In the fear mongering frenzy that masquerades as high school sex-ed, sexually transmitted infections come second only to pregnancy as a reason to abstain from sex. And while it’s true that STIs can have serious consequences for short- and long-term health – and, in some cases, impact reproductive health specifically – the way in which we talk about them (or don’t talk about them) is not always helpful. Often attached to feelings of shame and stigma, the ‘T’ in STI may as well stand for ‘taboo’, with culture teaching us that, unless our sexual health is pussy perfect, we shouldn’t give it airtime.
We’re trading taboo for transparency, because the Venn diagram of sexual health and reproductive health is one obvious circle that deserves a voice.
I'm living with a Sexually Transmitted Infection
STIs make up around 30 communicable diseases transmitted through sexual contact, and include Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis, Herpes simplex (HSV), Hepatitis and HIV. Some can be cured, while others stick around for life, with or without their associated symptoms. Recent reports concluded that more than 66,000 new STIs were diagnosed in Australian females in 2017. So, if you’re STI-positive, you’re in very good company.
How Is Herpes Passed Along?
Herpes can be transmitted through close skin-to-skin contact, usually during vaginal, anal or oral intercourse. In Hazel’s* case, the transmission occurred without penetrative sex and was passed on by the type of Herpes Virus that takes up residence in what we call the common cold sore. This is her story.
Hazel was newly single and working out the dating scene when she hit up a connection with an old friend. After a few weeks of seeing each other, they got intimate and not long after, she noticed something was up.
“We started fooling around, and he avoided kissing me,” she says. “But he licked his fingers and touched me down below.” This simple act was all it took to transmit HSV.
“A few days later, I started to feel sore, and I pulled out a mirror and started noticing (what looked like) paper cuts on my vulva.”
Hazel recalled a cold sore on her new flame’s lips and things fell into place.
“I Googled it and thought, ‘fuck, I have Herpes.’ It hadn’t clicked for me that a cold sore (and touching) could bring this on. I didn’t know that this was something I should avoid.”
The symptoms came on quickly. Hazel saw a doctor, but was told nothing was wrong and was dismissed without treatment. Unfortunately, the symptoms got worse.
“By that night, it had progressed. It was hard for me to sit or move around. Everything felt like it was stretching.”
I'm feeling ashamed with my STI diagnosis
Shame is often the most common symptom of an STI. Like many women dealing with the physical and emotional effects of an STI, Hazel felt ashamed. She told only one friend what was going on and drove herself to the emergency department to seek further assistance. A doctor examined her and diagnosed Genital Herpes, a common STI shared by an estimated 1 in 8 Australians. Twice as common in adult women as it is in adult men.
Why don't we talk about STI's?
Hazel says she felt alone in her diagnosis because she didn’t know anyone else with an STI. While it’s possible that this was true, statistics say that others in her circle may have an STI, but nobody was talking about it, or perhaps they didn’t even know they had it.
For Hazel, she knew and she felt “dirty, ashamed and really stupid. Nothing felt normal or okay about it. In terms of dating other people, there was so much worry about giving it to them – I didn’t want to be responsible for that,” she says.
“I thought I’d have to make it work with this guy because nobody else would love me or want to be with me. Who the fuck wants a vulva full of paper cuts?”
S.T.I.s are so ubiquitous. Consider that 50 percent of sexually active people will have at least one S.T.I. by age 25… the only logical conclusion is the sexual revolution stopped short of liberating people from the shame and stigma of sexually transmitted infections.
“Having an S.T.I. should have the same stigma as having influenza, meaning none. Making people ashamed or judging them for their choices simply means they are less likely to be screened, treated and get the care that can prevent infections and save lives.”
How can we prevent ourselves from getting an STI?
Dr Philippe Adam from UNSW's Centre for Social Research in Health told Triple J’s The Hack - “We generally think that people don't use condoms, or don't test, because they don't know the rate of STIs are so high.” And it’s this unspoken truth that leaves women in particular, exposed.
For Hazel, she sees prevention as having access to better sex education. “If I knew what a cold sore was and what it could cause, I might have known how to protect myself. The education comes afterwards, as part of the course of management, because you’ve been diagnosed. Rather than it being preventive- in [school] education. That’s the problem.”
For those living with an STI, Hazel encourages us to chat more openly about it. “Maybe herpes becomes a condition that’s normal, so the story surrounding it becomes more about managing the physical pain and discomfort, not the emotional distress it causes.”
Navigating Herpes and Fertility? Read Obstetrician/ Gynaecologist Dr Kara Thompson's top tips for a healthy Herpes positive pregnancy here.