Like many of us, I like sex. I like having it and I like talking about it. Especially when the conversations leave my sides hurting from laughing too much. Lighthearted exploit based anecdotes are great. They educate in their own way and help us form alternative, realistic images of intimacy to counter- balance Hollywood’s version of what happens between the sheets. Unfortunately, there are other conversations we need to be having about sex. And because we don’t have them, issues surrounding sexually transmitted infections remain unexplored and stigmatized.In reality we need to be having all sorts of different conversations about STIs. There are the general ones where we learn the facts. There are the specific ones we should be having with anyone we intend to be intimate with. And there are the ones we should be having with our friends so we remember the facts and are better equipped to talk with our lovers. So, what are the facts? According to the American Social Health Association, over 65 million people in the U.S. are living with an incurable STI. Every year approximately 15 million new cases are diagnosed, few of them curable. Many more, usually the treatable ones, are never reported to the Center for Disease Control so accurate estimates are hard to come by. Perhaps more concerning is the fact that two-thirds of all STIs occur in people aged 25 or younger. And because at least one in four Americans will contract an STI at some point in their lives, it just doesn’t make sense to think “it won’t happen to me.” Some STIs are curable and others are not. Chancroid, chlamydia, crabs, gonorrhea, molluscum contagiosum, nongonococcal urethritis, pelvic inflammatory disease, scabes, syphilis, and vaginitis are all treatable, most of them with antibiotics. Incurable STIs include hepatitis B and C, herpes, human papillomavirus, and HIV. While the list of STIs is certainly long, and to some, frightening, it’s heartening to know that most of them are curable. Testing and treatment is available at the Tang Center and local community clinics. Some STIs are symptomatic but many are not. You or your potential partner looking and feeling fine in all the right places is no guarantee of a clean bill of health, especially because infected people with obvious presenting symptoms are in the minority. According to the ASHA, 75 percent of women and 50 percent of men with chlamydia are asymptomatic. This is worth noting because the CDC estimates that as many as 3 million cases occurred in 2000 alone. One in 10 adolescent females test positive for chlamydia. Women infected with gonorrhea are also usually asymptomatic. And, of the more then 45 million individuals infected with herpes, the ASHA estimates as many as 80 percent of them are unaware they have it. Tragically, despite both chlamydia and gonorrhea being very easy to treat, these infections can wreck havoc if left untreated, causing irreversible damage including infertility. HPV, now considered the most common STI in the country, can cause cervical cancer. (The CDC promotes preventative annual Pap smears to treat abnormal cell changes before they become cancerous.) All of this is to say, STIs are out there and not talking about them is about as helpful as sticking our heads in the sand like ostriches.So, how do we talk to our partners? Is there a tactful way to ask someone to get tested for STIs? Latex condoms and dental dams provide some protection during vaginal, oral, and anal sex. Make sure you have your own supply so you’re not depending on your partner to remember. If he or she balks at the idea of using protection or is insulted try to explain that you wouldn’t want to inadvertently pass on an infection to him or her. Making it about both of you usually defuses any defensivness that may come up. A great way to broach the topic of STI testing is to suggest the two of you go together. Certainly we all have different personalities so there is no perfect script. If you don’t know how to open up that dialogue with your partner, ask your friends for advice. What have they said and when or how have they said it: Before we know it we’ll be having lots of different conversations about sex.
Let’s Talk About Sex…
Mills College Weekly
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