Spring is officially here: Dinah Shore and ClexaCon are not-so-distant memories and Pride Month is fast approaching. Queer women across the country are exchanging Netflix binges and snuggles with their pups for sexy nights out meeting new lovers.
But what happens when a sultry evening leads to a not-so-sexy sensation a week or so later? Maybe there’s a burning sensation below the belt or a sore throat, Google is inconclusive, and you’re left wondering if it’s simply a UTI and strep throat or if you’ve contracted a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
Take a deep breath. I’ve been in your shoes and I’m here to walk you through this. Here’s a guide to figuring out exactly what is going on with your body, getting it taken care of, and steps to avoid STI scares in the future.
If you think you have an STI or sexually transmitted disease (STD), the first step is critical: stop all sexual activity until you know for sure whether or not you have one. Protection is fabulous and in a perfect world, gloves, condoms, and dental dams would be enough to keep you and your partners safe. But we don’t live in a perfect world and sometimes protection fails. Out of respect for the health of the people you sleep with, halt all sexual activity until you can get tested and be sure of what’s happening.
Some people argue that it’s best to get tested and confirm your status before telling your bed buddies, but I strongly disagree. You never know who your sexual partners might be intimate with besides you, and leaving them in the dark while you await your results creates a real risk of potentially spreading the hazard to other people. Remember Alice Pieszecki’s infamous chart on The L-Word? If you do, you see how quickly an STI could affect a whole community.
It may feel awkward reaching out to a partner to inform them of a potential risk (especially if you two aren’t talking anymore), but they’ll likely be grateful that you let them know. The mode of delivery is up to you: if you aren’t in communication, a text might suffice. If you’re actively seeing each other, maybe you want to call or sit them down for a face-to-face chat. Do what’s best for you and your specific relationship with the people you need to tell: there are no real rules here. A simple script to try:
Hey Jane, I know this weird since we decided to stop seeing each other last week, but I just found out I might have Chlamydia. I’m getting tested tomorrow to confirm one way or another and I’ll keep you posted, but I wanted to give you a head’s up for your health and the health of anyone new in your life.
Boom! Slayed it.
For most people, getting tested and knowing the results may come back positive is a scary experience. If you’re feeling afraid, know that your feelings are normal and valid. If you have a friend you trust, ask them to come along and provide moral support. Unfortunately for women, many STIs have the potential to wreak long-term havoc on our bodies the longer we wait to deal with them. Getting tested now can save you from bigger issues down the road.
If you’ve got insurance and feel comfortable discussing your sex life with your general health care provider, your physician or OB/GYN can provide your tests. If you are concerned about funds, privacy, or are uncomfortable seeing your general health care provider for testing consider taking an at-home STI test. Planned Parenthood, local clinics, and/or your local LGBTQ+ center may be able to provide free or low-cost testing and treatment. Click here to find testing locations near you.
Look for a location that offers a full work up, STIs aren’t exclusive to the genitals. A full panel usually includes swabs of your genitals, anus, inside of your cheek, throat, and any sores as well as urine and blood tests. Some screening centers do not offer a physical exam to check for herpes, genital warts, pubic lice, or scabies unless you ask, so make sure you talk to the health specialist testing you if you’re concerned those may be potential risks.
This is also a great time to ask your health specialist how to avoid contracting STIs in the future. Regular testing is a great option, as some STIs don’t cause symptoms. If you aren’t sure about safe sex practices, ask about that as well. As queer women, the sex education that most of us received in school was severely lacking in information relevant to same-sex experiences. I didn’t get a full education on safe lesbian sexual practices until my first time getting tested and I know that unfortunately, I’m not the exception.
Once you get tested, know that it usually takes a few days to get results. If you do have an STD or STI, the person informing you will explain your treatment options to you. If money is a concern for you, be upfront and say so: you may be able to get free or low-cost treatment.
Notifying partners of your status is especially important if you find out that you do have an STI. As a matter of public health, many screening centers will offer to reach out to your current and recent sexual partners. The center will simply let them know that someone they’ve been intimate with has tested positive for an STD or STI and explain to them how to go about getting tested and treated if necessary.
If you have an STI that can be cured, you may have to get retested after treatment in order to get a clean bill of health. As drugs curing STIs see more use, doctors have found that some more common STIs, such as Gonorrhea, are beginning to develop drug-resistant strains. Retesting post-treatment ensures that your health and the health of your sexual partners is no longer at risk.
If your STI is not curable, this isn’t the end of your sex life! Your healthcare provider can answer questions on how to pursue healthy sexual experiences going forward. They should be able to explain how to keep your infection under control and how to use protection to keep the risk to your future sexual partners low.
Recognize that STIs are common and you’re not in this alone: there are approximately 19 million new cases of STD infection each year. Getting an STI has no bearing on your worth or desirability: it doesn’t change how smart, capable, and foxy you are. In fact, choosing to get tested and know your status is the result of prioritizing your health and well-being and that of your sexual partners. There is nothing unattractive about that!