Ah, summer. Languid days, warm breezes (or heat waves), and the simmering electricity of summer flings. I don’t know what it looks like where you are, but around here it’s like mating season is in full swing, and I can barely stroll down the street of my tourist trap town without seeing some couple with their tongues halfway down their throats, ignoring the perfectly gorgeous view.
If I’m lucky, their hands are where I can see them.
Quick: When was the last time you got tested for sexually transmitted infections? Do you know which infections your doctor’s office tested for? Have you had a new sexual partner since then?
These are all good questions to have the answers to! Because your sexual health is important, and asymptomatic carriers happen, as do jerks who have STIs that aren’t treated and don’t disclose to their partners. And even with protection, sneaky little viruses can end up where they’re not supposed to.
As Emily put it when she wrote about getting an HIV test for World Aids Day, “The thing is, and it is a very difficult mental shift to make to comprehend this, but HIV can happen to truly anyone, regardless of how many people you've slept with, what gender you are, what color you are, and what your sexuality is. All you have to do is sleep with one person with HIV.”
But it’s not just HIV -- syphilis, chlamydia, HPV, gonorrhea, and a host of other infections can be passed sexually. Some of these dudes evolved a very long time ago to take advantage of human hosts, and they’ve been a part of human history for centuries. Take syphilis, which was once rather notorious and now thankfully responds to treatment with antibiotics instead of eating your brain and turning you into a zombie.
What I’m trying to get at here is that STIs happen and they’re nothing to be ashamed of, but regular testing to catch them quickly and get the right treatment is a really ace idea. For one, you’ll be a much happier camper. For two, you’ll be less likely to pass those bad boys on to others.
Which is why I got my fat ass down to the clinic this morning for my periodic “test me for EVERYTHING!” panel, in which I determine if I’ve become a festering petri dish since my last sexual partner (yes, some asexy people like to have sex). It’s one of the few areas of my life in which I try to be a reasonably diligent and responsible adult, because it’s not just my health at risk, but that of those I choose to, you know. Tango horizontally with.
“I’m surprised anything other than pesto is coming out of my veins,” I said to the phlebotomist, trying to lighten the mood as we both watched my blood sluggishly fill a series of tubes.
The corner of her mouth quirked down like she was trying very hard not to laugh at my entirely pathetic joke, and eventually she sort of giggled to herself. I guess phlebotomists are easy to entertain early in the morning. Or maybe she really likes pesto.
She was a pretty great phlebotomist, and I consider myself rather an aficionado, since I’m in and out of medical offices getting blood tests on a pretty regular basis. Quick with her hands, flawless needle insertion, deft removal with seamless cotton-swab swap. Really, high marks, lady, and also, your butt looked great in those pants.
All my blood tubes looked so shiny lined up in a row with the labels on them, ready to be dispatched to the lab to screen for the usual suspects, that I felt a bit giddy. Then she had me pee in a cup for her to check for uninvited bacterial guests. All told, I asked for a screening that included HIV1 and 2, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, with HPV to follow with my pap smear next week (and let me tell you how much I’m looking forward to that).
The thing is, when our clinic asks if patients want STI screening with their annual exams, they usually just mean urine cultures for gonorrhea and chlamydia, and they don’t check for other STIs unless you specifically ask.
If clinicians don’t specify what tests they offer in their basic STI panel, you need to ask -- and if you want testing for additional STIs, you should request it. I strongly recommend adding an HIV test, which is typically very low cost and sometimes free, depending on how your clinic’s fees are structured.
Get tested for hepatitis B if you haven’t been vaccinated -- and once you get a clean result, get a vaccine! No reason to get infected with a totally preventable disease, my friends. Vaccines are amazing, am I right? Yay smallpox eradication.
I talked to Heather Corinna of the fabulous Scarleteen about sexual health and her recommendations for testing and frequency of testing. She agrees with me that regular HIV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia testing are all good ideas, and suggests that people in monogamous relationships get tested once a year.
“For those who aren't monogamous, or add or change partners more often than once every year or two, twice yearly is what I'd suggest,” she adds.
Ultimately, what to get tested for and how frequently depends on your sex life and other health factors, and she says it’s critical to talk openly with your health care provider and determine what would be most appropriate for your needs. If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your health care provider for whatever reason, it’s time to go hunting for a new one.
Those locked into public health or limited health insurance plans can request different providers at the same clinic or facility without having to seek further abroad for a provider who might not be covered. One place to look is Scarleteen’s own “Find a Doc” resource, which lists sex-positive care providers who can help you get respectful, friendly treatment in a safe environment.
Like Emily says, getting tested for STIs can be scary, especially when you’re genuinely not sure of what the outcome of the testing might be. But it’s totally, totally worth it -- even if you have to bring a buddy (or partner) to hold your hand.
Oh, and a word of wisdom from my phlebotomist: ake sure to tell the person doing the blood draw if you’ve been known to faint at the sight of blood or if you’re uncomfortable around needles.