Most students in the United States don’t receive comprehensive sexuality education, and if they did receive some sort of sex ed, it probably was stigmatizing and inaccurate and looked a lot like that scene in the movie Mean Girls (“if you do touch each other, you will get chlamydia, and die”). So here, I’m going to dispel some myths and answer some FAQs about STIs.
Firstly, I want to say that contracting an STI is not shameful, and it does not make you “dirty.” As I tell my sex ed students, STIs are a normal part of being a sexually active person–in 2018, approximately 1 in 5 people in the US had an STI (and those rates have increased during the pandemic). That being said, it is critical to get regular STI testing to ensure that you’re keeping yourself and your partner(s) healthy. Which brings me to our first question:
How often should I get STI tested?
It is recommended to get tested before having sex with a new partner. Because STIs take time to show up on a test or cause symptoms, it’s generally also recommended to test 3 months after sex with a new partner. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, it’s also recommended to get tested once a year, just in case.
Depending on the type of sex you’re having, you should receive different tests. Most people will only get a genital swab/urine test for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and maybe trichomoniasis, and a blood test for HIV and maybe syphilis. But STIs can also be transmitted through oral sex and anal sex, so if you’re having unprotected anal or oral sex, ask your provider about anal and oral STI tests.
What if a partner tests positive for an STI?
If you have a partner who tests positive for an STI, it’s a good idea to get tested, even if you don’t have symptoms (see below for more info!). You should speak to a healthcare provider who will tell you the right time to get tested, and they might put you on prophylactic antibiotics, just in case.
But what if I don’t have any symptoms?
The most common symptom of all STIs is: nothing. The majority of people who have an STI have no symptoms. But even if you’re asymptomatic, an untreated STI can lead to health issues, like pelvic inflammatory disease. Additionally, someone who is asymptomatic can transmit an STI. So whether or not you have any symptoms, it’s a good idea to get tested every time you have a new partner, or every year if you’re monogamous. And if you do develop symptoms at any time (such as unusual discharge, itchiness, a burning sensation when peeing etc), you should see a healthcare provider immediately. Whether it’s a yeast infection or an STI, it’s important to take care of yourself and get treatment.
What if I’m not having intercourse?
As briefly mentioned above, STIs can be transmitted through oral sex too. So, in addition to getting tested regularly, using barrier methods (such as dental dams or condoms) for oral sex can help prevent STI transmission.
How do I discuss testing with a partner?
Having this type of conversation can be awkward or uncomfortable because most people haven’t been taught how to do it. But the thing is, there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of when having these conversations. If anything, you should be proud that you’re taking steps to keep yourself and partner(s) healthy. Some things you can say to start out the conversation (either in-person or over text, whichever you’re more comfortable with!): “Hey, I just wanted to let you know that I got tested last month and everything came back negative, when was the last time you got tested?” or “I know this can be awkward to talk about, but can we talk about STI testing? I got tested a few months ago, what about you?” And depending on the type of relationship, you can even make plants to get tested together.
What do I do if I test positive for an STI?
Firstly, testing positive for an STI can be scary, but again, it is nothing to be ashamed of, and it does not say anything about who you are as a person. If you do test positive, speak to a healthcare provider about treatment. And as daunting as it sounds, it’s a good idea to contact recent sexual partners so that they can get tested as well (just like contact tracing for COVID). You can do this anyway you want: over text/phone, in person, or some clinics will anonymously contact people if you don’t feel comfortable disclosing this information to others.
Unfortunately, our society often stigmatizes sex, including STIs, but no part of consensual sex should be shameful. While it can be intimidating; getting tested and communicating about testing, is a wonderful way to take charge of your sexuality while keeping you and your partners healthy.