Feature image by Hannah Coleman
In 2001, my year 8 class had our first round of sex ed. Our teacher for this subject was an aging priest named Father Stuart. Following the mandatory explanations of the biology behind sexual reproduction, we were shown how to fit a condom to a banana, and then alerted to all of the ways in which we could get pregnant or contract an STI from having good old-fashioned penis in vagina sex without using barrier protection. Despite the presence of God in our school, statistically speaking there was still a high possibility that some of us in the room would turn out to be gay, so Father Stuart reluctantly and very awkwardly acknowledged that sometimes men would engage in sex acts with one another, but made sure to thoroughly demonise the practice and remind everyone of the absolute inevitability of contracting HIV following this deviant behaviour. It’s no surprise that during early 2000s sex education, there was still no mention of how to have a healthy, respectful sex life or sex for pleasure or safe sex outside of the realm of heteronormativity—at least not in my experience.
Now, I may have only been thirteen but I was pretty certain that I was going to be having sex with other women instead of men. This hadn’t been discussed at all, so in the part where you could write your anonymous question on a piece of paper, I asked “How would two women have sex, and can they get STIs?” As Father Stuart read my question out loud, my heart raced with both anticipation and shame, as people looked around the room trying to figure out who the lesbian was. With a tone of cruel, haughty indifference that I had never heard the Father use before, he snorted and said “I have no idea,” eliciting sniggers from the class as he tossed my question into the bin.
The following year, we got another shot at sex ed. Fantastic. Our teacher this year reassured us that although she was the daughter of the college headmaster, extremely religious and also one hundred per cent a virgin (meaning that many students in the room, in fact, had more experience with sex than she did), she was going to do her best to answer any and all of our questions. “Fuck this,” I thought and didn’t even bother asking any questions—no shade if you are waiting for marriage, I’m just saying that as a virgin, you might not be the best candidate to teach sex ed.
The delegitimisation of my sexuality indicated to me that what I would be doing—the relationships and the sex that I would be having—were not as valid or real as those of my heterosexual peers, and therefore did not carry the same real risks. Now, there’s a whole bunch to unpack there, which I will save for my therapist, but the point I’m making is that I left that classroom with no concept of what sexual health meant for me. My late teens and early twenties were a time of abundant sexual activity with many partners and zero precautions. So, it’s no wonder that I contracted an STI. Now, in terms of STIs, let me tell you, I got lucky. I got one of those easily cleared up ones, and it happened during a bit of a lull in my sex life, so I didn’t have to do too much investigating to work out where it came from, and if I had passed it onto anyone else.
So now you know that I’ve had an STI, and guess what? So have many of your peers! A few of them have kindly shared their experiences with me so that I can share them with you, and we can all feel a little more open about the whole business.
A couple of years into a long-term relationship, Fred* found out that her partner had herpes, but hadn’t been able to find the courage to tell Fred earlier. When Fred tried to speak to her partner about the situation, she found that her partner’s shame lead to each conversation being immediately shut down. Fred began getting tested regularly, and went about educating herself on how to be in a relationship with someone who has herpes. Over time, they were able to have better conversations about sexual health and implement enough safe practices in order to be able to continue an intimate relationship.
Fred doesn’t believe that there is enough support for people with STIs who want to know how to date, have fun, and keep all parties physically and emotionally safe. Fred told me that “following this particular experience, I promised myself that when in a sexual space with anyone, I would give and offer information openly, empower myself by letting sexual partners know that I take sexual health seriously, and get tested often.” Fred reflected on the isolation and shame that she saw her former partner suffer through, and wishes that this wasn’t the case for them, and although Fred would have felt safer and more respected had she been told sooner, she was still glad that she was told eventually.
My old friend Billie* recently shared with me that she’s had chlamydia twice from two different one-night stands. The first time, she presented at the doctor with cramps and spotting, and was actually very grateful that she’d shown symptoms, because chlamydia can easily go undetected. The second time, she received a phone call from the doctor of a recent sexual partner to inform her that she should get tested.
Then, there are the near misses. Take Randy’s* story for example: “I once thought I had genital herpes, but it turned out I had adult chickenpox… I was so happy and the doctor was like ‘ummm, this is so much worse. You need medical attention…’” Randy, I’ve also had adult chickenpox, and it’s a waking nightmare. Any kids reading this, you see another kid with chickenpox, go up and lick them. You don’t want to wait until you’re in your twenties to have that one, trust me.
So, what can we take away from this? How about, that around matters of sexual health, we need to be brave, respectful, honest and supportive. We need to be educating ourselves and our sexual partners, and opening up a dialogue around these matters. We should not shame others, and we should not feel shame ourselves, because STIs are a part of life, but it’s your actions around them that you can control. Most importantly, though, have fun! Wait, actually no, that’s not the most important part, the other stuff is still the most important part.
*All names in these stories have been changed because it’s more fun for me that way.
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