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Biem follow up: Interview with psychologist behind the STD transparency app

The psychology of normalizing sexual health and turning it into a "lifestyle" choice

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This is a follow up to the first post on Biem, one of the first apps to facilitate getting tested for STD and communicating to your sexual partners your results. It tries to eliminate both physical and emotional hurdles for getting tested and sharing results. Currently, only available to 18+ yo in New York state area.

I spoke with 3rd co-founder Natalie Brito who is a developmental psychologist working at NYU. Her husband, Art Rastinehad, is another one of the co-founders and featured in the original post. Natalie brought up many interesting relevant points, here is a condensed version with a few after thoughts from me. 

  • With Biem, they did not want to just push education. Reducing the spread of STDs clearly not just an access issue. Natalie wanted to use her background and training in developmental psychology for two purposes, to 1) find new ways to reduce the social stigma, and 2) how to convince people to do things they did not want to do.
  • Interesting parallels she discovered along the way (fodder for finding intersections):  she looked into literature on abortion and miscarriages, another space laden with strong emotions like judgment, anxiety, guilt, grief. In this space, like STDs, there is a lot of literature around what needs to be done but few solutions. There is a sense of personal responsibility and a parallel solution needed that requires more people to talk about it, basically normalization.
  • Similar parallel with postpartem depression and prostate cancer: problems that no one wanted to talk about and needed to be normalized before could be addressed properly. A really good example we talked about was breast cancer awareness, something that we talk about very openly now and support (wearing pink, athletes/celebrities/public figures all endorsing movement and advocacy), but up until the late 1990s there was still a huge stigma around it. It took a lot of effort to open communication lines, improve education, get women to get regular examinations. We can see a similar movement with the gay rights movement, and all the ups and downs still inherent in a controversial subject like sexuality.
  • Interesting that all these areas are female-dominated but we also talked about male problems that remain taboo: hair loss, erectile dysfunction, testicular cancer etc.
  • Natalie is especially interested in how to normalize the conversation. She talks to women who are hesitant to enforce birth control and get STD tested but who are really strict around all other aspects of their life: going to the dentist, flossing, exercising regularly, eating healthily. "it's amazing how much we can prioritize these outward signs of health and not care about or de-prioritize something as important as our sexual health."
  • Obviously a lot of this is driven by negative emotions like fear and shame. Women so afraid of getting tested. Natalie had one friend who had been 100% abstinent for almost 8 months and was still afraid to get tested because she was paranoid about the results (even though defied logic that she could have gotten anything). 
  • LIFESTYLE: As part of turning this into a lifestyle, Biem working on integrating the logo into dating apps like Bumble and Tinder so you can see who values STD health. The logo pops up on their profile, showing they care about their health, and Natalie argues this "makes it easier to have a conversation off the bat about whether the other person is on the same page in terms of getting tested, and willingness to be open about their health." 
  • Even though the app allows others to share results, no one does this. The most popular answer if someone tests positive on something is, "no f*ing way I'm telling anyone." A lot remains to be done about the sharing results aspect. 

I'm inspired by the reach and influence of tele-medicine and how it will grow in influence over time. Especially in places like Africa where smartphone and cell phone access are incredibly common. After talking to Natalie, I'm convinced that education needs to happen earlier, she talked about a formative development period as early as 10-11 yo where they are first exposed to sex and feelings of desire/sexuality (earlier and earlier these days). The foundation is instilling a strong sense of self-esteem and normalizing the conversation enough to make it ok to learn more about it and act to take care of yourself. Get people to see it like flossing or exercising, make the experience of learning about it and getting tested more "empathetic" and "comfortable," and finding ways to integrate it into daily life, e.g. dating apps, health apps, etc.


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