The Shame Game: The Reality of Testing for STIs

Annual testing for STIs (sexually transmitted infection) is something I believe every sexually active person should do for their health, not just for people who are in some form of open relationship but anyone sexually active. It is part of being safe and sane with our own health. Unfortunately testing can often be source of shame and negativity for women and men seeking testing.

For several years I chose to go to the Boulder Women’s clinic, a seemingly progressive place in a progressive town. I am a mother of three children, have been sexually active from a young age and while not always safe from STIs when I was younger ( before HIV awareness) I obtained birth control as soon as I became sexually active. Later, after HIV, I used condoms in addition to birth control. I now regularly educate people on safer sex, awareness of STIs, how to talk about sex and safe sex. Despite this and the fact that I am an adult in my forties, every year at the clinic it was the same, “Annual testing is not necessary unless you practice high risk behavior” or “Why do you need testing, does your partner have something?”  And on occasion I was told that I only really needed was an HIV test unless I had symptoms.

I would explain that I am polyamorous, have three partners and that part of being safe for all of us was annual testing (more if we have a condom break or some other concern). That I wanted testing for several things that I, and my partners, feel are needed. This explanation would be met with  a concerned  look, disapproving head shake, a lecture about how having multiple partners was “unsafe, high risk sexual behavior” and the implication that having more than one lover was wrong. I would explain, “Yes, I understand the risks, this is my choice, this is why I get tested,” etc and “please just give the fucking test.” Every year it felt like a fight to get testing done, from a supposedly progressive women’s clinic in Boulder Colorado. I put up with the judgment and the feeling that the doctors and nurses were looking at me as the sex crazed slut because I don’t care what they think .Finding a new Dr/clinic is a pain and this clinic was better than others I has dealt with.  In 2006 the clinic stopped doing testing for HIV and I found another place for testing with essentially the same game in play.

I have heard many stories from other women and a few men of the medical personnel heaping on shame and judgment when a person needs testing and even when needed medical attention requires a medical history. Many folks are much are very challenged by all the hostile treatment and judgment.. This conduct is disrespectful and demeaning. Our sexual behavior is categorized as “high risk sex.” The terminology itself is somewhat shaming. When I travel to certain parts of Mexico they recommend caution due to malaria but they never say “high risk” travel. Disease is part of the human condition; it is why we have an immune system. We can catch a cold or flu by shaking a hand, hugging someone or going to the grocery store but we do not categorize hand shaking as “high risk” behavior nor do we question why someone needs cold medicine or a strep test. Sending my kids to school puts them at a significant increased risk of catching a virus or bacterial infection, some that can be very deadly, yet no one recommends keeping kids away from school.

This adversarial treatment and sex negative attitude contributes to an atmosphere that makes testing at best unpleasant and at times humiliating. How many people forgo testing because of these challenges and the perceived shame? This negative atmosphere has, I believe, contributed to the spread of STIs especially among senior citizens and teens. Many people are afraid to get tested, afraid to be judged and want to avoid the grilling by health care practitioners that invade privacy and undermine personal choice. Education of health personnel can help as well as lists of truly sex positive providers, however overcoming the puritanical conditioning in our society is not easy.

When it comes to sex, abstinence is the only true safe route and because our society is so sex negative many people really believe abstinence is the answer. To me this is as ludicrous as never allowing my kids go or play outside; abstaining from sex is not healthy anymore than staying home all the time is. We do not shame people because they catch a cold, flu or strep throat, so why is it ok to shame people when something is spread sexually?. Infections happen when we have contact with other humans, animals or even inanimate objects. Many STIs are preventable with condoms but not 100% and we all may face an infection from sexual contact at various points in our lives. Some infections can be annoying and mild and others life threatening. Either way people need to be given the same consideration they would if they contracted malaria, strep throat or West Nile virus rather than stigmatized and looked down on.

Most important than how others treat us is how we treat ourselves and each other when we find we are facing an STI. Our own attitude is often of key importance.  It is essential to be informed, be safe, be aware of your partners as well as your own vulnerability and use protection but don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others who find themselves facing an STI. It is part of being human, we catch disease, and there is no need to beat ourselves up or feel ashamed for getting an infection from sex any more than we would if we caught a cold from shaking hands with a friend.

As for testing, it can not only save your life by allowing you to get appropriate treatment if you have something, it can save your partner’s life and well being. It would be nice to always have informed and sex positive health care professionals but the reality is we deal with a lot of ignorance and misinformation. For now I grin and bare it while doing my best to educate professionals. Change needs to happen but only can through awareness.  It is vital for people, polyamorous or not, to have access to STI testing without harassment and my hope is that through sex positive awareness and communication we can make it safe for people to get help.

Resources:

The following are resources for information and testing for STD/STIs

Center for Disease Control Website – Statistical information on STIs and prevention.

Planned Parenthood – Good source of information as well as confidential testing.

Anonymous and Affordable STD Testing – Testing service; they order the tests and set you up to go directly to a lab. Low cost and anonymous which means it does not go on your medical record that you were tested. Law requires reporting to the CDC with certain infections if you test positive.

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