Why wasn't syphilis stigmatized to the extent that HIV/AIDS was?

So just doing some light reading on the syphilis epidemic of the 20th century made me realize that a) STDs were way more widespread that I thought and b) how disparate societal attitudes were towards these diseases. Even the approach public officials took towards addressing and trying to stymie the spread of syphilis was a complete 180 to the Reagan administration’s deafening silence on the AIDS crisis. Why was that so? Untreated syphilis, at least to me, has more devastating long term consequences than AIDS with the sole upside being that it doesn’t kill you as quickly as AIDS (although that strongly depends on the individual). Is it solely due to its initial exclusive association with the gay community, which allowed an excuse to amplify the homophobia? Would people have been more compassionate about AIDS if it was always considered an equal opportunity disease like syphilis and other STDs are?

Wasn’t it stigmatized in further back times? Like Henry VIII’s madness was blamed on syphilis (which he didn’t have) and it was used as a kind of slur in those times? Also, syphilis likely wasn’t as stigmatized because it wasn’t (predominantly) spread within an already, historically ill-thought of minority. AIDs in the 80s was thought of as a gay disease, because at that point, it seemed only gays had it/were getting it, and in Abrahamic societies there’s been millennia old taboos against homosexuality. Take into account America’s attitudes towards gays in the earlier part of the 20th century and you can see why AIDs would be stigmatized.

It was, in conservative eyes, a gay disease spread by gays being promiscuous because they were an inherently wicked, over-sexed, sleazy group (from the POV of an 80s era American conservative). Syphillis on the other hand wasn’t confined to an already-disliked minority.

Syphilis was way more stigmatized than ever AIDs was. It was a major shame up to the 1950s and inspired many works of fiction that didn’t even mention the subject directly. It was considered the ultimate proof of wickedness and many many people were shunned along with their families.
I’ve always considered it foully disgusting that people who piously applaud AIDs sufferers as martyrs still use Syphilitic as an insult — following centuries of such fulsome pious moral condemnation for the sufferers of what may be a worse and equally unmerited disease.

People with gonorrhea weren’t applauded either.

Syphilis was very much stigmatized in the era before they figured out how to treat it. By the time AIDS rolled around, however, syphilis was curable and AIDS was a death sentence.

Even as late as the late 70s, at least in my family, a family member who had syphilis was spoken of in hushed tones, as if he was a leper; and his status as someone with that disease was viewed with quiet disgust. AIDs however was a whole different beast because of how lethal it was, and how suddenly it came about. In the early 80s it was akin to a plague, with no one knowing what was causing it, how it spread, and who could get it next. You have to take that state of panic into account when considering the stigma surrounding AIDs. Such fear can quickly lead to resentment for the parties found “guilty” so to speak of spreading the disease - and unfortunately, that’s what happened with the gay community (even to a degree amongst themselves) as a result of AIDs.

AIDs is unique because it was both an STD, and a frightening epidemic. People thought you could get it through by breathing in the air in the very early 80s, and even as late as the mid 80s, simply by kissing or sharing a drink with an infected person - and ANYONE could potentially be effected - and those that were were automatically thought of as gay, and shunned by society’s less tolerant elements - even if they were not.

I agree with those on the side of syphilis being a huge stigma. The different times are what make it seem different. Even a “suggestion” of an STD,–called venereal disease back in the day–could seriously damage a person’s reputation.

Eddie Murphy did a routine in which he imagined women who’d go to gay dance clubs so they could dance without getting hit on by guys, then say thanks and goodbye to their gay friends with a quick friendly smooch. . . and come home to their husbands with AIDS on their lips.

The OP should google Randolph Churchill and Al Capone to get a sense of the loathing that syphilis inspired in relatively modern times.

I worked in a hospital in 1970 when we had a woman with syphilis admitted. The reaction of the female aids was utter disgust. The nurses’ reaction was more professional, but back in the break room they had some sharp comments, as well.

I would hazard a guess that you’ve met approximately zero people who do that.

Did you even try a little basic research? Syphilis was a terror on a scale unimaginable today.

HIV is actually quite a difficult infection to get, much more so than most STD’s. Contrary to what we used to think (and very much unlike syphilis, herpes, gonnorhea etc.) it was never that much of a risk for the modal person in developed countries. It was common among specific populations (in much of sub-Saharan Africa, because of the cultural practice of ‘dry sex’, look it up, and because of low condom prevalence and suppressed immunity due to things like malnutrition, and among gay males because of the greater risk of abrasions involved in anal sex).

For that reason it was an easier disease for white, straight, Americans to stigmatize as something that only happened to other people.

I’ve come across it on this board. So don’t guess.

Sure you have.


Then it should be simple for you to quote someone doing those things. Note that I said “those things” because you accused people of doing 2 things, not just one.

I’d say the whole subject area is a lot more complicated than it is presented here. For example, part of the extra stigmatization that took place over AIDS, was entirely due to the intense political war that was going on as it came to everyone’s attention in the 1980’s.

The Reagan administration failed to properly address it for a number of reasons, most of which had to do more with political strategies, than with concern about diseases, or even with prejudice against gays. And the fact that it was completely mysterious for a long time, and killed a LOT of people before the direct cause was discovered, made it much more frightening.

One thing I will always recall with intense annoyance, is that back in the eighties, the primary news outlets dealt with it all in about the stupidest way they could. Every day, I would hear the exact same pair of stories repeated. Sometimes separated by another issue, to make it less obvious how idiotic the reporters were, sometimes not. The two headlines were:

1: You can’t catch AIDS by hugging people, or caring for them, and you are a swine if you treat them like the lepers of ancient times.

2: The government isn’t taking the AIDS epidemic seriously, and is hiding the truth of the intense danger that the public is in at every moment from this entirely mysterious, virulent killer.

They capped that off later, by adding on that you can hug and kiss people with AIDS without endangering yourself…and in the same breath, saying “it’s spread by coming into contact with sufferers bodily fluids.” Without, of course, explaining how sweat and saliva weren’t “bodily fluids.”

With that kind of stupidity ruling the airwaves, it’s wasn’t surprising to me at all, that a lot of people went into panic mode.

You forgot to mention the worst thing about HIV in the 80s…the absolute refusal of the Red Cross to insure the safety if the blood supply.

One of my interests is medical history, and that’s why I have read extensively about the history of syphilis and its sociology and treatment, including materials contemporary to the early century or even before. (You Tube also has some very interesting materials that are not always SFW.)

Remember when people had to get blood tests before they got married? This was why.

How about the infamous Tuskegee Study? :mad:

Or even better yet, the experiments in Guatemala that were revealed just a few years ago? :eek:

When Paul Ehrlich discovered Salvarsan (arsphenamine or “606”, so named because it was the 606th compound he studied) and later Neosalvarsan (neoarsphenamine or “914”), 100 or so years ago, it was hailed the way sulfa drugs were in the 1930s. Their administration was difficult and painful, but it was a treatment that actually cured people. Its administration, done along with topical mercury and bismuth injections, took 18 months for a complete treatment and was probably as unpleasant as modern-day cancer chemotherapy.

Part of the stigma was because in some areas, it was considered a “Negro” disease, and that this was the only way otherwise “decent” white women could get it. :eek: :mad: :rolleyes:

One of my professors, who is still living, was a WW II veteran, and he said that soldiers with VD were put into the sick bay and given IM penicillin shots every 4 hours (this was before depot penicillin was invented) and the nurses would usually make a big production out of awakening them at night, and make sure the shots were as painful as possible. :o

I recently acquired some extremely vintage Reader’s Digests (1930s) and one of them has an article titled “Let’s Call It Syphilis, and Let’s Get Rid Of It.” It reads a lot like the AIDS stories I remember from the 1980s.