So, over the weekend I watched an episode of “The Carrie Diaries” for the first time because a friend of mine had a role on it (Hi Trey!). He played a character who (spoiler alert!) informs Bennet that Bennet’s ex-boyfriend has AIDS. One of Trey’s lines, “There’s a test now. You should get it” made me think about doing a post about getting tested for HIV and other STDs (While the term “STI” is probably a bit more accurate to what I’m talking about, I’m going to use “STD” since it’s a more familiar term).
Of course, as soon as I thought that I should write about STD testing, I got nervous. Obviously I’d want to write about my own experiences with getting tested, since there wouldn’t be much of a point in just giving you the facts – you could get those in many other places. But, if I’m going to write about that, that means I have to admit to the internet that I’ve gotten tested for STDs. My family reads my blog (Hi Dad!). My former students read my blog! People I’ve SLEPT with read my blog! (Ok, I’m not entirely sure that’s true, but there’s always the chance).
But, of course, part of the reason that I’d be writing about STD testing is because it’s something that people DON’T talk about (kind of tragic, considering that America leads the developed world in STDs). It’s something that people are nervous or embarrassed to talk about. Part of the reason for that is for many people, getting an STD test is like admitting that you might have an STD. And nobody wants to admit THAT, because only dirty, slutty people who have risky, unprotected sex get STDs, right?
Here’s the thing. Getting tested for STDs is part of a healthy sex life, the same as buying condoms or communicating with your partner(s).
The first guy I slept with had a big influence on how I personally view STD testing; one day (before we started dating, when we were just friends), he casually mentioned that he’d gone for an STD screening the day before. I was a little weirded out – while it had never occurred to me that he might have an STD, for some reason the fact that he was going to get tested made me worry. He explained to me that he usually went every year to get tested, as a way to make sure everything was ok. His straightforwardness set the tone for my future experiences with STD testing – because he made it seem like a logical part of being sexually active, I was more comfortable getting tested and less nervous about bringing it up with partners. Hopefully reading about it will help influence your perception of it too (and then you can bring it up with your friends, and they can bring it up with their friends…). Trust me, taking steps to ensure your safety (and your partner’s) will make you feel super-responsible and empowered.
Now, when and how often you want to get tested is up to you. Obviously, if you’ve had unprotected sex and are having any kind of symptoms, get tested immediately; for many STDs, early detection and treatment can help prevent longer-term health problems. Also, if you’ve ever had unprotected sex of any kind (or any kind of condom malfunction), a test may be a good idea, depending on your risk factors. While different kinds of sex carry different risks, any exchange of fluids (and sometimes just skin contact) carries the risk of transmission.
Even if all the sex you’ve had has been protected, you may still want to think about testing. Keep in mind, while consistently using a physical barrier like a condom or dental dam does significantly reduce your chance of contracting or passing on an STD, these methods aren’t perfect. Just like many women choose to use condoms along with another form of birth control to help prevent pregnancy, using a condom AND testing to prevent STD transmission provides you with even more protection and more peace of mind.
Further, getting tested regularly, even if you’re at a lower risk, can make the act of getting tested less scary (and therefore more easy to do if something happens that has you worried). Obviously, your health insurance and financial status can be a factor in how often you get tested. Some people find an annual test to be their best bet; others get tested when they break up with a partner or when they start seeing someone new. Setting this kind of schedule can make getting tested feel more like “making sure everything’s ok” instead of “testing to see if I have an awful scary disease”. Plus, getting tested regularly makes it easier to broach the subject with a potential partner.
If you have health insurance, you can talk to your doctor about which tests might be appropriate for you. If you’re on your parents’ insurance and are worried that they’ll know that you’ve been tested, you can contact the insurance company to ask what their policy is with reporting tests. The same goes for college health services; you can ask them what their policies are or ask them to direct you to a local clinic. If you don’t have insurance or are nervous about using your parents’ insurance, a quick Google search can help you find testing in your area.
Keep in mind, we judge people for getting STDs for similar reasons that we participate in other kinds of victim-blaming – we want to believe that they won’t happen to us. That people who DO contract STDs are dirty, promiscuous people who knowingly have unprotected, risky sex. We want to believe that WE would never do such things, and therefore are safe from STDs. But the fact is, if you’re having any kind of sex, you’re at risk. People aren’t perfect: neither are any methods of protection besides complete abstinence. Condoms break, they slip off, and they’re not 100% effective against all STDs even when used perfectly. People are embarrassed to bring up protection with a new partner, or they have sex while drunk and neglect to use a condom. And none of these are reasons to stigmatize someone.
Now, my first experience with STD testing was pretty traumatic for me (especially since it happened before I’d ever had sex). I was in college, and I developed a weird, bumpy rash on my mouth. I went to the campus health services, where the nurse took one look, said “it’s herpes,” took a culture swab, told me that this outbreak should go away in a week or so, and sent me on my merry way. I was devastated; my Catholic guilt piled on top of the social stigmas and made me feel awful. While I knew that oral herpes is ridiculously common (50%-80% of adults in the US have it), I still felt dirty. I’d never even had sex, and here I had an STD. What would my parents think? How would I ever kiss anyone again?
It didn’t help when the test results came back negative, and the rash was still there. I went back to health services, had another swab, was put on Valtrex, and again dismissed. The swab came back negative and the rash stayed. This pattern continued (with the swab tests turning into blood tests and the nurse telling me they’d have to figure out how to submit the claim to insurance, since this many tests in such a short amount of time wouldn’t be covered). The tests kept coming back negative and I stayed on Valtrex, but the rash didn’t go away.
In the meantime, since I was too ashamed to talk about this with anyone, I spent hours Googling herpes and cold sores. Everything I found online should have been reassuring – the virus is very common, many people contract it when they’re children, and managing it to avoid passing it on is fairly straightforward – but I couldn’t make myself feel better.
We reached Christmas break, and I went home for the holidays. While there, I made an appointment with my GP to see if he could do anything for me. He listened to my story, examined the rash, and told me it was probably some kind of allergic reaction. He prescribed a cream, and the rash never came back. While I was relieved, I was also really angry about how much time I’d spent feeling bad about myself. I decided then and there that STD testing was something I was NEVER going to feel bad about again, and that I’d make sure to never judge someone for getting tested or for having an STD.
Years later, I dated a guy who did have an STD. As he told me about it, I could hear him trying to keep his voice steady, and I felt his hands shake. I remembered how scared I’d been when I thought I had an STD – how I thought that nobody would ever want to kiss me again, and how I was terrified by the possibility that I might pass it on to somebody else. Now I was on the other end of the situation – I had to think about the possibility that no matter how careful we were, I might contract an STD from someone I cared about.
Both of those situations influenced the way that I think about STDs and STD testing. STDs are, like any other illness or infection, a part of life, something that you’re at risk for if you’re having sex. Just like teachers catch colds from their students and nurses bring home germs from the hospital, they’re an occupational hazard. If we can get more comfortable with that, then talking about things like getting tested will be easier, more people will get tested, and hopefully more cases of STDs will be cured or managed, preventing further stress, health problems, and spread.