If you’re over the age of 30 it’s unlikely that you will never have had an STI in your lifetime.
They’re that common and most are viruses, like the common cold. However, we’ve been sold a myth that only reckless, promiscuous, and therefore dirty and unsavoury people contract sexually transmitted infections. This isn’t true.
According to the Terrence Higgins Trust, attendance at sexual health clinics has risen by 15% in five years. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are contracting STIs, but that more people are seeking treatment for common infections, such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and genital warts, than in previous years.
Of course, no one wants to find out they have an STI and safe, protected and consensual sex is the sex we should all be having, especially the first time you get off with someone. But if you do discover that you’ve got a sexually transmitted infection, your life is by no means over.
Relearn what you know about sex
Fear-based sex education has a lot to answer for when it comes to the shame that many people experience in relation to sex and sexuality. Most school-age sex ed demonises STIs and the people who contract them, creating a culture of fear and othering, so of course, you’re likely to feel ashamed if you catch one yourself.
While sex ed does teach us about the benefits of safe sex and how to use condoms, it doesn’t teach us much about what causes STIs, what they are and how to spot and treat them. This also creates an atmosphere of fear and means that usually, if we do contract something, we’ll overreact.
It’s important to remember that if your test result comes back positive, whatever you have can be treated and there’s no shame in your diagnosis. You, hopefully, enjoyed your sexual experience, and while it probably wasn’t worth an STI, this is something that can be easily rectified if addressed quickly. So, sidestep any feelings of shame and get yourself to a GP, sexual health clinic or specialist service for treatment.
Remove shame from the equation
You’ve already shared more than you bargained for with another human being in this scenario but listen, talking about your positive test result and sharing your feelings about it is a good way to deal with the situation. Whether you speak to a friend, a sexual health counsellor, a therapist, an online support group or someone from the Samaritans or Switchboard on the phone, simply telling someone that you have an STI and how you feel about it, how it happened and what you plan to do next can shrink the problem and enable you to see it as much more manageable.
Chatting with other people about things like this can also break down some of the stigma created by fear-based sex ed and help you to equate sexually transmitted infections with other people’s humanity, rather than their faults and misgivings. STIs are common and they don’t discriminate. Sure, if you don’t look out for yourself and tend to have a lot of unprotected sex with multiple partners who do the same, your chances of contracting something are higher, but this is a matter of statistics, not morals and personal judgements about other people and their lifestyles.
Get tested and get treatment
There are plenty of ways to get tested if you believe you have an STI or you’ve come in to contact with someone that has one. I can’t lie to you and say tests are a walk in the park, because they usually involve hospitals, a lot of waiting around, swabs and some blood being taken, but overall, this is pretty low-level stuff and none of it is painful. Plus, you get free condoms. Always ask for the free condoms.
If however, you feel too anxious to attend an appointment to be tested at a hospital or clinic, you can order self-testing kits online from sexual health services, charities and sex-tech businesses – the latter being more costly and the former being free. These kits are easy to use at home, or wherever you happen to be. Just seal and post and receive your results, usually by text or email, in a matter of days.
Treatment varies depending on what your prognosis is but generally, STIs are treated with antibiotics, in pill form and as injections, creams for your skin or antiviral medications for the likes of HIV and herpes.
You’ll be advised to abstain from sex and sexual interaction with others while you’re receiving your treatment, or to be very careful and use condoms for a couple of months at a maximum. Showing others respect for their health is a big part of the prevention of contagion – this includes being transparent about your STI status and where you are in your treatment journey, being responsible and practicing safe and consensual sex, advocating for your own health, communicating with previous sexual partners and being mindful of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
Obviously, not everyone shows others these forms of respect after finding out they’ve tested positive for something, but for your own mental wellbeing and the mental and physical wellbeing of others, it’s something worth considering and practicing.
Process your emotions
It’s very easy to feel betrayed, bitter, vengeful even, when someone passes a sexually transmitted infection on to you. The stigma surrounding these very common and normal viruses can provoke feelings of worthlessness, anger and sadness and that, in turn, is normal. It’s totally ok to feel that way, but the healthiest way to move forward is to see yourself, not as a victim, but as a fallible human among billions of other fallible humans, moving from point to point in a game of chance.
You can control the statistical likelihood of contracting an STI by being safe and using protective contraception like condoms when you have sex. And you can limit the spread by being respectful of others and getting checked and tested regularly. But if you do catch something, try not to worry. Get your medicine – don’t forget your free condoms – sleep and eat well to support your immune system and be more careful next time.