not attempt to speak on their behalf. She made this clear when she said, “in order to not exclude them, I have to let them know that this is written from my perspective, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not aware of yours either.”
The truth about STIs
At the centre of Rukiat’s activism is the term STIgma. STIgma refers to the shame and fear that is currently associated with sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Rukiat aims to set the record straight about STIs- many of them are not as horrific as commonly thought- and thus change the way we think about sexually transmitted infections.
Rukiat often cites statistics provided by Project Accept, which show that 90% of the world population currently have one strand of the Herpes Simplex virus. Rukiat has found that people are usually surprised or even incredulous when they hear this statistic, but she is determined to break down the ignorance that currently exists around the virus.
Rukiat wants people with STIs to feel confident in themselves and own the fact that they have an STI. Rukiat hopes that by being open about the fact that she has herpes, and stating, without fear or shame, “I don’t care, I’m proud of who I am”, she will empower people to become more open about their experiences of STIs.
How is STIgma political?
Rukiat believes the only difference between herpes and something mundane like the common cold is the politics of stigmatisation that surrounds the virus. Herpes is contracted through sex, and for this reason, it is considered dirty. “It says a lot about what people think about sex in general.”
Rukiat was shocked when I read a quote to her from Gwenda Hughes (head of STI surveillance at Public Health England), who said that the recent rise in gonorrhoea and syphilis cases “is likely to be a result of condomless sex. We’ve got these apps and they enable people to find partners much more quickly.” Rukiat described this comment as “ridiculous”, explaining that close-minded sex education is more likely to be at the core of the issue. Rukiat believes strongly that in classrooms there needs to be open an honest discussion about all types of sex, between all sexes and sexualities.
I asked Rukiat whether STIs should be an issue for intersectional feminists. Rukiat said that STIs are an important reflection of how society views female sexuality. “Female sexuality is stigmatised in general, and when you put an STI on top of that… it’s like you’re completely written off”. Rukiat also argues that women need to get rid of the misogyny they find inside themselves and stop shaming women who have a lot of sex or are STI positive.
Similarly, we reflected that STIs can be an important indicator of white privilege, as black gay men are significantly more likely to become HIV positive in the US than white gay men. Journalist Steven Thrasher argues this is due to lack of access to the right medication and greater likelihood of homelessness, incarceration, and poor education and healthcare. Rukiat also argues that in the UK, misconceptions around HIV or AIDS reflect wider patterns of discrimination or ignorance towards queer people.
Thus Rukiat urges that STIs and STIgmas should be seen as a major issue for all social justice groups.
What needs to change?
Rukiat pointed towards a lack of openness, not only in education, but in family homes too. She argues that children are rarely sat down and spoken to openly about sex. Looking to the future, Rukiat believes parents have a responsibility to teach their children to “be mindful of their sexual health, to respect other people’s sexual choices”. However, in order for this to take place on a wide scale, Rukiat notes that the way sex is viewed in our society would need to change.
Being open about STIs doesn’t mean not taking them seriously.
While encouraging STI positive people to embrace themselves, Rukiat is also committed to championing safe sex practices. She regularly lets her Instagram followers know that she has just been for a sexual health screening and she hopes that this will encourage others to do the same. She is concerned that “people just play with the risk” when it comes to having unprotected sex and getting tested. She also argues that even if you are not having regular sex, or you are having regular sex but with a trusted partner, you should be getting tested regularly. She adds that this would help to “make people feel more easy about it”.
Rukiat is committed to continuing her campaign against STIgmas. She admitted that she has felt vulnerable at times due to her openness about her own sexual health. But in general, Rukiat has found that being open about having herpes has made her life much easier, and she is determined to help other people feel the same.
You can find more of her articles and keep up to date with her posts by following her Instagram; __rukiat.
Molly is Co-editor of The Witness