All the questions you’ve wanted to ask a sexual health nurse, warts and all
You’re swabbing what now?
Having to explain every detail to a complete stranger the sex you had two weeks ago, which has lead you to believe you might have an STI, is a little bit awkward to say the least.
Having to then get your penis or vagina out to said stranger so they can swab around and check for your potential STI can only leave you wondering "why the fuck did I even shag him/her in the first place??"
But imagine being on the swabbing-side of things, the one who has to day-in-day-out examine penises, vaginas and the rest of the human body as their actual job.
We spoke to Sarah, who has been a sexual health nurse for the last seven years, and has more than thirty years experience as a contraceptive nurse.
We asked her all the nitty-gritty details of what it's like being a sexual health nurse, warts and all.
What’s the worst thing you’ve seen on someone’s genitals?
I’ve seen some pretty awful warts. Loads of little ones on a young girl of 18 who was pregnant – she was a mess.
How many STDs has an individual had in one go who you've treated?
MSMs as they’re called (men who have sex with men) can have chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis and herpes.
Literally all in one go?
Have you had someone who has had all five?
No, but three or four, and they might have HIV anyway. If you have one sexually transmitted infection you’re more prone to catching others, especially if you’re not treated. Herpes can lend itself to HIV so you must never ignore it.
Has a man, or a woman, ever got aroused when you’ve been examining them?
No thank god. I’m 60, so that might be why. I deal with people in a very professional way and if they have to a swab taken from the inside of their penis or urethra I get them to hold it and I swab it.
For some young guys it’s really embarrassing, so I say "if you could just open the end of your penis I can go in and take the swab". I think using the no touch technique leads to that [arousal] not happening.
What is the most awkward thing anyone has said or done during an examination?
A guy once started to rub my arm and I said "there’s no need for you to do that, I'm a nurse".
Why do you do this job?
I do the job because I'm very passionate about contraception, and I'm very concerned about world population.
What age was the youngest person you've treated?
Because we do contraception as well we see quite a lot of 14-year-olds, but also 15-year-olds with chlamydia.
What’s it like telling someone they have an STD or are pregnant?
Chlamydia is often told by health advisors so we send out the results if they’re negative, if they’re positive the health advisors tells them. They come to us for the treatment and they don’t always understand what it is so you have to tell them it’s a sexually transmitted infection.
It’s amazing how many people cannot believe they’re pregnant when they’re not using contraception – they can’t believe it’s happened to them.
Do you find it difficult to tell a young girl they’re pregnant?
I think one of the worst one’s I've had was last summer. She hadn’t had a period and had gone to the university doctor who said it was stress from exams, but she was 21 weeks pregnant. She was an intelligent woman at university, she’d been pregnant before, so I can’t believe neither of them thought the first thing you'd do if you’d missed a period is a pregnancy test. So that was awful – she was totally hysterical.
What is the best contraception in your opinion?
The coil. I think you should all have a coil fitted! Hormones are so last century now. The coil lasts you for five years, you don't have to think about it, you just have to think about using condoms which sadly people don't use! Condoms are a girls best friend, not diamonds.
What’s do you enjoy most about your job?
The best thing is in the community where I do contraception and treatments for chlamydia and gonorrhoea. You’re in a room on your own and you have autonomy with your patient – I love that.
And the worst?
I get very disillusioned by the young women today. Considering all the feminist movement, they take so much rubbish from men and they don't practice safe sex. And they’re very ignorant about their bodies and their menstrual cycle. They say "how did I get pregnant?", well you got pregnant because you had sex! They don't realise sex comes with responsibility, so that can be very frustrating because you think somewhere in our society we have failed in sex education.
People also keep coming back with partners who are playing around and are infecting and reinfecting them, and they’re not looking after their health and long-term their fertility.
What’s the most common condition people come to see you for?
Emergency contraception on the contraception side, and chlamydia.
After chlamydia, what would you say is the second most popular STD?
There's quite a lot of gonorrhoea.
Have you seen a change at all in the different types of disease coming through?
They now say there is a huge rise in women getting syphilis.
Is there anything you regularly hear people say during an appointment?
If I had a pound for every time somebody said "it makes me never want to have sex ever again" I could have retired years ago.
Has being a sexual health nurse changed the way you talk about it with your own children?
I’ve always been an open person, if someone asks I answer. But they can’t ask about my personal life – I'm their mother, not their friend. But I can speak to people very open and honestly, I don’t embarrass easily.
Illustrations by @daisybernardart