And what that says about a sexually repressive culture
It’s well past midnight, and I’m going down the dark rabbit hole of frantic google searches and WebMD pages. With the modern day availability of the internet, anyone who is overzealous about their health can relate to this feeling all too well. Have an ordinary symptom? Then Google it, in search of some reassurance, but end up a few hours later panicking about a life threatening ailment.
This panic has been a recurrent theme throughout my life. Every slight change, unfamiliar noise or twinge in my body can leave me reeling with worry. Even though I am learning how to manage my fears better, the thought of some illnesses and infections can still knock the wind out of my socks: yes, I’m talking about the sexually transmitted ones.
I remember the first time I found something that looked like a tiny bump around my vulva. It seemed small and unconcerning, and popped up a few months after I had started having sex (always careful and protected) with my boyfriend at the time. I spent ages inspecting the little bump, the exact size and color of it, and nearly had a meltdown in my room. Face flushed with terror, I desperately googled symptoms- for herpes, chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis. The names of these infections sounded alien and scary on my tongue, I’d never read about anything other than the textbook description of HIV-AIDS. Herpes was incurable, I discovered. You could have HPV and never know. What if my life was ruined forever?
The bump soon disappeared without a fuss and was probably nothing more than an irritated ingrown hair or pimple. But in those few days, my mind raced with all sorts of thoughts. What if I did have an STI? How would I tell my parents? Imagine the questions they would ask me! Where would I find a gynecologist who wouldn’t judge me? I’d only ever gone to a gynecologist for irregular periods and acne- issues that were appropriate for a teenage girl to discuss with a doctor. Would people think of me as promiscuous and careless? The shame I anticipated was immense and overwhelming.
I realised that STI’s and STD’s terrified me so much because they were seen as a different category of disease. I could consult my family doctor about a throat infection or indigestion, because those were things that happen to normal people due to no fault of theirs, or as a consequence of acceptable mistakes, like forgetting to dress warmly or eating spicy street food. But STI’s on the other hand are seen as something that happens to bad people who have have loose morals and no self control. In a culture that creates fear mongering about sex, STI’s/STD’s and unwanted pregnancies become a punishment for wanting and having sex.
A woman with an STI is a cautionary tale, proof that sexual activity is bad and dangerous for young women. And I didn’t want to become that cautionary tale and feel the I-told-you-so of mothers, friends, doctors and society hanging over my head.
I’ve learnt much more about STI’s and STD’s after that first scare, including the fact that most bacterial STI’s are completely curable with a round of antibiotics, just like a throat or stomach infection would be. So-called ‘incurable’ infections like Herpes, I learnt, are absolutely manageable with anti-viral medications, and need not be a full stop to life, happiness or a sex life. Even serious diseases like HIV AIDS, while still serious, are no longer a death sentence in modern society, with a variety of medicines to manage the virus and prevent its transmission. Vaccines exist for Hepatitis, and some strains of HPV, and we are far from the 19th century where every other person died of Syphilis by the age of 35.
And of course, routine testing, condom usage and knowing your partner’s status significantly reduces risk. But most importantly- STI’s and STD’s can happen to anyone. Many of them are asymptomatic, and can be transmitted from a variety of sex acts without even realising it. STIs are not something that happen only to the so-called promiscuous, filthy deviants of society. It is in fact an expected result of being human, having bodily fluids and coming into contact with other humans who are also made of blood, sweat, bacteria and discharge. When my fear of catching something from a sexual partner keeps me up at night, this is what I have to remind myself of time and time again.
Because it’s not the thought of being ill or infected that truly terrifies me. What actually terrifies me is the subtext. That I’m a bad woman for wanting sex, and this is what happens to women like me. They fall ill, wind up broke and pregnant, or irrevocably heartbroken and have their lives ruined forever. If sex results in something unpleasant, then it could confirm the social messaging that I received all along. And this is what scares me- that I might believe I deserve this and that there was something inherently wrong in having sexual desires that caused this.
So when I find myself at 2AM googling symptoms of Chlamydia after feeling a slight itch, it is not my own paranoia that is fuelling me, but the collective shame and judgement of society acting through me. Moral norms want women to be afraid for having sex. Afraid before sex, during sex, after sex. And that’s precisely what I’m doing, in this new fangled, health conscious, digitally enabled way.
Just last week, I decided to confront my fears and get tested for STIs with my partner. I ignored the glare of the receptionist and how the nurse raised an eyebrow as she stabbed my arm with a needle. Though the reports all came out negative, my fears haven’t vanished. And it’s no surprise why- my fears have less to do with numbers on a report, but more to do with everything else. The odds are often stacked up against young women and queer people who want to be openly sexual. And against such persisting odds, true sex positivity becomes difficult. Sex positivity is about freedom. About navigating sex, even sexual risk, with openness, curiosity and a sense of safety. But instead of safety, most institutions collude to fill us with fear.
I realise that sex positivity doesn’t just begin with accepting other peoples’ sexual lives and desires, but also has to begin with accepting my own, and delinking it with the baggage of womanhood that has been handed over to me. And it is hard. On some days I’m still scared. But I’m trying my best.