A throat tickle, uncontrollable sneezing, and/or a deep cough – having the common cold is a much discussed phenomenon that happens to millions of people every year. The widespread prevalence of the common cold has fostered the coining of the term ‘flu season’ and the proliferation of prescriptions and over-the-counter remedies in every pharmacy and grocery to help combat and prevent them. Having a cold is something we openly discuss and is a socially-acceptable excuse to rest and binge-watch a season of your favorite show. In comparison, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are pervasive and also caused by “germs” (bacteria and viruses), so why in 2015 are STIs still so taboo?
STIs are considered by many to be scary, repulsive and most of all: something we don’t voluntarily talk about outside of health class. Major changes in terminology (from STD- sexually transmitted disease to STI- sexually transmitted infection) shows progress in public understanding and a potential light at the end of the tunnel in eliminating STI shaming – (a close cousin to slut shaming). The word “disease” implies something will produce symptoms, when in actuality many STI sufferers remain unaware of their condition because many STIs produce no symptoms. Though there may be no immediate symptoms, untreated infections can still cause damage to the reproductive system which may lead to pain and infertility (associated with PID); cancers of the cervix, mouth and throat (associated with HPV); and damage to the immune system (as is the case with HIV). These somewhat silent long-term consequences are what make getting tested on a regular basis crucial to prevent serious and lasting health problems.
Covering your mouth when you sneeze/cough can reduce transmission of “germs” and frequent hand washing can reduce your chance of catching a cold. It is also common courtesy to disclose to others when we have a cold and make efforts to minimize our transmission to partners, friends, and colleagues. While we cannot necessarily wash away all of the “germs” from intercourse or other sexual contact, we can similarly cover up with a female or male condom to help reduce exposure to STIs. It is also ethical (and in the case of HIV – legally required) to disclose to sexual partners when we have a sexual illness that could be contagious. As is the case with the common cold, medicine is available (though not yet over-the-counter) to help combat symptoms and cure many STIs.
April is the official “GYT”- Get Yourself Tested month, which according to the CDC is a “youthful, empowering social movement to encourage young people to get tested and treated, as needed, for STDs and HIV.” This national campaign is designed to connect community organizations, schools, health care providers and health departments to better assist youth with their unmet need for STI testing and awareness. One of the national campaign partners, MTV, has come up with an innovative, user friendly website to help answer questions on a live chat and provide a great guide to STIs. Use April as an excuse to go get tested!
Know Your Status
Getting tested provides peace of mind and awareness, prevents lasting effects on your physical and emotional health, and enables a healthy sex life. With these benefits in mind, a new free social networking site is paving the way for acceptance and popularity of regular testing.
JustBeenTested.com allows a member to sign up, get tested and display their most recent STI testing date on their profile. By showing the date and never the results, the goal is to have an open forum about sexual health. It’s not about testing positive or negative but rather about courage and acceptance that STI testing is a part of everyday life and is information to be shared NOT shamed. The site goes even further to award points to members for inviting friends to join, commenting on blog posts, posting to their newsfeed and writing on friends’ walls. These points allow members to be eligible to win gift cards and prizes. The site is also partnering with small companies and start-ups to offer discounts to members who are verified.
In addition to being the only online social media platform offering incentives and benefits for members who get tested, the nonprofit is also implementing a mobile testing unit (similar to giving blood to the Red Cross at a mobile blood drive), making it even more convenient to get tested and verified. The partnerships are primarily with college campus clubs on the East Coast (such as Columbia, Binghamton University, UMass, University of Pennsylvania) and have tested an average of 25 people per event.
Acceptance, Empowerment and Location
While historically taboo, other intimate topics have experienced cultural attitude shifts toward mainstream acceptance and dialogue. Pregnancy, breast awareness, sexual assault, tips for sexual prowess, sexual preferences, sexual orientations and even gender identity have been integrated as regular content of media publications, with recent examples including widespread discussion of BDSM in 50 Shades of Grey and the media’s coverage of gender transitioning by celebrities like Bruce Jenner and Shiloh Jolie-Pitt. STI acceptance could follow suit with social media campaigns, campus outreach, and a month devoted to awareness but there is still a major hurdle: those who are interested in getting tested often do not know where to go. The following is a list of resources that provide information about accessible, cost friendly, KNOWN locations.
Title X: The National Family Planning Program is a federal program that provides services exclusively toward family planning and preventative care. Their website states, “family planning centers offer a broad range of FDA-approved contraceptive methods and related counseling; as well as breast and cervical cancer screening; pregnancy testing and counseling; screening and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs); HIV testing; and other patient education and referral.” The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Population Affairs funds the services which are provided at health departments, community heatlh centers, Planned Parenthood centers, and various private nonprofits. At these various locations there are health care physicians ready to get you tested quickly and costs are on a sliding scale based on income. There is a search engine available on the website to find the closest location to you.
Get STD Tested provides at-home testing for HIV Standard, Chlamydia & Gonorrhea and Trichomoniasis, as well as a complete lab test package for $229 at over 4,000 locations.
Planned Parenthood provides STI testing, as well as many other services with prices that are income-based. To find a location use the link or call 1-800-230-PLAN.
The Center for Disease Control provides a national search for clinics and has in-depth information about everything STI-related.
Center for American Progress provides visual charts and information about the cost of STI care, and detailed information about different types of clinics.
With all of these resources, getting tested for the first time or the tenth time is as easy as ever. Making the decision to be safe and smart is the first step. As a sexually active community, it’s our responsibility to know our status and stop shaming infections that are nearly as prevalent as the common cold.
Sasha Aurand has a BA in psychology from Indiana University, with a minor in Human Development and Family Studies. She will be attending graduate school in Fall 2015 to pursue a degree in social psychology and plans to continue writing.