What to Know About STI Awareness – SheKnows
Welcome to Better Sex With Dr. Lexx, a monthly column where sex therapist, educator and consultant Dr. Lexx Brown-James shares her expertise, advice and wisdom on sex, relationships and more. Approaching sex education as a lifelong endeavor – “from womb to grave” – Dr. Lexx (AKA The #CouplesClinician) is your guide to unashamed, medically accurate, inclusive and comprehensive conversations for you, your partner and your whole family.
It’s April lovers, and that means it’s Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) Awareness Month. As a sex therapist and #CouplesClinician, a lot of education time goes into STI prevention — and, frankly, that’s not always very helpful.
Sexually transmitted infections – previously called everything from venereal diseases to sexually transmitted diseases – are grossly misunderstood and often carry a lot of stigma. The most prevalent negative stigma stems from the way STIs have been used to deter adolescents from engaging in sex education. Many of us have had the conversation “it’s a penis” and “it’s a penis with warts (except there was a bazillion and a wart on it)” as a main part of our sex education. It was often associated with the equally unnecessary and inaccurate message “if you get pregnant, your life is over”.
Sex-positive sex education addresses misinformation from a holistic and unashamed perspective, leaving room for questioning, exploration, and the suspension of value judgments. Unfortunately, this sexuality education has not been accessible to most and instead, fear-based, medically inaccurate and stigmatizing education is often used to provide young people with information about sexuality. Ultimately, this education continues to perpetuate false myths about sexually transmitted infections.
While working in middle and high schools, I have heard some rumors about STIs which are interesting stories of absolute fiction. For example, popular belief is that if a person takes earwax and inserts it into a vagina, it will sizzle. This crackle indicates that there is an STI present.
Another story so famous that there are actually pictures on the Internet about it is about “blue waffles”. The so-called blue waffle is an understatement that a vulva is blue when it has an STI and you need to check for a blue present. before sexual intercourse.
Last but not least, there are “snowballs” which appear as small white balls that accumulate around the head of a penis to indicate the presence of an STI. None of these conditions actually exist or matter, but they are still believed by young people and adults. These rumors are not only inaccurate, but also sexually negative and don’t give people the skills or knowledge on how to start and navigate a conversation about sexually transmitted infections.
Here are three ways to navigate sexually transmitted infections using a positive sex education mindset:
There is no “clean” or “dirty” when it comes to sexually transmitted infections.
You may have been taught to ask something like “are you clean?” before having sex with a person, when you mean “what is your STI status?”
The idea that a person is not clean or dirty because they have or have had an STI is not only stigmatizing, but can also be traumatic. Most people don’t look for STIs or get infected on purpose. In addition, some people contract STIs at birth, such as some people living with HIV, and have to live with this disease. It’s understandable that someone doesn’t want to get an STI and I encourage everyone to be responsible for their own health, even when they’re in a relationship. Regular STI screenings are beneficial for everyone involved in a sexual relationship. Stop the clean and dirty talk and ask instead, “When was the last time you were tested?” or “How do you practice safer sex?” or “What conditions, if any, do you have that could affect our sexual health?” and my favorite, “Would you be willing to get tested with me and share our results?”
Each of these questions gives you information about what you want to do with your body and how you might want to share your body with another.
Be honest with your healthcare professionals.
Testing for STIs requires swabs from different parts of the body. This includes the cervix, vagina, anus, penis, urethra, and throat depending on your sexual activities. Although it may be uncomfortable to disclose, your healthcare professional needs to know which body parts you use in sexual interactions to know which body parts to screen. Also, it helps to be honest with the tests you seek regarding screening. Routine testing may not include all the tests you are looking for or it may be too early for an STI to be detected based on last sex. So let your supplier know which tests you are looking for specifically for that test series.
Routine screening typically includes testing for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia. Infections like herpes are usually diagnosed by observing skin lesions and there is no HPV screening test for people with penises. So be sure to ask what you are being tested for specifically and make sure all body parts that are involved in your sexual activity are tested.
“…at any one time, 20% of the population of the United States is living with an STI – and absolutely none of these humans are worth less as a person than someone who does not have or has never had an STI. “
If, or when, you find out you have an STI, remember that you don’t lose value.
This one is tough. The current message that prevails in our society is that a person who contracts an STI is now “less than” as a human being, meaning they are less worthy of love, relationship, and sexually attractive. It’s hard not to believe it when someone tests positive for an STI. Often when first diagnosed, people experience a variety of emotions that include shock, guilt, shame, anger, betrayal, and shame. These feelings take time and care to overcome. It may even require support from a therapist, doctor, or a group of like-minded people. Contracting an STI can be very difficult and learning to live with this STI, especially if it is permanent, will require some education, healing and care. However, there is never a time when having an STI diminishes a person’s worth.
More than 25 million new STI diagnoses occur each year which means that at any given time, 20% of the population of the United States is living with an STI – and absolutely none of these humans are worth less as a person than someone who doesn’t or never has had STIs.
When it comes to being HIV positive and navigating sexually transmitted infections, it is very helpful to remember that an STI does not define a person, that each person is responsible for their own sexual health and that it is there is no clean or dirty when it comes to infection. Because, after all, it is an infection and often accidental. This month, take charge of your health and get tested, even if you are in a relationship, so that you are informed of your state of health. And no matter the outcome, remember that you are a person of value, worthy of love and deserving of pleasure.
To learn more about where you can access testing in your area, see Planned Parenthood or go to gettested.cdc.gov.
Before you go, check out our favorite masturbation positions to up your solo game: