This pilot telephone survey sought to identify social barriers to treating sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in a socially conservative state (Alabama, USA). The sample consisted of 250 household residents aged 19-50 years, mostly African-American and White, who were drawn from the general population. The participants reported that infected persons, per se, should not be stigmatized. However, almost half of respondents stated that they would seek revenge against a partner who infected them. Feelings of embarrassment negatively affected willingness to seek health care; almost half of the respondents stated that, if infected, they would delay treatment or not seek treatment at all. Differences in responses emerged in relation to ethnicity and religiosity, with African-Americans and regular churchgoers being more likely than others to say they would delay or refuse treatment because of embarrassment. Gender differences also emerged: respondents reported that women would be more stigmatized than men if they were infected, even though men should be held responsible for spreading STIs. These findings suggest that stigma may be a compelling barrier to STI control in the American Deep South, and that ethnicity, gender and religiosity play an important role in attitudes toward treatment. © 2005 Taylor & Francis Group Ltd.