How the spread impacted human relationships across time.
So long as humans have been around, so too have sexually transmitted diseases and infections. And while many ancient civilizations had their own make-do versions of condoms, they weren’t quite enough to make safe sex easy. That could be one of the reasons that several STDS (once called venereal diseases) have been a part of our history for so long. Let’s look back.
STDs in prehistoric times
Thanks in part to the proliferation of family tree blood tests, we know that a fair amount of humans today have some Neanderthal DNA—so of course early humans and Neanderthals got it on. And addition to playing a role in, well, evolution, these relationships could be responsible for a cancer-causing strain of HPV in humans. Luckily, today, vaccines exist to protect against the most dangerous strains of this virus, which can lead to cervical cancer.
STDs in ancient times
STDs are well-documented in antiquity across cultures: References appear in cuneiform tablets from Ancient Mesopotamia, as well as the Ebers Papyrus, a medical document from Ancient Egypt that dates back to 1550 BCE. Historians can typically infer when ancient peoples were talking about STDs based on the symptoms they describe (often, some kind of genital discharge) and the remedies they recommend. Several early medical texts from ancient Rome, India, and China also include treatment for STIs.
In several ancient cultures—both monotheistic and polytheistic—some humans believed that STIs were a god-given punishment; this is apparent from both Mesopotamian texts and the Old Testament.
STDs in the Middle Ages and Medieval Times
While Christianity was widely spread in the western world by the Middle Ages and the church promoted abstinence, STIs, like syphillis and gonorrhea still spread—which can be attributed to the unsanitary conditions at communal baths, wars, and sex work. Not to mention, as westerners began their colonization efforts, they contributed to the spread of STIs around the world. Syphilis was first recorded in Europe in 1495, for instance, and spread widely and dangerously.
STDs in the 18th and 19th centuries
In 1747, the first hospital to treat venereal diseases, London Lock Hospital, was founded. It was primarily established to treat syphilis, and eventually its treatments expanded to general gynecology. In 1864, the Contagious Diseases Act was passed in Britain to “regulate” sex workers to reduce STD spread, especially in the armed forces. As expected, it led to expansive invasions of privacy: Women who were suspected of prostitution had to register with the police and submit to an invasive medical examination. If they had an STD, they’d be confined to a lock hospital. If they refused examination, they would be subject to imprisonment or hard labor. The act was eventually repealed in 1886.
STDs in the 20th and 21st centuries
In the 20th century, humans made considerable progress in the world of STD/STI treatment of testing. In 1943, penicillin was used to treat syphilis for the first time, and in 1982, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published its first STD treatment guidelines. Improved sex education and increased testing resources also helped to reduce the spread
But stigmas still ran rampant in recent history (see the AIDS epidemic) and event today (the spread of monkeypox)—and reduced funding for sexual health resources has contributed to a more recent rise in STI rates. As society moves forward, the need for stigma-free, holistic sexual health treatment grows, though progress does appear to be on the horizon: The rise of at-home STI testing could significantly help to curb transmission.