My STI scare and why we need to change the way we talk about safe sex

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Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen

The memorable sex ed teacher from Mean Girls.

The memorable sex ed teacher from Mean Girls.

"KEEP yer PAYNTS AWN."

So went the battle cry of Pam Stenzel, or "Pants-On Pam" as we called her at my all-girls Anglican high school. Every week in Christian Studies, we were forced to watch her abstinence-only, pro-life diatribes. With her twangy American accent, she was a real-life version of the sex ed teacher in Mean Girls ("Don't have sex! You WILL get chlamydia… and die").

We never learned about contraception. We never learned that sex could and should be fun. We never learned about any kind of sex that wasn't heterosexual. We never learned about the importance and nuances of consent, or how to talk about sex with partners.

All we learned was that we shouldn't be having premarital sex, and if we did, the consequences were all our fault. We were shamed into fearing sex and, coming from a conservative Vietnamese family, I wasn't hearing anything different at home.

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A decade on, I've come a long way. I'm super open about sex, and I like to think I'm pretty responsible – I get tested regularly and always use protection.

And yet I found myself in the deep end of an STI scare recently, with bumps and sores where I'd never had bumps and sores before. The doctor told me it was possibly herpes, and I spent an agonising week crying every time I went to the toilet, unable to go to work because I was in so much pain.

My brain during this time looked a little like this:

I always use a condom for penetrative sex, but not for oral. Does anyone use a condom for oral? You can definitely get STIs if you don't. Wow, I am Actually The Worst and a heteronormative hypocrite.

What am I going to tell the people I've slept with in recent months who I never want to talk to again if I do have something?

I am never having sex again.

It ended up being a false alarm (bodies, am I right?), but it got me thinking about how naive we can be when it comes to safe sex – even those like me, who pride ourselves on being informed.

How we know the theory, but don't always put it into practice.

How we think that it won't happen to us.

How even doctors don't always get it – I once had a GP, who seemed unfamiliar with the concept of asymptomatic diseases, slut-shame me by saying that if I was "taking the proper precautions", I'd never need to get tested. I suspect he may have gotten his medical certifications from an overflowing bin.

Years ago, a boyfriend told me he hadn't used condoms in years. "I don't sleep with anyone who seems diseased," he said, as though there's a giant neon sign flashing above people's heads declaring what they do or don't have. He called me paranoid when I insisted.

I've heard countless horror stories of men who refuse to use condoms "because it feels better", with blatant disregard for the possible health consequences for both themselves and others. A friend found out her long-term boyfriend was cheating when she got chlamydia – she had no symptoms, but got tested on a hunch.

What a lot of it comes down to is that we're uncomfortable having these discussions, especially with casual partners. You don't want to kill the mood by asking a Tinder hottie when the last time they got tested was, or by telling your partner that no, really, we do have to use a condom - right?

I've often shied away from these conversations because I don't want to offend the person I'm about to sleep with. But someone else's ego should not be prioritised over my own safety and comfort – the right to have upfront conversations about sexual health should be considered as essential as consent.

Growing up, I was taught that getting an STI meant that you were an S-L-U-T. Even now, words like "clean" are thrown around, suggesting that having an STI makes you the opposite. Never mind that you can contract one from sleeping with one partner, and sleep with a thousand without contracting anything. It's like the least exciting game of Powerball ever.

And let's not forget that no contraception is bulletproof – you could wind up with something anyway, and it really isn't the end of the world. Most STIs are curable, and though herpes is not, it's very treatable (and common – 90 per cent of people are carriers for type 1, and one in four people have type 2). During my own recent scare, I became surprisingly okay with the idea of having herpes, especially after chatting to friends who do whose lives are far from ruined.

We are faced with a two-pronged issue: the stigma and shame around STIs needs to go, and the discourse around safe sex needs to change on every level, from classrooms to homes to doctor's offices to bedrooms. Paying lip service to safe sex is not enough – it's crucial to know how to put these theories into action.