Comedian Whitney Cummings talks to us about getting tested for STDs, smashing sexual health stigmas, and partnering with the American Sexual Health Association
If you are sexually active, you have likely felt nervous about stepping into a clinic to get an STD test — even though it’s one of the smartest, easiest, and safest things you can do. Because of the stigma and shame attached to sexuality and sexual health, many young people fear taking steps to protect themselves. That’s an especially scary reality considering that 20 million Americans get an STD/STI every year — and half of the people who are testing positive for an STD or STI are between the ages of 15-24. And less than 12% of of sexually active young adults say they have gotten STD tests in the past year.
When you get tested, you give yourself the chance to treat an infection, and/or to receive the resources you need to stay safe and healthy (and keep your partners safe and healthy). And that’s why the stigma around STDs is so harmful and infuriating.
Comedian, actress, and co-creator of 2 Broke Girls Whitney Cummings has had it with these taboos, and that’s why she is partnering with the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) and the #YESmeansTEST campaign, helping young people take control of their lives and become proactive about STD testing.
Just last week, Whitney released a hilarious (and necessary) video to point out the cognitive dissonance that surrounds many of our sexual health choices. In the video produced by SoulPancake, Whitney is stationed at a food truck serving “healthy” smoothies containing crickets, chlorophyll, and charcoal. Numerous 20-somethings approach her, excitedly willing to drink smoothies that Whitney merely claims are healthy. But as soon as she brings up STD testing — a proven way to be healthy — many of those same people express discomfort and unfamiliarity with the subject.
Thankfully, Whitney is there to support them as they unlearn taboos, and to teach them important statistics — like the fact that 1 in 2 sexually active people get an STD by the age of 25. We got to talk to the comedian about her partnership with ASHA, her own high school sex ed experiences, and why slut shaming needs to disappear.
HelloGiggles: How did you get involved with ASHA, and with the #YESmeansTEST campaign?
Whitney Cummings: I’m a girl, so I’m always down to do anything that promotes sexual health of women, and awareness of their reproductive challenges and opportunities. (laughs) I feel like, for me, I didn’t really get an informative sex talk. I learned about sex mostly once I got dial-up internet and saw weird porn or something. (laughs) Nobody told me about sex; nobody told me about contraception; nobody told me about STDs. I feel like I learned the hard, confusing way. I got a lot of sex health information from going on WebMD, and two minutes later concluding that I have, like, leprosy or something because there’s so much misinformation out there. I couldn’t afford to go to a fancy gynecologist when I was in college, so I was in a lot of confusing situations. And I think that now that I’m in a position of having a modicum of visibility, I try to do whatever I can to make sure that younger women don’t go through the same confusion and shame cycle that I did.
HG: In the video, you make the painfully funny joke, “Back in my day, you learned about STDs by getting them.” Since you, like many others, didn’t get the right information (if any information at all) when you were in sex ed — can you talk about what your sex ed classes were like?
WC: I mostly learned about STDs from friends, you know. And I had an older sister. When I first learned about STDs, it was, like, my older sister pranking me. Or the things that your parents tell you to scare you: you can get pregnant in a hot tub. I went to a Catholic school. I feel like I was told a lot of things by authority figures that were meant to kind of scare me. And it ended up creating shame and fear around all of it. There was a class I took in school that was “sex ed,” but it was more like this is how babies are made. There wasn’t a focus on premarital, casual, recreational sex. It was like “This is how you get pregnant.” No one taught me how to not get pregnant, or how to ask a guy about his sexual health; nobody taught me how to stand up for myself in that way, or that I deserved to know…
I think another reason why this topic is fascinating to me is because there is so much taboo and shame involved. And I’m obsessed with how shame pulls us back in every part of our lives. You feel like you can’t ask for that promotion ’cause you’re ashamed to seem needy or too aggressive. You don’t want to ask a man about his sexual health because you don’t want to come off as bossy or bitchy or entitled or whatever…When I sat down and talked to these girls, a lot of them were saying, “Well, if you get STD tested, that means you’ve had a lot of sexual partners, that means you’re a slut.” So I was like, oh, there is a slut-shaming element to this.
If a woman gets STD tested, that means she’s had a lot of sexual partners; she’s gross, she’s used, or whatever. It’s like — UGH — that’s still hanging around?! That’s gotta go. That mentality has really gotta go. I just wanted to do anything to help maybe remove that taboo.
HG: Among all of the conversations you had while filming the video, was there one that stuck with you the most?
WC: I was surprised at how incredibly smart college kids are. I shouldn’t be, but every generation thinks the generation behind them is a disaster… But then you actually sit down and talk to them, and it’s like, DAMN. I sat down with this girl who is studying neuroscience — she’s gonna be a neurologist. One girl studies psychology. I talked to these girls who are dental students who are all gonna be dentists — and that’s such a male-dominated field.
These people are badasses — yet this one girl who is going to be a neuroscientist has never been STD tested, and didn’t know that half of all sexually active people get an STD before they’re 25. It’s just, like, a blind spot. These kids are just not getting the information in a way that is either interesting to them or resonating with them…or it’s just not available to them. And that’s crazy that this girl will be a neuroscientist, but she hasn’t had access to this information.
Another girl who I talked to said, “I’m worried about getting STD tested because if I go in the waiting room, everyone is gonna think that I’m a slut.” And it really shook me to my core that a girl was putting her sexual health to the side because she was worried what other people would think about her — the stereotypes, the scarlet letter, the slut-shaming…I’ve been in situations where I feel like I’ve put my health to the side to make someone else comfortable and not be seen in a certain way. And that shame shit has got to go.
HG: Was there any STD statistic you were surprised to learn yourself?
WC: I’m just gonna admit it — I didn’t know that chlamydia, when untreated, can lead to infertility. I didn’t know that! I don’t even know anyone personally who knew that! …Women deserve to know that this could lead to infertility down the line… You don’t want the fact that you couldn’t stand up for yourself, or you didn’t know where to go, or you thought it was gonna be expensive but turns out there’s actually free testing — you don’t want to look back and not be able to live your dreams in your 30s [if you want to get pregnant] because you didn’t have the information you needed in your 20s.
HG: What else can we expect to see from your ASHA partnership? More videos like this one?
WC: If I didn’t embarrass them too much, maybe we’ll work more together. (laughs) Hopefully! I think we’re a good fit because I tend to like to talk about taboo topics. I like to talk about things that make people uncomfortable, and I obviously like to talk about sex. I like to have sex. I don’t want the sex I have to hurt my health. I’m working in a lot of areas in my life to illuminate the things that cause us shame. I just wrote a book about my struggle with codependence, and codependence is all about not being able to tolerate other people’s discomfort, not being able to say no, not being able to stand up for yourself. And to me, that’s a big root of this issue as well. I don’t want to ask him if he has an STD because I don’t want to make him uncomfortable, I don’t want to be rejected…
Hopefully this partnership will continue because it’s something that’s really important to me. As I get older, I’m trying to do work that is the kind of stuff I wish had available to me when I was 20… I wish there were funny videos talking about STDs that weren’t preachy and dogmatic and boring… I’m just, in general, trying to get involved with any companies, organizations, or content that are making stuff that i wish was available to me when I was young and making awful mistakes with really bad information.
Visit YESmeansTEST.org to get more information about protecting yourself and your partners!