Try to remember. When was the last time you got tested for STIs? Among our friends and family, we rarely - if not never - talk about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). This taboo and stigma comes at a cost...
For an episode of Asking for a Mate, I had the opportunity to interview Rowdie Walden, the creator and host of the Search Engine Sex podcast (available only on Spotify). Rowdie shared his experience of having to get tested, the fear of what a positive result would mean, but also what it’s like to receive a message from someone informing him that they've tested positive 😱
Read on to find out what my key takeaways were but I recommend listening to the episode first -> Listen Here.
⚠️ Disclaimer: Whilst we did a ton of research for this episode, Rowdie and I are not doctors, so please talk to a health professional if you have any question ⚠️
The current STI situation in Australia
STIs in Australia are on the rise and do not necessarily concern men having sex with men. More and more heterosexuals are concerned.
Except for HIV and hepatitis, STIs are on the rise in Australia. Chlamydia has substantially increased since 2000. According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, in their lifetime, about 16% of Australians contract an STI and more than 23,000 live with HIV.
How can this growth in the number of STIs be explained, knowing that they are easily detected and treatable?
Well, we can’t ignore that the growth in positive results is due to an increased number of tests. However another major factor comes in: even if people have knowledge about the risk of getting an STI, there is still a persistence to have unprotected sex.
Many asymptomatic people still do not get tested, do not receive treatment, and infect others without knowing it.
HIV has been, for the longest time, labelled as the 'gay male community' infection. But in the last decade, men who have sex with men have been really informed of the risks of contracting HIV.
There have been numerous successful STI campaigns focusing on the queer community. Consequently, today they are a lot more open about getting tested, more vocal about it and take preventative measures such as the PrEP (an antiretroviral drugs to protect and prevent potential HIV infection), more and more common within the gay community in Australia.
Heterosexual men are not as informed and do not feel as concerned. This results in an increased number of straight men having HIV : an ABC article from December 2019 shows that HIV in Western Australia is now more diagnosed in straight men than gay men.
During the episode, Rowdie explains that getting tested “has been drilled into the male gay community” while straight men still don’t feel so concerned. This means there is still a lot to do to start having conversations about STI in the straight community.
The most common STIs and what they mean
You know what HIV is. You’ve also probably heard of genital herpes, chlamydia, hepatitis b, gonorrhoea, syphilis, and other sexually transmitted infections. All of those scary names that we never talk about, ergo know nothing about. So let’s quickly try to understand better what it means to have an STI.
Most people infected with well-known STIs such as chlamydia, gonorrhoea, or genital herpes, don’t have symptoms at first. This means that you might be infected, but you actually feel ‘well’, so you keep having unprotected sex without knowing you are infecting others.
The list of symptoms from STIs is long and vary depending on the STI. Most of them, however, cause pain if the STI is not detected and treated. Pain during sex, pain urinating or simply pain doing nothing particular. Thankfully, treatments exist to reduce the symptoms, or sometimes even completely cure the patient.
If not treated, STIs can cause serious complications and lead to much worse health issues, such as infertility. You must always remember that even if you do not show symptoms, you might infect someone who will and might end up suffering a lot from the infection.
The best way to prevent getting an STI is a simple combination: have protected sex (use condoms when having oral, vaginal or anal sex), and get regularly tested.
Debunking the myths associated with STIs and getting tested
There is still an enormous urban myth going around about STI testing in the men community. Many believe that for checking STIs, the doctor inserts a swab/umbrella deep into the urethra to take a sample, resulting in a really painful and awkward procedure. Fortunately, this is a total myth!
Actually, asymptomatic men coming to health clinics to get tested will simply have to ‘piss in a cup’, that is to say, do a urine test only. This is enough to determine most STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea. Only if the patient happens to have symptoms, will he be offered to do a swabbing procedure which consists of a small piece of cotton inserted into the urethra at a very short distance, meaning no pain or relatively small discomfort.
As Rowdie says, "getting tested should be seen as getting a mole check". Nothing is looking wrong but you simply need to get checked.
There are many other myths about STIs, how to get them and how to treat them. Let’s cite for example some common beliefs: you can’t get an STI from oral sex, you only contract HIV if you are a gay man or a drug user, if you have an STI it will cure itself, etc.
Of course, these are all myths. So, if you think you will not contract an STI because you are a monogamous heterosexual man, you are wrong. Instead, you should inform yourself, and get tested.
Let’s be clear, for a regular health clinic STI check-up, if you are a straight man, chances are that you will only have to produce a urine sample. End of the story. So don’t be afraid and do it. Rowdie’s advice is to ‘do it a first time to know it’s not that big of a deal’.
The best behaviour to avoid getting or transmitting STIs
Could we eradicate STIs?
In theory, yes, but we don’t get tested enough. The more people get tested, the more chances there are to eradicate STIs. Some people fear getting tested for fear of a positive result. This should not be a good enough reason not to get tested. After all, you could be asymptomatic.
As Rowdie explains "you are irresponsible by not getting tested". If we all got regularly tested, treated and took the correct measures to avoid spreading STIs, there would be no more. We have to have a ‘community spirit’ and protect each other.
Testing should be done at least once per year. If you happen to have many sexual partners or unprotected sex, it is recommended to get tested every three to six months.
Find a clinic to get tested in Australia: better to know
Protect yourself, your partner & communicate!
How to efficiently protect yourself?
When having oral, vaginal or anal sex, it is really recommended to use a condom. Always remember that even if your partner is feeling ‘well’, one of you might be asymptomatic and actually have an STI.
If you have an STI that is treatable, it is advised to finish the appropriate treatment before having sex again. If you happen to know that your partner has an STI, it is recommended to avoid having unprotected sex and also to get tested yourself in case you have been infected.
How to inform others if you have an STI?
If you have caught an STI, you should think about informing your previous partners about it, to make sure they also get tested and treated if necessary.
It is best to talk to people face-to-face or on the phone, but in case this is not something that you are feeling confident enough doing, there is a service that will let you send an anonymous message to someone that you've had sexual relations with: Let Them Know.
We all have to be responsible. Rowdie clearly states "Even if you already have someone in your bed does not mean that you are entitled to have sex with them".
Unfortunately, if you have a lifelong STI such as genital herpes and HPV (human papillomavirus), using a condom might not be enough to avoid passing it onto others.
Talking about your STI to potential sexual partners is the best way to both be aware and measure the risks you are willing to take. Yes, we understand that it means that you have an increased chance of being rejected. As Rowdie nicely put it “Even if you already have someone in your bed does not mean that you are entitled to have sex with them.”
STIs can also be a question of ethics: it is always hard to feel rejected before having sex with someone, but "isn’t it worse to feel guilty for having transmitted your infection?"
So, is there a vaccine for STIs? No, the only 'vaccine' for STIs is to use protection, get tested and communicate with your partners. After all, the best sex out there is when both partners are on equal grounds.
That is why taking responsibility for our actions is key. Because all in all, the real issue is not having an STI, it is not KNOWING you have an STI.
Want to know more about Rowdie’s experience with STIs? Listen to his podcast interview with Asking For A Mate!