Credit Jessica Northridge

Getting Close and Personal with STD Stigma

By Anonymous

How my impassioned, touch-starved covid brain threw out the condom and traded that closeness with another human being for a prescription of ‘acne’ medication and a limit of two Aperols on my big Italian holiday)

The first time I got tested, I was four partners deep and I had decided I’d met the one. My first partner had also been my first long-term boyfriend – both virgins before the fact – so I played it loose and fast with partners two and three. The dreamy first date with number four came and went, and I decided to book a test, just to be safe. It was the sensible, precautious task to add to my list of errands – less frequent than paying bills but to be done more often than applying for council tax exemptions.

I lovingly parted my legs in the waiting-area bathroom of Sandyford’s Paisley clinic – the only place with an appointment available before I headed off to Italy for a few weeks – by hoisting one onto the toilet seat. I inserted the covid-reminiscent Q-Tip as close to my cervix as I possibly could, and I was still riding the high of what I was so sure to be an end to my time on ‘the streets’. The heavy, smooth door boasted a jammy lock, so I had spread my body along the width of the room in order to spare the startling sight to the mothers and their toddlers in the waiting room. Pulling my skirt back down, I snapped the Q-Tip into a tube and the tube into an envelope and, conspicuous in my awkwardness, handed the damage to a receptionist for whom this was beyond routine. I was to phone back in ten working days to receive the all-clear.

A week later, I was on the lawn of Christ College Cambridge, visiting a friend before she graduated. England was enjoying a blistering heatwave, and everything was covered in a film of sweat – our shoes, the sheets, even the small cans of cider were sticky – and I was funnelling grapes into Hannah’s mouth when I got the text:

This is Sandyford. You are positive for Chlamydia. Please book an appointment at our treatment clinic via…

Close enough to talk about anything, we erupted into laughter in total disbelief that I had chlamydia. Disguising the initial sheet of shame with explosive jokes, my mind lingered on the diagnosis far, far longer than the conversation did. I found myself feeling extraordinarily dirty, like all my free-wheeling revelry had caught up to me. I felt utterly distinct from my body, aware that I was the cargo of an entirely transmittable disease. Why was it funny that I – awkward, inexperienced, shy – had chlamydia? There appeared to be a persona I classified in my mind as the ‘sort that would’; some deeply embedded biases regarding STDs that went hand in hand with my subconscious views on sex. 

I returned from Cambridge and resumed work, waitressing in a grubby, due-to-shut restaurant, and was bursting to share the news with my coworkers, a hodgepodge collective of eclectic personalities to whom I sought advice on everything. I asked them how I should break the news to Mr Dreamboat. Certain that the culprit of my condition was boys two or three, I’d messaged them with no shame to get tested but I had no idea how to tell the one I was actually still seeing. I felt embarrassed – it’d been my idea to forego the condom, after all – and me having it meant he definitely did, too. The (TERRIBLE) advice I received was to say, “Hey! Someone I’ve slept with has tested positive for Chlamydia. I’m getting tested, you should too”, in an attempt to somehow shift the guilt from me to this mysterious, third, chlamydia-having party. This way, I felt like I was saying it wasn’t our careless mistake, but a further back one, and that things were different now. 

I think that being so forthcoming with the coworkers that I’d known for the better part of two years enticed them into easily sharing their own experiences which, prior to this, I’d been none the wiser of. Of the six who are also university students, two had also had chlamydia and another one had contracted a different STD. My openness was spurred less by a valiant rebellion against stigma and rather my inability to make independent decisions. Obtaining other people’s experiences was a pleasant bonus, broadening my narrow ideas of the ‘sort’ of person who could contract an STD.

This frankness was not always so kindly rewarded – my cousin, who I travelled to Italy with, chewed me out when I casually told her and our friend over breakfast what the little antibiotic I’d been taking every morning and evening was for, and instructed me firmly to tell other people it was simply for acne. What people? I was only telling the pair of them, who were very close to me – funnily enough, the friend we were with had also had an STD in the previous year, which they felt they couldn’t disclose to my cousin after her reaction. The kind of language she – and we – use when we talk about sexual health and testing (to be ‘clean’ implies that you could be ‘dirty’) propagates the shame and stigma we try to battle when we discuss it. I wondered if it would have been better to have left the whole lot unsaid. 

My preconceived, negative notions of what ‘kind’ of character could have transmitted this to me were underscored again when boys two and three came back to me with a totally clear panel. And would you believe, it was Mr Dreamboat all along! 


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