The Dirt on “Clean”

Doodle using pencil eraser to erase note that reads “If your test comes back clean”

Here at We ❤️ Health Literacy HQ, we like to say that communicating about sexual and reproductive health care takes extra, well… care. After all, many people don’t feel very comfortable discussing things like HIV and other STDs (STIs? STDs). And when we’re dealing with a sensitive topic, we know we need to be extra thoughtful about the words we use.  

Which brings us to this week’s post, in which we address a seemingly innocent but potentially very harmful word: “clean.” Maybe you’re thinking, wait a sec, clean is good! But here’s the thing: Context matters. And if your context is STDs, do everyone a favor and strip “clean” from your vocabulary.

Consider a couple examples:

  • Get tested for HIV regularly so you know if you’re clean.
  • If your chlamydia test comes back clean…

You can see how a health educator or communicator might get there. We often aim for a friendly, conversational tone — and “clean” is something people say in this context. But when you consider that it’s standing in for “STD-free,” the friendly part goes out the window. Because what’s the opposite of clean? That’s right, “dirty.” And we certainly don’t want to imply that someone with an STD — which, by the way, is 1 in 5 of us! — is dirty.

People who have STDs may already be dealing with feelings of shame and isolation. As health communicators, it’s our job to make sure the words we choose don’t perpetuate those feelings or contribute to damaging stigma. We think dropping “clean” once and for all is something we can all agree on.

So going back to the examples above, skip “clean” and aim for a stigma-free approach:

  • Get tested regularly so you know your HIV status — and you can get the care you need if you’re HIV-positive.
  • If your test result shows that you don’t have chlamydia…

The bottom line: Using “clean” to mean “STD-free” helps perpetuate damaging stigma. So skip the judgment and use objective words to say what you mean.  

Tweet about it: Using “clean” to mean “STD-free” helps perpetuate damaging stigma. So leave it out of your STD-related #HealthComm vocabulary, says @CommunicateHlth: #HealthLit


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