The majority of people I know have contracted an STI at some point in their lives. Including myself. He was Swiss and tall and handsome and, looking back, so sexually nonchalant I should have screamed. Plus, he didn’t know who Elizabeth Warren was and that should always be your first clue in misguidance. We had a long distance relationship for a few months and amidst the whirlwind, caution took pause.
He called on my birthday (Swiss timing right?) to give me the good news: he had chlamydia. I hung up the phone and immediately called the clinic to make an appointment. Looking back, I wish I would’ve handled things better—not thrown caution to the wind, not have hung up the phone so abruptly. But wishes are for eyelashes and birthday cakes, so we keep moving forward.
The Lowdown (had to)
Chlamydia is the most common notifiable disease in the United States with over 1.4 million cases reported in 2014. (Notifiable = you have to tell the government so they can track outbreaks.) The good news is, that’s fewer than the number of vanilla Americanos I go through in a year. And the other good news: it is curable with antibiotics. This doesn't mean that you should play it fast and loose with your sex life. Chlamydia is only one of several STIs, many of which do not respond to antibiotics.
So what about the cases where antibiotics won’t make a difference? Does life stop? Do you Google “how to become a hermit”? Do you resort to watching Golden Girls reruns while waiting out your days? The answer is no, not at all. Life continues.
Getting an STI can make you feel super alone...
I have a friend who has been living with type two herpes (genital herpes) for a few years now. She’s open about it, but hasn’t always been. When she first found out, she freaked and dropped off the face of the planet for a couple of weeks, just waiting for her first outbreak to occur as her doctor said it would (she hadn’t had any symptoms and only found out through a blood test).
She had gotten it into her head that she would never have a sexual relationship again, and that her other relationships wouldn’t last once people found out she was “tainted.” When the outbreak did come, it didn’t end up being as bad as she thought. Flu-like, yes. Not the cutest, yes. But manageable. She joined some support groups, her anxiety started to dissipate, and her self-love gradually returned.
When she told me this, I thought how awful it must have been to feel so alone and “other” during that time. The taboo surrounding certain STIs and not others is so unwarranted.
I called my best friend about the chlamydia balling the moment I found out, and she made me feel better by saying at least it wasn’t trenchfoot. But would I have called her if it had been another STI?
...but you're TOTALLY not. Time to break the taboo.
We have to dismantle this taboo to encourage a common conversation about STIs, protection, and prevention. We have to allow honesty not to be shamed, but encouraged for the betterment of society.
We have to open the conversation up with partners especially (it can be more stressful than watching the season finale of The Walking Dead—but it has to happen). Whether it's a stable relationship or a one-night stand, it's just as important to be honest, and ask your partner to do the same. If you’re struggling, there are some great tips here from Janelle Marie who has made it her mission to make sure the world knows that an STI is not a deal breaker (hello, hero!)
In America, the numbers for existing infections look something like this:
- Over 79 million people are living with HPV
- Over 24 million people are living with Herpes
- Over 3.7 million have Trichomoniasis
- Over 1.5 million people have Chlamydia
- Over 900,000 people are living with HIV
- Over 800,000 people have gonorrhea
- Over 420,000 people have HBV
- Over 117,000 people are living with syphilis
These numbers show that no one is alone, and no one should be ostracized for having a medical affliction (see any Tom Hanks movie ever).
Thankfully, we are making strides towards a more positive place for people living with STIs. Drugs are being invented that prevent the transfer of HIV through sex by 90%, and the number of new HIV cases fell by 19% between 2005 and 2013.
Steps are being taken towards vaccines for STIs, including one for chlamydia, and vaccines have already been developed for HPV. Things are happening in this world of medical research and Netflix, and if that isn’t something to be entirely grateful for, I’m not sure what is.
But while we wait for science to save the world, we are still dealing with many of these diseases—and that can be tough both physically and mentally. You may be waiting for answers after an abnormal Pap, or you may be adjusting to the diagnosis of a lifelong disease. Regardless, always remember that you are beautiful, you are worthy, and you have support <3