It's such a cliché, but I never really believed I would get an STD.
I was never promiscuous. Hell, I didn't lose my virginity until I was 20. I wasn't going around boinking the kind of dudes -- well, I'm not sure what kind of dudes I thought would be carrying something. I was the girl stuck at a desk doing a nine-to-five and enjoying a very subdued life outside of work.
What I was was reckless. Reckless enough to not regularly use condoms despite the fact that STD rates have been rising sharply in my state. Reckless enough to worry more about getting pregnant than about getting Gonorrhea (up by 61% this year), Chlamydia (up 28%), or even HIV (up 50%). Reckless enough to not know that sometime in the last year I became infected with Chlamydia.
Maybe the biggest reason why I never really believed I'd get an STD is because I grew up in a pretty religious family in the height of the “abstinence-only” sex ed movement. I can't fault my parents for their sex education; it was just very clinical. When I asked my mom in second grade what sex was, she calmly replied, “It's when a man sticks his penis into a woman's vagina.” The only other message I got from my parents was that sex was to be shared with one person, when you're married, and never outside of that covenant (as the church would put it). My dad explained, “See, you don't want to start before marriage, because once you start, you never want to stop.” Indeed.
To satisfy my curiosity, I checked out books from -- of all places -- my church's library to help me understand it all.
One that I devoured was a 1965 paperback entitled "Youth Considers Sex." It used the phrase “heavy petting” a lot, which utterly confused me -- all I could imagine was someone forcefully stroking my hair. A few years ago, I found a copy in the “free” box of a used bookstore and snapped it up.
"Youth Considers Sex" is full of gems like:
- “According to an acute observer, 50 years ago when a boy and girl were going together and they would quarrel, they would then both kiss and make up. Today when this happens, she gets the kiss and he gets the makeup.” (Wait, is he talking about drag queens? I'm so confused, even now.)
- “Let us take as an example a young couple for whom this negative possibility became an actuality... They had gone from the good-night kiss and caress to necking and to petting, and the latter had been getting heavier by the date... On one occasion when the environment was particularly encouraging, they gave in to their heightened desires and had sexual intercourse. Afterward they were stunned by what had happened. 'We really didn't want to,' they said, 'and we hope it won't happen again. But it's so hard!'” (*cough*that's what she said*cough*)
I wore a purity ring on my left ring finger until I was 20, and the only reason I felt OK taking it off that year was because I was engaged (oh, the legalism of a virgin desperate to get it on). Not like that lasted. Nor did the “one partner, FOR-EV-ER” concept of sexuality. Long story short, I grew up into a healthy, sexually active woman -- and this fall, at Thanksgiving, I found out I had an STD.
I was driving home from work when my doctor's office called. I had gone in a week before because I was afraid I was pregnant; they confirmed that same afternoon that I was not. I was so relieved by the results of the pregnancy test that I promptly forgot about all the other tests they had taken.
When my doctor's nurse said matter-of-factly, “You tested positive for Chlamydia,” I had to pull over. At that moment it felt as though I had two warring conversations in my brain -- one side was saying, “C'mon, you're being overdramatic,” and the other was saying, “IT JUST GOT REAL, SON. I knew you'd catch something, Slutty McSlutson.”
I asked the nurse to repeat herself and she did, continuing, “You need to tell your partner right away so he can go in and get tested. We are calling in a script for antibiotics for you now. Which pharmacy do you prefer?”
I'm not an uneducated woman -- I have had some education beyond the aforementioned abstinence-only sex ed and Youth Considers Sex -- but at that moment everything I had ever learned or read about STDs completely escaped me. “Will this go away?” I asked the nurse.
“If you take these antibiotics,” she said.
“But will it come back?”
“Only if you sleep with an infected partner.”
I didn't start crying until I hung up. I had the fleeting thought, “I could just not tell him,” but quickly got over that. I called my partner, crying too hard to say anything other than, “I'm sorry. You're going to hate me. I'm sorry.” He was alarmed, and I knew he was probably thinking that I was pregnant after all.
“Just say it,” he begged.
When I told him, his reaction was, “What does that mean?”
Not in an existential, “What does this all meeeeeeean?” sort of way. Like, “What does the word Chlamydia mean, I'm not familiar with that one,” sort of way. Abstinence-only education, ladies and gentlemen.
To my relief, he wasn't angry, he didn't hate me, and he was surprisingly rational (once he understood what the word “Chlamydia” meant). I then called my ex-boyfriend, who is a nurse. To calm me down, he said, “Look, you have to look at it as if you had Athlete's Foot. Only in your vag. But no big deal, right? Super common, it happens, and we'll get it cleared right up.”
While some medical professionals might take exception with his comparison of Chlamydia to Athlete's Foot, it turned out he was, for these intents and purposes, right. Turns out Chlamydia IS super common, and it turns out one dose of heavy antibiotics did wipe it out. The major damage -- that I know of at this point -- was emotional.
I walked into the grocery store pharmacy where they had sent my prescription, certain that all those people shopping for last minute turkey and fixings would interpret my red, blotchy face and eyes as a giant scarlet C. I couldn't look the pharmacist in the eye -- even though they only see the prescription, not the diagnosis. It wasn't rational, it was just how I felt.
The irrational side of me -- I'm convinced that's how all this happened. A repressive upbringing that idolized “purity” left me in a place where I could have sex, but I couldn't really cognitively deal with the consequences. The worst thing that could happen would be to get pregnant (and thus be visibly impure); I was taking birth control so I figured the “big issue” was covered. I didn't want to even consider any other issues resulting from sex so I indulged in years of emotionally-based, “Oh, it's not going to happen to me and this guy seems nice and clean (whatever that means) so no condoms for us, whee!” reasoning -- and it finally caught up to me.
The thing is, I knew better. I have friends who are safer sex educators. I knew that the CDC had been called in to consult with the state's government because of the epidemic rates of Chlamydia and Gonorrhea, especially in my county. In the end, I could blame a society of slut-shaming or my religiously conservative background or the abstinence-only education I got. The truth was, though, that I knew the facts. Somehow, though, I didn't think it would touch me. Until it did.
Both my partners of the last year got tested, and both came back negative. One of many cruel, gender-biased realities of Chlamydia -- it is easier for women to contract than men. I felt like every slut-shaming stereotype I had ever been fed, but after a weekend of wallowing and obsessively looking up information online, I got over it.
The truth is that sexually transmitted infections and diseases happen whether you want to think about them or not. It's a terrible idea to wait until you actually get something before wrapping it up changes from something good in theory into something you actually do. That said, I know I'm lucky to be able to say it wasn't that bad. I was only infected with a sexually transmitted bacteria that cleared up easily with a quick round of antibiotics, as opposed to an incurable virus like HPV, herpes, or HIV.
Risk -- emotional and sexual -- is part of having sex, but that's true for many things in life. Driving my car and walking down the street are also risky-but-normal parts of life, and I don't give a second thought to putting on a seatbelt or leashing my dogs when we go out for a stroll. I really shouldn't have let the cultural noise in my head around purity and promiscuity and good girls/bad girls keep me from taking equivalent precautions in my sexually.
That, my friends, is what I wish "Youth Considers Sex" had told me.