Inclusive language is one of the ways we approach providing relatable and relevant information to our peers. Using inclusive language is a way we put our values – including sex-positivity, anti-oppression, and inclusiveness – into action. Being excluded from the information that is provided to us impacts our health, our ability to make informed choices, and the ways we access information and support.
These guidelines are far from exhaustive: there are many, many words used within HIV, Hep C, sexual health, and harm reduction that reflect stigma, fear, and misinformation. We welcome feedback, suggestions, and additions anytime! YouthCO is also able to facilitate workshops to provide more information as to the ways this language can be stigmatizing, and relevant alternatives for specific settings!
Teachings from the Native Youth Sexual Health Network have influenced this resource! This amazing organization invites us to consider ways to use supportive language as an alternative to stigmatizing language.
Avoid using language that is stigmatizing! Instead, try neutral or supportive alternatives! See our examples.
Infect or spread
ex. Youth can be infected through sex
ex. HIV can be passed through unprotected vaginal, anal, or frontal sex
Infected with HIV, Hep C, an STI
Suffers from HIV, Hep C, an STI
Living with HIV, Hep C, an STI, [other diagnosis]
Was diagnosed with an STI [or other condition]
“AIDS” or “HIV/AIDS” when referring to HIV
ex. It is important to get tested for AIDS
ex. Died from HIV/AIDS
ex. It is important to get tested for HIV
ex. Died from AIDS-related complications; died from opportunisticinfections
“They,” “them” or “those people”
ex. When their immune system is weak
ex. If they are taking Hep C medications
“We,” “our” or “those of us” – especially in peer contexts
ex. When our immune system is weak
ex. If we are taking Hep C medications; those of us who are taking HIV medications
ex. Protect against HIV
ex. Prevent HIV from being passed
Sexually transmitted disease (STD)
Sexually transmitted infection (STI) - infection is more accurate and less stigmatizing
“Healthy” when referring to people who are not living with HIV or Hep C
ex. People living with HIV and Hep C can have healthy children
More specific language - people can be healthy whether or not we are living with HIV, Hep C, or other conditions
ex. People living with HIV and Hep C can have children who are HIV/HCV negative
ex. Thanks guys for having YouthCO!
Folks, friends, guests – words that are not gendered
ex. Folks, thanks so much for having YouthCO!
Chest feeding, nursing
ex. We are seeing fewer cases of HIV happen through mother-to-child transmission.
HIV passed at birth or through nursing – this phrasing makes assumptions about the gender of birth parents, and places blame/responsibility for transmission on the birth parent.
ex. Some youth became HIV-positive at birth or through nursing.
Clean/dirty used to describe equipment or people
To describe people – abstinent, not using/actively using To describe equipment (e.g. needles) – new, unused/used
ex. Female condoms
ex. Pap smears are an important part of health care for women
Body parts or actions
ex. Insertive condoms
ex. Pap smears are an important part of health care for people with a cervix
Junkies, addicts, alcoholics, when used to describe other people
People who use drugs, people experiencing addiction, people with a substance use disorder (depending on what we’re talking about; note, most of us use drugs whether that be caffeine, nicotine, etc.)
Homosexual; transsexual; identity-based slurs
Terms people use to self-identify
ex. gay, lesbian, bisexual, trans, pansexual, etc.
ex. slut, promiscuous, crazy, dirty, bad
Speaking neutrally about activities
ex. Having sex, using drugs
ex. Using drugs is a risk activity for Hep C
ex. Risk activities for HIV include...
ex. Youth are at-risk for Hep C
More specific language - “risk” is produced by inequities and systems of oppression, is often used as a label to exclude or stigmatize people, and portrays people as a source of virus or bacteria
ex. Sharing needles can pass Hep C
ex. Activities that can pass HIV include...
ex. Youth may come into contact with Hep C
ex. Normal sex
ex. A normal CD4 cell count is...
More specific language - “normal” can be othering and exclusive
ex. Penis in vagina sex; sex where a mouth is on a bum, vulva, strapless
ex. CD4 cell counts above 500 mean our immune system can fight off most infections
ex. This is a safe space.
ex. This is one way to have safe sex / safely inject
Safer - “safe” is a subjective concept
ex. We work together to make this a safer space.
ex. Safer sex can look like conversations with partners, or letting friends know where we are.
Treatment as Prevention (TasP)
More specific language such as treatment, ARVs, medication, undetectable viral load that centres people living with HIV rather than public health prevention narratives.
“Newcomer” to describe someone who has lived in Canada for a long time
More specific language - Afro-Canadian Positive Network taught us that the word newcomer, used to refer to someone who has been in Canada a long time, can be othering
Please share far and wide, with credit to YouthCO and the organizations who have shared their knowledge with us!
Other great language resources:
- Five Things Media Makers Can Do NOW to Stand Up to HIV Stigma, Positive Women's Network
- A Progressive’s Style Guide, SumOfUs.org and ActivistEditor.com
Want us to list your inclusive language resource, or have feedback about our resource? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll get in touch!
YouthCO believes that all youth have the right to accessible and affirming information about our health. We also know each of us has a unique relationship to our bodies, sex, sexuality, substance use, and harm reduction. For many of us, the words other people use for our bodies and their functions are not the words we use for ourselves. Throughout our website, YouthCO uses words for bodies and sex that we know will not reflect the full diversity of our communities. We have tried to, where possible, be as expansive with our language as we know how to while being as specific as possible. As youth leading the HIV movement, we too are learning about the best words for our experiences and do not do this perfectly. We invite any feedback about the language used on our website, in our programs, and in our resources to help us move forward in the best ways for all youth in our communities!