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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.
My partner at the time — I’m still with him — offered to get tested for STIs before our first meeting in person.
I turned him down.
More clearly, I told him he didn't have to do that on my account, that I trusted everything he told me.
I think I must have decided that he didn't have an STI.
Someone told me once that I was more powerful than electricity. If that is true, which I highly doubt it is, I must be truly powerful indeed, to conduct blood and urine analyses over the phone or Internet, and with no scientific or medical training at that!
There is, too, the issue of trust. To decide that my partner didn't have any STIs, I would not only have had to trust his word on things -- as well as his education about STIs, risks, and sexual healthcare -- but also the word of his previous sexual partners, whom I didn't know and will never know.
I was fortunate. My naivete, or lack of knowledge, or possibly arrogance, didn't affect my health, nor that of my partner. Looking back on this though, I wonder just where my confidence came from.
We were scrupulous about pregnancy prevention. Deciding on birth control took several serious discussions over the phone. We both spent time online (sadly, not here at Scarleteen) researching contraception. We discussed things like short-term or long-term options, who wanted to get the contraception, discarding condoms we both had lying around in favour of buying new, fresh ones,.
Yet our discussion of STIs was brief.
As part of sharing our relationship histories with each other, we shared information about previous sexual experiences.
We determined early on that using condoms would be at least part of our contraceptive approach.
We trusted each other. He was the first person I was sexual with.
According to what I knew, that was enough.
My first exposure to the concept of sexually transmitted infections was when I was in Grade 5. Our science teacher was reading us an (age-appropriate) article about AIDS. The only thing I remember about it was that she had to stop reading to briefly explain what "sexual intercourse" was.
The next time I heard about STIs was three years later in Grade 8 Health class, when we each had to write a report on a specific disease or infection. I wrote about Hepatitis B.
It was 1993, and there wasn't a lot in our school library about any STIs.
The next time I recall, with any sort of vividness, STIs being part of any conversation was in Grade 11 biology, when the teacher did everything she could, within the confines of the science curriculum and what she was allowed to teach, to educate us about human sexuality.
We were given about forty pages of Braille about contraceptives. And another forty pages about STIs and STI prevention. A sheaf of forty brailled pages is about an inch thick. Perhaps I remember it so well because of the weight of carrying it around, and the novelty of having so much sexuality information quite literally at my fingertips.
I spent a good deal of time in the school library secretively perusing the three books about sex we had in the stacks. I was on the hunt for juicy details, though, and those books were old, so I have no idea what kind of STI prevention content they taught.
Other exposures to the concept of STIs were fleeting--including brief mentions in other health classes and a visit from Public Health nurses who, as I recall, talked mostly about contraception. These exposures taught, in brief glimpses, that:
a) STIs were something other people get, or something not to be worried about until one was going to have sex, which was of course going to be way in the future.
b) STIs were a list of causes, symptoms, transmission methods, and treatments.
What I realize now is that the education I got about STIs didn’t specify how they could be transmitted sexually. Essentially, the monolithic view of sex bled into the realms of STI prevention methods. In other words, saying "sexual contact" was enough since only one activity is truly considered sex. I also wasn't taught that STIs, like other kinds of infectious disease, weren't something other people, or only "some people" could acquire or transmit, but something anyone and everyone could deal with and need to deal with.
The actual experience of being tested for STIs was nothing to write home about.
The most challenging things about it have to do with the uniquenesses of my body. We finally completed the blood draw after I directed the nurse to the exact vein on my arm which will always give up blood, unlike the others which resemble dried out spaghetti and run screaming every time the little tiny butterfly needle comes close. I am always very grateful for nurses and technicians who listen to me, who recognize that, in living in my body, I have important information about it that they need in order to do their jobs.
The other part of a full STI screening is a urine test. I had to go back for that one. My bladder got so nervous it wouldn’t release a drop, no matter how much water I drank.
In other words, getting STI tests is no less or more challenging than getting other medical tests done. It seems the biggest challenge about getting them is often realizing we need them.
The most memorable STI testing experience I ever had was when I needed a syphilis test done as part of my immigration paperwork to move from Canada to the U.S. Apparently, syphilis tests are time sensitive. The lab where I had the blood drawn didn’t get the blood sent out to the testing lab in time, and I had to go for another blood draw, never a fun prospect for me!
Somehow, between my shy camel-bladder, and slow labs, I finally got all my STI testing done. But all of this was only something I did several years after starting a long-term relationship. While I didn't have a choice about the syphilis test for the U.S. government, I had a choice about all the rest of it, and, once I knew how important it was, I chose to get answers. Should I ever find myself in another relationship, I won't hesitate to get another screening done, even if my veins and bladder protest the entire way.