I spent most of my adult life as one of those lucky people who could say "I've never had an STI".
Until I got one. Gonorrhoea. AKA "Gonno". The Drip. The Clap. Treatable almost instantly but, being my first, alarming all all the same.
Nobody ever talks about the STIs they've had unless they're newly diagnosed and have been told by a medical professional to inform the people they've slept with. I believe we never say anything because we're afraid of judgement. We don't want to be seen as "dirty".
Slut shaming has a bit to do with STI shaming
Some people look at others who they consider to be promiscuous and say things like, "they look like they have chlamydia", or "they probably have syphilis". This kind of rhetoric is used as an insult to take people down, and make others feel superior for being, they think, "cleaner" than others.
As someone who has always practised safe sex it came as a shock to receive the phone call that I had Gonorrhoea. I had no symptoms. I went through a full round of STI tests three months prior and came out negative for all of them. I had only slept with two people since that check-up, and both were protected.
Was I "dirty"? Was I a slut? Did I deserve it? No to all of these. I was simply unlucky. Gonorrhoea is extremely infectious and I probably got it through oral sex.
Like the common cold, STIs don't discriminate. They don't care if you're rich or poor, young or old, have good or bad personal hygiene, or sleep with two people in a year or twenty. A person deserves an STI about as much as they deserve a stomach flu. It's just the result of a unique set of unfortunate circumstance that have allowed bacteria or a virus to pass from one person to another.
My STI was picked up during a routine screening, which is something Kiwis are increasingly putting off. A 2018 Massey University study found that more than a third of people delayed seeking healthcare by more than a week after they began experiencing symptoms possibly relating to an STI.
Some of this is because of the aforementioned shame attached to having an STI – it's like we thing it's better not to know. Another cause, according to the study, is because people are afraid of the actual tests.
Men in particular are scared of STI tests
The concept of getting swabbed in your most intimate places seems painful, invasive, and embarrassing. What few men know is that STIs can be tested for a variety of ways, including blood, urine, and self-administered oral and anal swabs. The feared "urethra swab" isn't common in New Zealand healthcare centres – and, as somebody who's had it done overseas, it's not that bad anyway.
How do we solve this issue and get more people tested? There are various "know your status" campaigns out there but I think we really just need to start talking about the STIs we've had in the past, like I'm doing now.
There's no disgrace in getting a bacterial infection like Gonorrhoea, as I had. It was treated with an injection in my bum and two tablets. Because I went through a sexual health clinic, it was all free too.
All people, single, partnered, monogamous, non-monogamous... if you're having sex, there's a good chance you've either had or will have an STI one day. They are no big deal unless the are left untreated.
Let us stop being so hush-hush about them. It only makes the stigma worse when you do test positive for an STI, and you feel like you're the only person you know who's ever been through it.