How getting an STI changed the way I view Sexual Health
One Student’s cautionary tale on why you should always slap some latex on your gonads
STIs, STIs, STIs… the word cues grim flashbacks to Year 9 sex ed classes, but they’re always something that happens to someone else, right?
Allow me to set the scene. It was about a year and a half ago, and having just come out of a long-term relationship, I was pretty new to the idea of casual sex. But with the world of Grindr now at my fingertips, I soon discovered that sexual encounters with like-minded men could be arranged as quickly and easily as ordering an Uber. I knew to use condoms for penetrative sex, mostly to stop HIV, and not much more beyond that. Of course I knew that other STIs existed, but they just had less of a stigma and could be more easily treated.
I'll spare you the details of my lust-driven Grindr hookups. Suffice it to say that it wasn't long until I woke up one morning with a conspicuous white discharge and an unbearable pain when going to the loo. I remember the sinking realisation that I must have contracted an STI, and that I could only have got it from getting sucked off.
Two overwhelming thoughts sprang to my mind. Firstly, I guess I knew in the back of my mind that some STIs can be spread by oral sex. You know it can happen – but you just never think it will happen to you, until it does. People have oral sex without protection all the time, it's the "done thing" – so it must be fine, right?
Secondly, and as silly as this may sound, the reality is quite a lot worse than you expect (or than I expected, at least). I wasn’t prepared for the excruciating pain, the fear that struck every time I felt nature calling in anticipation of the agony that would accompany it. I remember having to bite down on my hand in cubicles to stop myself from crying out in pain.
Anyway, I soon got my appointment at the Limetree Clinic where they told me I had gonorrhoea, gave me my antibiotics and told me to come back in two weeks for a follow-up test. But, while I was waiting for my symptoms to clear, I remember reading a news article about multidrug resistant “super-gonorrhoea” that was spiking up around the world and panicking that I might have somehow caught it.
Rest assured, my symptoms cleared up after a few days and all the results were fine. And, needless to say, I notified my recent sexual partners, who also got themselves treated. Why, then, am I telling this story? I'm not the only person in Cambridge who's contracted an STI. But the whole event, and the scare of thinking I might have super-gonorrhoea, were the wake-up call I needed to make a change to how I viewed sexual health and protection. I wasn't going to stop having sex, but I was going to be smarter about the way I did it – and for me, that meant extending my use of condoms with one-off partners to oral sex as well.
Like most people, I wasn't hugely keen on the idea of sucking on a rubbery condom. But I knew that flavoured condoms were a thing, and I decided to order some online (from LoveHoney, in case you're curious). They came in a delightful range of flavours – blueberry cheesecake, strawberry crush, chocolate temptation, and mint tingle! (My personal favourite was the blueberry cheesecake).
People’s reactions when I told them I wanted to use condoms for giving and getting head were mixed; some were open to the idea, some completely repulsed, but for the most part people were very surprised, having never heard such a request before. Some were even mildly offended, insisting that they had been tested recently, yet they still wanted to use a condom when it came to penetration.
This was what made me realise that a big increase in awareness and understanding is needed when it comes to STIs. Amongst men who have sex with men, both gonorrhoea and syphilis – bacterial infections which can be orally transmitted – have significantly increased in frequency in recent years, and cases of super-gonorrhoea have recently been reported in the UK, but using protection for oral sex is still very uncommon.
This could mean better sex education, or making flavoured condoms and dental dams available through CUSU/JCRs/sexual health clinics. It should also mean a greater emphasis on regular testing, especially seeing as most chlamydia and gonorrhoea infections in the throat or rectum have no symptoms.
With the introduction of postal "Express Testing" kits in Cambridgeshire, getting tested regularly is easier than ever – skip calling up at 8.45am to book an appointment and cycling all the way to the bottom end of Mill Road for what will, for many, be an awkward or anxiety-inducing experience, but administer your own test in the privacy of your own bedroom.
I really want to stress here that, as much as it may sound it, I'm not trying to be preachy. Of course, using condoms or dental dams for oral sex won't be everyone's cup of tea – but everyone should be able to make a fully informed choice, with all the information and supplies accessible to them. And of course, we can all go against our better judgement regarding protection in the heat of the moment, especially when boozed up – I won't pretend I haven't.
I just hope that more people won't have to learn the hard and sticky way-like I did.