Do you feel anxious about the idea of getting tested for sexually transmitted infections and diseases? Some of our readers certainly do.
Some never had adequate sex-education and did not realize that sexual activity with a partner -- and not just anal or vaginal intercourse -- can pose STI risks in the first place. Some are not sure where to go for testing or how to ask for it. Others feel uncomfortable discussing STIs with a partner or potential partner. We get it: this stuff can be hard, and it is usually not the kind of thing where someone just takes us by the hand and leads us through.
This is why we're doing this series at Scarleteen. In it, some of our volunteers share their own stories of how they deal with different aspects of STI testing and reproductive healthcare.
I was going to be taking my STI test with a friend today, with the idea we would both get tested and I could've written in the style of a comedy bromance movie like "Dude. Where's My Car?" except with less sexism and more conversations about male STI testing anxiety and our feelings.
Alas, he has made other arrangements and I'll be going solo to the testing clinic.
I would strongly recommend going with a friend if you think it'd make getting tested feel more comfortable.
Despite not following through with the plan, I really appreciate that our arranging the trip to the clinic allowed us an excuse to acknowledge that we had both prioritised our health in this way, and show to each other that we'd be supportive of one and other were we to find we had caught an oft stigmatised infection. Ashton Kutcher would be proud.
I'm lucky enough to live in the UK and therefore (for now) having free access to an NHS clinic for full STI testing by appointment. But I came here to a community based clinic instead, which is funded by charity, because this project provides testing without appointment and I am extravagantly disorganised and appreciate how much easier this is for me. This clinic focuses on reducing HIV in the MSM (men who have sex with men) demographic, but is open to anyone, and so I'm here in the city centre where it is based. They test for HIV, chlamydia & gonorrhea and I've opted for all three.
On arriving, parking my bike and hopping up the flight of steps, I was seen immediately and filled out some information sheets, which also asked for my mobile number so I could be texted the chlamydia & gonorrhea results. I was handed a series of plastic objects for getting my pee into a vial. In the WC I got to use a pipette to make sure that the exactly correct amount was in the vial.
I was an expert. I only wish I had a white lab coat to complete the look.
As a side note, my friend who couldn't join me had been asking me about the urban legend of some painful and unwieldy metal object that supposedly is pushed up the penis for STI testing. This object does not exist, what it may however refer to is the swab (a glorified cotton bud) used to take a sample of discharge as a way of testing for syphilis when symptoms are already presenting themselves and more commonly to test for gonorrhea. It's not the only way to test for those things, though; my gonorrhea test only required a urine sample.
More importantly it's good to remember that when seeking healthcare, you're dealing with your body and you get to decide whether or not to do any test. If I don't want to do something I find icky, I don't have to, and can just ask for the tests I do want and am comfortable with. Historically, STI testing has been exaggerated, not just by urban myth but also by old fashioned health propaganda as a way to demonise sexual choices.
Testing, rather than being a punishment for sexuality, is, in practise, one of the many great things which help make fantastic, safer sex possible.
After returning from my laboratory -- otherwise known as the loo -- I handed my (perfectly collected) sample back to the nurse and was soon invited to a confidential interview room to receive my HIV test. To my surprise, the person who was to take my blood and test me was someone who I'd met at a local bar and we have mutual friends. Quite professionally this made the first topic ever so much more relevant, i.e. the discussion of confidentiality.
He reminded me that he was bound to keep everything we spoke about inside that room, that the results of my test would be for my benefit only and would not be shared with my doctors nor be made part of my medical records. Only a little anonymous information about me would be kept.
The interview was also a chance for some education; I was asked about what sorts of sex I had been exposed to and told quite directly the varying risks of HIV transmission between different types of sex. Pretty much all sexual acts pose some kind of risk, but it was nice to be trusted with the information that some do more than others.
Asked if I knew what a PEP pill was and where to access it, I said "It's a pill to hinder the likelihood of getting HIV within 24 or 48 hours of having been exposed to it, I think I'd call my GP to get hold of it"
"Almost, but Wrong!" He said "It's 72 hours, and you'd be better off going to the emergency room or the GUM Clinic, GPs can sometimes be very bad at sexual health, and sometimes they say they don't know what a PEP pill is."
Shocking, but it was encouraging that my safety was put first over defending the reputation of GPs.
We then spoke about what measures I take in my sex life to prevent STI transmission and it was a good opportunity to discuss some of my choices. The test was shown to me, a piece of paper with a strip of plastic marking it, separated into sections. I was shown how it would look if it indicated a definite negative (one red line); if it indicated a not-necessarily negative (two red lines) then I could be escorted to an appointment at the GUM clinic to get a thorough blood test.
I was asked how I would feel if the test came out positive. I said that I'd be upset but knowing people who are HIV positive I think I'd be less terrified of the physical implications on my body, caught as early as it would be for me, it is more often like a long term illness than the rapid terminal disease many people imagine. However it would have big implications for the rest of my sex life, and chances were the stigma surrounding the disease would be some of the biggest things I'd worry about.
In being prompted to think about this, I realised that if I was ever to find that I had HIV there was a high likelihood that it would be in an unexpected situation like this, just a routine test. I started to feel nervous for the first time, but the calm encouraging environment, and being able to speak about it meant that I was able to feel confident about getting tested and being better prepared for whatever the result.
I was asked if I had someone to talk to after the test, and what my plans were following the test. I said that I had some people I could call, and that I was planning to meet friends directly after who were celebrating a birthday and I'd feel comfortable talking to them if the news was bad. He assured me that if I needed it there were trained counsellors immediately at hand to talk, in private about whatever I needed, no matter what the result.
I got to decide which finger from which the drop of blood would be taken. My left forefinger suffered a pinprick and the drop was transferred to the test strip.
Now I'm sitting in the waiting area.
I'm almost completely sure it will be negative, but being reminded of the tiny possibility that I'm wrong I feel somewhat lucky that I appear to be in such good hands. A perfect collection of trashy celebrity magazines adorn the coffee table, as is customary in most medical establishments. Less customary is the collection of queer publications. The walls are lined with posters of contact details for vulnerable people, one reaching out to male sex workers in crisis, another clarifying the availability of PEP pills.
I was invited back into the same room and sat down and was handed my test strip, it was pointed out that the red line my blood had formed indicated that the test had worked and the absence of one further on means that 10 weeks from today I was HIV negative. To test for more recent STI risks I may have encountered, I would have needed to come back in another 10 weeks. I said I was happy enough with the test not to plan it. We discussed other STIs that I hadn't been tested for and I concluded that it's probably a good idea I head to the NHS to test for some more, outside the remit of this centre.
Having left the clinic and met my friends, who were dancing away nearby for someone's birthday, I let them know, somewhat comedically, but with some relief, that I was HIV negative. After dropping some wild dance moves and having wished a happy birthday I cycled home.
My evening of STI testing has been an overwhelmingly good experience. I'm thankful that such a place exists as where I got tested. All I need to do now is wait two weeks to receive a text message letting me know of my chlamydia & gonorrhea status.
Your recent c-swap test result is CLEAR. If you have any questions please contact us on 0113######...
I just got the text telling me my test was clear for chlamydia and gonorrhea which is always great news.
At some point I need to book a test for more things, but in the meantime I'm happy that my sexual health seems to be behaving itself, and that checking up on it can be so easy.