Sexual Health and Kink

STDs/STIs and What They Don’t Tell You

I have HPV—it’s something I’ve written about before a few times. From the responses I’ve received and the news in general and information that’s just out there about STDs and STIs…people really don’t know much about HPV.

My first writing, had some incorrect information because I was freaked out and it can be difficult to find accurate info about this one. Which is odd, because it’s very, very common.

People like to tell me that it’s fine, they had it and it cleared up and now they’re fine.

If you have a cervix and you contract one of the cancer-causing types of HPV—it doesn’t go away. That’s why, even if abnormal cells no longer appear on your pap smears you still have to go in once a year, rather than every three years like other cervix-havers. Because it can return at any time. You can also pass it on even if you don’t have abnormal cells on your cervix. (This is less likely, but still possible.) Even if you develop cancerous cells and have them removed by the delightful procedures available, it can return. It may not, but it can. And you may still pass it on.

Penis-havers—there’s still no test for you. There’s no test for cervix-owners, either. You can have it for years and not know. I had it nearly twenty years before I found out. There is no ‘positive’ diagnosis. You find out you have the cancer-causing HPV when you develop annoying cells on your cervix. Other, less likely but possible places are the tonsils, throat, penis, vagina or anus. You know, nothing you use or care about.

There are one hundred strains of HPV. Most are harmless and your body will throw them off. Some cause warts—the ones that cause warts are NOT the ones that cause cancer. Warts are just annoying and ugly. Though, apparently, severe cases of warts have to be removed by lasers and can cause scarring. My research sometimes is disturbing.

Let’s talk about Herpes.

Herpes has a bad rep. All it is is an ugly sore. Some pharmaceutical reps weren’t selling their medication like they wanted in the 70s so they made it into a huge deal. Marketing! There’s a great video from Adam Ruins Everything that explains a bit about it.

Loads of people have the herp. Eighty percent of the US population has it. Ninety percent of people worldwide have it. People do need to know if they have it for pregnancy reasons—it does cause issues for pregnant women and foetuses, but in general it’s not going to do all that much to you except not look pretty and be owie.

It certainly doesn’t give you cancer of the squishy bits that’s untestable.

Look. If I met someone who was a great match for me in all the ways and they had HSV I’d be: So what?

I have one other phrase for you, this one comes via Cooper Beckett:

Antibiotic resistant gonorrhoea of the throat.

That’s a phrase that sticks in your mind forever.

It’s also self explanatory, I think.

People like to say, ‘If you’re going to have sex, you’re taking a risk; everything we do is risky—getting in a car is risky.’

You still wear your safety belt. You still don’t drive 110 mph in a 30 mph zone.

They also like to point out how many people have certain infections or diseases, like I did above with 80%. Often, when giving a percentage—particularly a high percentage—it can sound like, ‘Well it’s okay then, let me dive in, too.’

And sometimes, it kind of is—like HSV—basically, don’t worry about it if you do get it. If you get cold sores—congratulations, you have a type of herpes. Cold sores aren’t going to make your mouth fall off.

But with other high percentages, it can feel inevitable. I remember years ago reading an interview with a gay man who was talking about how it almost felt like, eventually, of course you and everyone you knew was going to be diagnosed with HIV—AIDS was such an epidemic.

Recently The Washington Post published an article about a new report from the CDC (the Centres for Disease Control) that found that around twenty percent of the adult population in the United States have the cancer-causing type of HPV. A little more than one in five people. This number had increased dramatically from a few years prior.

Now, you can look at it like, ‘Well, I’m probably going to get it/my body will probably kick it’ or you can just not have to worry about it at all and use protection.

I get that fluids are sexy to some people—I can follow why exchanging fluids would feel more intimate than clinical cling film and latex sex, but chemo and anxiety isn’t fun either. Particularly if you find out years later and you don’t know who’ve you’ve passed it around to.

Also, get your kids vaccinated. It’s a vaccine against cancer.

This is an area straight people can learn a lot from gay men, who’ve made condoms de riguer since the AIDS crisis. Now they have PrEP—which is a daily pill that can be taken to reduce the risk of contracting HIV. It’s controversial within the community for complex reasons. I don’t feel like it’s my place to advise gay men whether or not to take it—it’s understandable why some think it’s not a great idea; it’s understandable why some think it is. But for a very long time, in the gay community, unprotected sex was Russian roulette. It was a possible death sentence. Wrapping that shit up wasn’t a question. You just did it. I wish everyone else could get there.

What does this have to do with kink?

If kinky people talk about one thing—it’s consent. Not telling a potential partner about your sexual health situation removes their ability to give full consent.

Learning you have something that’s not eradicable that can be dangerous or annoying to another person sucks—it can be devastating. Educate yourself as much as you can. Don’t try to push down how you feel like I did and tell yourself you’re fine. That doesn’t work. Just feel whatever it is you feel. You’re human—you’re allowed. Be kind to yourself.

Explain to your potential partners calmly what you know and how to keep you both safe.

Get creative. There were certain things I had been curious about that I know I can’t do now and I feel like I’ve been robbed of potential experiences by a horrible human. Dealing with those feelings is it’s own other Gordian Knot of nonsense I don’t have the time or energy to get into at the moment.

My doctor said it’s difficult for women to pass it to one another (but not impossible and I would worry—it’s my hobby) so I’ve had to come up with new ideas. My imagination has risen to the challenge. I’ve worked to eroticise barriers in my own mind so whenever the time arrives it won’t be any more awkward than I am as a human in the world in every other way.

Absolutely explain to your partners. Don’t be the person who doesn’t. It’s hard, I know. Tina Horn has some good suggestions on how to have these conversations in her book Sexting. Write it down if you need to in order to get the words right and allow the other person time to process. People often treat you how you act so if you are relaxed and straightforward and present your facts and ideas they have no reason to be a jerk.

If they are a jerk—that’s all on them. You’re the same person you were before the conversation.

If you’re with a kinky person, hopefully they’ll be used to improvising and being creative and will be cool. If not, oh well. Don’t fuck them. They’re not worth it.

[This writing originally appeared in a slightly altered format as part of episode 49 of The Pageist: The Pageist talks Health and Kink.]

Perpetuating Stigmas with Sub-Kittie

This week’s mentor post is about what goes through the mind of a person when they receive an STD diagnosis (in this case, herpes) from panic to acceptance and a call to remember that people with STIs are still people. A diagnosis doesn’t define a person.

“You have herpes.”

Those were the last words I really remember the doctor saying. She continued talking, but I was no longer there listening. You know the sound the teachers make in those Charlie Brown cartoons? That’s what I heard in the background while I was trapped inside my head, those words reverberating within – “You have herpes”. Type 1 genital herpes to be precise.

I drove back to work in a trance, because obviously going back to work was a smart choice. I tried to pretend to work, but I couldn’t stop crying. My co-workers were concerned. My “work-hubby” kept asking me what was wrong, but I would look at him with tear filled eyes and shake my head. He sent me a text asking, “Are you pregnant?” and when I responded with “I wish….”, he thought I was dying. Really, he did; he never thought he would hear me wish for pregnancy.

Looking back at it now, it’s almost comical. Later that day, the “work-hubby” pulled me aside and demanded I tell him what was wrong. When I finally broke down and said those words aloud, he responded with “Jesus Katie, is that all?? You get that just tubing down the Apple River”.

And he was right. Well, I’m not sure about the Apple River part, but he was right that I was making this big deal over nothing and it wasn’t devastating news, just a complication. It just took me awhile to realize it. Have those three words changed my life? Of course they have. Has the change been drastic or did my world come to an end? Definitely not. And the change I’ve experienced has nothing to do with the medical side effects of having herpes. It’s like having a skin condition that’s basically non-existent and I wouldn’t even remember I have it most of the time, if not for the social stigma. The change has come in the way others perceive me and in effect, how that makes me perceive myself.

It really sucks that this basically insignificant detail becomes the highlight of who I am as a person when I tell some people. Suddenly, that’s all they can see about me; it somehow defines who I am. It makes me feel ashamed and gross. Like it’s this dirty part of myself that others shouldn’t have to be exposed to, even if the exposure is just my words. I’m treated like some dangerous, infectious predator, but they don’t even question the person they are making out with (or receiving oral sex from) who has a high percentage chance of having oral herpes (I’m sorry, I forgot; they’re just cold sores when they are on your face – how dare I use that dirty word herpes), the exact same thing that’s on my junk. And please don’t take that as me bashing on anyone who has oral herpes. I have several amazing friends who get cold sores and I would be first in line if they were offering up make out sessions . I get it; people like to say cold sores because there is no stigma attached to that. It’s only bad when you say the word herpes because that implies it’s on your genitals, which correlates to sex. As a culture, we don’t talk about sex, especially not “risky, dirty” sex.

At least I’m a known risk. I’ll tell you up front that I have herpes, or as I like to say, that I’ve gone viral (insert creepy smile and wink), though I don’t have near as many hits as one of those cat videos. If after that you’re still inclined to get down and dirty with me, we can discuss safer practices and what the real likelihood is that you’ll actually contract something from me – which is pretty low on the risk totem pole. That’s not me trying to downplay it, but it is the truth. Yes, you are taking a risk by being with me, but not anymore of a risk than getting with any of the other 50 people at the munch who may or may not know what infections they carry. Herpes is so widespread, that most people have it. About 20% of the population has genital herpes; anywhere from 50-95% of the population has oral herpes. And you know what? About 80% of the people in both statistics have absolutely no idea because they’ve never had symptoms or the symptoms were so mild, they didn’t know.

I’ll admit it – before contracting herpes, I was pretty STI stupid. I knew basics and I knew about the various infections out there. I had a vague awareness of what herpes was as a couple of good friends and play partners had it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there like that who don’t know enough about STIs. That’s why I’m so adamant about educating people now (if you haven’t been to the Newbie Munch 201 on STIs and Safer Sex, you really should check it out). I’ve done a lot of research and try to share the knowledge I’ve acquired with anyone who’s willing to listen and have an open mind. Is there still some scary stuff out there? Yea, but it’s not nearly as scary as it gets hyped up to be.

I don’t want to feel shameful anymore because of some innocuous disease. I don’t want to worry about what people will think of me when they find out. I don’t want to worry about my “secret” being exposed. I don’t want to stress over when the right time to tell someone is. I’m perpetuating the stigma by holding on to all that grief and hiding this aspect of myself. While it may not be my most endearing feature (because we all know it’s my innocent face) and it isn’t something I’m going to glorify, I’m also not going to be afraid of it anymore either. This is a part of me, but it’s not who I am. I’m more than just a disease.

Plus, I’ve got to look at the bright side of things. Like my doctor emailing me a week after my appointment to say, “Good news – you don’t have gonorrhea or chlamydia!” Thanks Doc, because that would have been truly devastating news. You know, to find out I actually had a treatable STI….

Some things you can do to help stop perpetuating the stigma:

  • Remember those with an STI are still people and treat them as such. You’re friends haven’t changed just because medically there’s something different about them.
  • Say that your test results came back negative, instead of saying clean. If you’re clean because you don’t have an STI, then that must make me dirty.
  • Don’t assume that you don’t have one just because you’ve never experienced symptoms or your test results came back negative (those results are only good up until the point you were tested and don’t take into account dormancy of infections or false negatives).
  • Don’t tell some douchebag that you hope they get an STI. That’s like saying the people who have contracted one deserved it. Besides, douchebags are worthy of a more creative punishment.
  • Don’t automatically assume that anyone who has an STI got it because they were sleeping with multiple people and/or practicing unsafe sex. You can take every precaution and still contract something, possibly with the first person you ever have sex with. Go ahead and call me a slut, I get off on it. But don’t call me a slut just because I’ve got the herp; that’s offensive.
  • Educate yourself – The STD Project, CDC – STDs, and American Health Association are some good places to start.