Chlamydia: Breaking The Stigma
My pelvis shifted uncomfortably on the papery lining of the bed. My legs desperately wanted to snap shut.
“It will just take a few minutes longer,” offered the soft-spoken doctor, noting the obvious distress on my face.
Arguably, there’s nothing more invasive than having a doctor in a foreign country who resembles the embodiment of purity insert a plastic clamp inside of you then proceed to scrape the lining of your vagina until an appropriate swab sample is collected. Four long days later, I was called back into the clinic by a receptionist in clipped tones to confirm every Catholic private school girl’s worst fear: my sexually transmitted infection test had come back positive.
It wasn’t the clap or HIV or even herpes. I’d gotten myself a cute little case of chlamydia – which I have since affectionately nicknamed “chlamyds”.
As STIs go, it’s definitely the best one to contract. Chlamydia is to STIs what Kendall Jenner is to the Kardashians – the best of a bad bunch. Treatment is a single dose of oral antibiotics and, before you know it, you are once again free to have irresponsible, unprotected (usually shitty) sex with a stranger you met at a hostel pub-crawl.
Fun fact: Canadian medical practitioners will ask you for the name and contact details of the person who gave you the STI to urge them to also be tested and seek treatment.
Unfortunately for my doctor, the long-haired drummer who had passed it on was residing in Greece. I’d banged him while backpacking through Europe en route to my semester abroad, and could feel the inevitable regret seeping in. What a ripper start to my exchange program in Toronto.
I consider myself pretty liberal when it comes to sex. I try my best to avoid judging people based on their sexual habits and am a self-professed feminist who naturally loathes the word “slut”.
Slut is widely defined as a woman who has loose sexual morals, a woman with many casual sex partners or a woman with low standards of cleanliness. It baffles me how gender-specific these definitions are. How many people does a girl have to sleep with before being formally recognised as a slut? And why isn’t there a word for the male equivalent?
Once it sunk in that I had been given chlamydia from a boy whose name I sometimes momentarily forget, I found myself identifying with the word.
The university exchange environment is fraught with new people wanting to drink and party every night and get to know one another. Drinking games like Never Have I Ever are designed to expose the most sexually experienced of the lot. I struggled to keep my chronic condition of oversharing in check and not tell them about my fun visit to the doctor. I feared they’d label me dirty, slutty or even just plain dumb.
Dumb for getting swept up in the lust-fuelled sex culture that is embedded in travelling when you’re young, single and far away from responsibilities and rational thoughts like “use a condom”.
I became acutely aware of the stigma attached to having had an STI as a girl. Media and popular culture are heavily saturated with sex, yet society continues to perpetuate outdated traditions and stereotypes about female sexuality. Without exception, women should be sexy, but also private and proper.
The old chlamyds is most prevalent among the youth. In Australia, where I’m from, 81% of reported cases of chlamydia are among 15 to 24 year olds. Even more harrowing, is the fact that 50% of men and 70-80% of women don’t get symptoms at all. If left untreated, chlamyds can render both genders infertile. So in some ways, I was pretty lucky to have found that milky-white discharge in my undies; it was my body’s way of telling me something wasn’t right.
I could hear the embarrassment rise in my voice every time I told a prudish friend back home what had gone down (and into) my precious loins. It was always in the back of my head, that if the situation were reversed and they had an STI, they would probably sew their vaginas shut and never bang anyone again.
It wasn’t that I was embarrassed about having chlamydia; in fact, I’m sure many of my friends have secretly contracted it too. More specifically, it was the shame of being associated with having had an STI that uncharacteristically rattled my self-worth.
Eventually, telling people about it made me feel less shit about it. If anything, it became great material for my friends to poke fun at me and I started to recognise how small-minded I had been about STIs before.
Having said that, STIs remain a taboo.
They carry a negative, “dirty” association that really isn’t warranted because sex is normal and LOTS of people do it. Sexual health should be considered just as important as mental or physical well-being. If everyone was a little more open about it and a little less judgmental, then maybe shitty, gendered stigmas and words like “slut” would slowly filter out and the patriarchal mentality that dominates us could eventually be deconstructed. Or at least, people would be more likely to go out get checked.
To be clear, I’m not advocating unsafe sex. While I was at the receiving end of the STI stick, I was equally at fault; after all, it takes two to bareback. If those test results had come back positive for something a lot scarier like HIV or more permanent like herpes, then this story would have a very different tune. I’ve actually vowed to be more careful with my sexual health.
But if you ever do find yourself walking down STI lane (and statistically speaking, some of you will), consider why the shameful stigmas that are associated with STIs aren’t acceptable.