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STIs: What are the facts

Let’s face it, fear of STIs is a huge deterrent for sex. In fact, “sex education” used to primarily involve showing images of a variety of STIs (and births), with the tag line that abstinence is the only way to fully protect yourself from getting infected. One problem with this approach is that sex is dope. It is a way to feel pleasure, connection, closeness and release. It’s natural. After doing a pro and con list, many decide that they would rather have sex and with it a slight risk of STIs, than not have any sexual contact and have no risk of STIs. However, learning the facts about STIs helps us be wiser in our decisions, and to decide what our personal boundaries are and what protective measures we choose to make.

So what are the facts?

There are some STIs that are spread through touching skin or hair directly, for example scabies and pubic lice. There are other STIs that are also spread through skin to skin contact, but that require a tiny cut or tear to spread, or require exposure to sensitive skin such as that in ones mouth, genitals or anus. STIs in this category include herpes and HPV. Finally there are other STIs that are spread through bodily fluids, including blood, saliva, and semen. These include HIV, gonorrhoea and chlamydia and hepatitis.

What can you do to protect yourself?

Every-time you are engaging with a partner sexually, there is a level of risk. It is up to you to decide what level of risk you are willing to take. For example, making out, hand jobs and oral sex with protection are low risk activities. Medium risk activities include intercourse with a condom and oral sex without a condom. The highest risk activities are anal or vaginal intercourse without a condom. Of course, in order to get an STI your partner would have to be infected, so with all of these behaviours have no risk if you can be certain your partner doesn’t have an STI.

How do you know if your partner has an STI?

You cannot visually see most STIs, so looking around new partners genitals for something abnormal will do very little to protect you. The best way to know if your partner is safe is to only hookup with people that you trust and ask them before you hook up if they have been tested recently. I am very cautious, so I often see if the person I am going to engage with goes for a condom, and if that is not their practice I don’t have sex with them.

Other than the obvious, what are other ways you can protect yourself from STIs?

- Showering before and after a hookup decreases your risk. Also don’t share towels!

- Some infections take 3-6 months to show up on tests, so even if you get tested at the beginning of a relationship, and you plan to stop using protection, get tested again 3-6 months before you make this decision.

- Know your limits. I usually get partners to get tested before I have sex with them. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac so the couple times I broke that rule, I was really paranoid for the next three months until I got tested and it wasn’t worth it. However, some people are comfortable having sex with new partners, as long as they use protection. Some people choose to take the risk and not use protection. This is a personal choice, but it’s important to think about what your best practices are before you are in the heat of the moment and your genitals are calling the shots. Obviously, sex feels better without a condom, but it’s still pretty amazing with a condom and it greatly lowers the risk of exposure to something.

- Communicate. Ask your partner if they have STIs before you hook up. Don’t frame the question in a way that would make it hard to reveal that you have an STI. For example, instead of saying, “you don’t have any STIs do you?” ask when they were last tested and what the results were. Also, I suggest asking them how many partners they have had since they were tested, and if they think they were exposed to anything (did the condom break, did they knowingly have sex with someone with an STI)

- People with STI’s are not dirty. Don’t think that because somebody looks a certain way, or hangs out with certain people that they are more or less likely to have something. Importantly, just because somebody is your friend, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily STI free. Don’t mistake familiarity with safety.

- There are now ways to prevent STIs post exposure. For example, if you think you were exposed to HIV you can take post-exposure prophylaxis to prevent becoming infected. If you think you are exposed to HIV I highly suggest going to the Hospital and getting this treatment to protect yourself. The medicine works best within 48 hours of exposure.

I know that people often don’t get tested because they are scared of the results. This is a totally legit fear, except that knowing that you are infected can in fact help you protect yourself and your partners. For example, chlamydia is curable, but if you leave it untreated for too long it can lead to infertility. Even the STIs that are not curable are treatable, meaning that there are precautions you can take to protect your partner from exposure and to limit your experience of the STI. For example, for herpes and HIV there are … that you can take that greatly decrease your chances of transmitting the infection to partners. There is a lot of stigma around STIs, some more than others. But in fact, most of them are more of a nuisance than anything else, so if you get one, take a deep breath and know that everything will be ok.