I’ve gotten a pap smear every year since I turned 21. “Abnormal cells,” she told me. “Don’t worry about it,” she told me. “Just make sure to get a pap smear every year at my regular check-up,” she told me.
Last year, I finally got it into my head to ask about what was going on down there, because getting yearly pap smears didn’t feel normal. Part of “taking charge” of my health and all that adult-ing stuff, you know.
“Oh, it’s because you have HPV,” she told me.
My eyes glazed over and through the haze came Ali Wong’s accusation that, if you didn’t have HPV yet, you were a fucking loser. Well, for the first time in my life, I found myself in the in-crowd.
Now, I’d been vaccinated for HPV. I vividly recalled the multiple Gardasil shots that I had to get as a teen. So why and how did I manage to get it? And why in the hell, as a sexually active person, did I not know more about STIs or STDs or whateverthefuck?!? A stand-up bit should not have been the first place my mind went to for information about this. Knowledge is the most powerful tool we have to keep ourselves safe (including from embarrassing situations like mine) and taking the stigma out of STDs / STIs. So babes, let me break it all down for you.
What’s the big deal with STIs/STDs, and what’s the difference anyway?
STDs (Sexually Transmitted Diseases) and STIs (Sexually Transmitted Infections) are both umbrella terms for the same set of infectious diseases that are spread through sexual contact. STI is a relatively new term, and a lot of public health experts now prefer “infection” over “disease” for a number of reasons. First, the word “disease” has a more negative connotation than the word “infection,” which can lead to a person experiencing a greater degree of shame or stigma at having one. The word “disease” also suggests a clear medical problem with obvious signs and symptoms. “Infection” works better because for many of the most common STIs, the majority of those infected experience mild to no signs or symptoms. A “disease” is a possible result of an “infection,” which is why many people would be described as having an infection, not a disease. So for the rest of this article I’ll be referring to them as STIs, to keep it simple and – as always – shame-free!
When, Why, How, and Who to Ask for a Test
Back to my story for a sec. When I asked to add a round of STI tests to my physical, my doctor snapped, “Why? Do you have a sore or a wart?” This doctor (who I will never be seeing ever again) was basically saying that I didn’t need to worry about getting tested until I saw symptoms. This is unbelievably FALSE.
The WHY and the WHEN
All sexually active people should get tested every time they add a new sexual partner, regardless of whether or not you have symptoms. Many STIs such as HPV (the most common STI, affecting approximately 79 million Americans!), chlamydia, gonorrhea, and herpes cause mild-to-no symptoms in the majority of people carrying them. It’s even estimated that up to 90% of people with genital herpes are never diagnosed. This means that even if your partner assures you they have no symptoms, it is possible that they are a carrier.
You should wait about 3 months from the time you add a new partner before getting tested for an STI.
Another thing to keep in mind is how to time your testing: you’ll want to take into account what we lovingly refer to as the “window period.” This is the time between when you come into contact with an STI and when the STI will actually show up on a test. Taking a test inside this window period could produce false negatives, which is majorly unhelpful when you’re trying to be safe. The amount of time varies from infection to infection, but a good rule of thumb is three months. This means that you should wait about 3 months from the time you add a new partner before getting tested. Tests done any earlier may not be accurate – check out this guide for more specific information about the different STIs and their window periods.
The WHO and the HOW
The most convenient place to ask for STI testing is at your regular private care physician – the person or provider to whom you go for your yearly physicals. For those of us with vaginas, your gynecologist is also a great place to go. STI testing is quick, painless, and sometimes even free. Keep in mind that it isn’t usually included in regular medical exams – that means you have to ask for it, which means talking about your sex life with your doctor. This can be majorly awkward, but STIs are something that medical professionals are used to talking about and dealing with. It’s important to find a doctor that you feel comfortable with, and who is supportive and comfortable with you. This is serious stuff so you need to be able to have an open and honest relationship with this person who will be critical to your sex life, your health, and your happiness.
Be as honest as possible so that your doctor can figure out which tests will be right for you.
Also, keep in mind that each STI is different. This means that each has its own set of symptoms and window period, and each has its own test. It’s important to try to be as honest as possible so that your doctor can figure out which tests will be right for you – this can also save you money if using insurance isn’t an option. Planned Parenthood provides free or reduced-cost testing, depending on your income! Check out this sex-positive, shame-smashing Instagram video from Shieva Ghofrany, MD – a badass ob/gyn – in which she gives us the skinny on STIs, safety tips, and testing!
Like she highlights in her vid, the best practice is to always use condoms (or a dam for oral sex) to decrease the likelihood of contracting an STI that’s passed along through bodily fluids (such as HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea). But if you do get something from someone, don’t panic. It’s easy to find yourself spiraling in negativity in a culture that likes to slap the label of shame on those of us with STIs – but babe, YOU ARE NOT ALONE. It’s time we shed the veil of shame once and for all! To bring it full circle back to my muse: Ali Wong’s bold statement that “everybody has HPV” is so powerful because it rings astoundingly true (about 80% of sexually active people are infected with HPV at some point in their lives!).
It’s time to know that you are not alone, and to arm yourself and your fellow Power Babes with knowledge!
That fact, combined with the knowledge we have about the sheer number of people who have other STIs, should encourage us to have more and better conversations about these things that affect, like, EVERYONE. Johnathan Van Ness recently opened up about his experience living HIV-positive in his raw autobiography – showing how far we’ve come in breaking down shameful barriers to open honest dialogue. It’s time to know that you are not alone, and to arm yourself and your fellow Power Babes with knowledge! Because really, this kind of love-sickness affects us all and it’s time we talked about it.
About The Author, Elizabeth Mason
A recent graduate of UC Berkeley, Elizabeth Mason earned her degree in Gender and Women’s Studies. Currently, she is looking towards graduate school, and hopes to continue to focus her studies on womxn’s health and sexual wellness. Her main interests include identity politics and their relation to issues surrounding womxn’s healthcare and sexual liberation. She looks forward to the day when all womxn are empowered socially, politically, and – most importantly – sexually. She can be found on Instagram @elizabeth.mason.