Let's Talk About Sex(ually) Transmitted Infections, Baby!
By Alexa Santory
Okay, we want to preface this piece by saying we know and understand the delicate nature of talking about STIs and what they mean for people. We want to let you know that this is a safe, judgement free zone. We want to spread information in a way that’s accessible and helpful to everyone and there’s no reason to feel uncomfortable here! :)
Sex is a completely natural human experience. It's sometimes shared by people who love and care for each other and sometimes not, and you know what? It’s all okay! However you’re doing it, safety always comes first and equipping yourself with the proper knowledge and care before being intimate with anyone is going to protect you and your partner in more ways than you can imagine. But of course, like every human experience, sometimes we make mistakes. One of the most common mistakes people make while having sex is not using protection, potentially exposing themselves to infections and diseases that can be highly detrimental and (sometimes) contagious. STI’s are stressful enough, but the stigmas attached to them only make matters worse. We want to get real about STIs, the most common judgements people make, and how to deal if you have one. Always remember one thing: you’re still you!
What’s an STI?
STIs are sexually transmitted infections, which are passed from one person to the other during oral, vaginal, or anal sex, and are actually a lot more common than you think. Most of them tend to sound scarier than they actually are and a lot of them are completely treatable and may even go away on their own — this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t get tested, though. And it doesn’t mean that having an STI isn’t serious. If untreated, they can lead to way more serious issues, like infertility and cancer. Still though, the most common STI’s are all very treatable! So get tested!
Chlamydia/Gonorrhea: these two are often lumped together because they’re both super common and their symptoms are so similar--one being that most of the time there are no symptoms at all! If you do see symptoms, they both cause burning sensations when you pee and abnormal, discolored discharge (source). They’re both very easy to treat, but if left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, or PID. This affects the uterus and the Fallopian tubes, causes pain during sex, bleeding between periods, and nausea. The doctor will give you a round of antibiotics to care for it.
Herpes: a more serious and chronic STI, herpes sometimes shows no symptoms but when it does, well, you probably already know what happens. Blisters around the genitals are the telltale sign of herpes and the only way to know if you truly have it is by getting a blood test. It’s very easy to spread by skin to skin contact, so any type of intercourse, oral sex, or even kissing (source)! Unfortunately, there’s no cure for herpes, but it is treatable — your doctor can give you antiviral medication to suppress flare ups. Outbreaks do occur less over time, especially if you keep up with treatment.
Syphilis: this one has a very long and well documented history. It’s actually the first disease to be recognized as sexually transmitted, and the stigma runs deep. This article tells the story really well. Basically syphilis broke out in Europe in the 1400s and it was brutal — a lot of people died because it was a new disease and no one knew how to treat it. It can lead to sores called chancres that are extremely contagious, plus cause permanent damage if you get treatment too late. Sometimes you may not even know you have them which is why you have to get tested! Thankfully times have changed, though, and it’s totally treatable with medicine, especially if you catch it early!
HPV: remember the commercials for the HPV vaccine? “I wanna be one less, one less!” We’ve probably all gotten this vaccination, probably before knowing what HPV even is. Human papillomavirus is the most common STI and it comes in many forms, which is what makes it so elusive. Nearly everyone will contract it at some point of their sexual activity, and there are some strains of it that the body can fight off on its own and some that cause genital warts (which also ease up over time!). But there are also two specific strains that have lead to 70% of all cervical cancer cases (source). So it’s a tricky one. Annual GYN appointments for your Pap smear are the best way to stay on top of this. These tests check the cells of your cervix to make sure everything is healthy.
HIV/AIDS: times have really changed in terms of treating HIV. Human immunodeficiency virus is what leads to AIDS, and people who have HIV don’t have AIDS. It’s spread through vaginal fluids, blood, breastmilk, and semen, and it can be passed between people having unprotected sex, using dirty needles, or getting infected blood into an open wound. They both break down the immune system, specifically our T cells which help fight infection. AIDS makes the immune system extremely vulnerable to more serious, volatile diseases like cancer. Historically, HIV/AIDS has been attached to the LGBTQ community, poor countries, and drug users, rooting the stigmas even deeper into already marginalized groups. Unfortunately, there’s no cure for HIV/AIDS, but there are so many more treatment options now. Antiretroviral Therapy, aka ART, helps slow down the process of HIV in the body and can keep you healthy for years to the point that it becomes undetectable and can’t be spread through intercourse (source). Cuba even found a treatment to prevent pregnant, HIV-positive women from passing it to their child during childbirth! And there’s also a treatment to lessen your chances of getting HIV called PReP.
Will people look at me differently if I have an STI?
Contracting an STI can be just as much a mental battle as it is a physical one. STIs have also always been something other people want you to be ashamed of. Syphilis was the first disease of its kind and was associated with being shameful, dirty, and something that gives people a reason to treat your differently (aka worse). Those ideas haven’t changed, but given the commonality of STI’s, there’s really no place for them anymore.
Contraception isn’t perfect and you can still catch certain infections even if you’re being safe, and nearly everyone having sex will contract an STI at some point in their lives. People may look at you differently, but as long as you know you’re taking care of it, especially if it’s treatable, you’re still you at the end of the day. People, especially women, feel a lot of social pressures after being diagnosed with an STI, some of them reporting that they felt tainted, others stating they felt unworthy of love, and others stating they were scared of being rejected (source).
The social stigma of STI’s runs deep, but the sooner people realize how common they are, the sooner we’ll all be able to have an open conversation about them without feeling judged or alienated. It’s good to mentally prepare yourself for the whole process of getting tested too. Since some STIs show no symptoms, you can be caught off guard by the results. Just try and stay positive and don’t be afraid to ask your doctor tons of questions — they’re there to help you! It’s also a good idea to discuss it with your most recent sexual partners to keep them in the loop and to prevent them from spreading it. It can be uncomfortable, but it has to be done! Treatment options are available for all STIs and a lot of them go away if you treat them early. It’s not all bad news ya’ll! Have fun of course, but always stay safe and always get tested every few months!
What to do about contraception
So we all know about using contraception as a way to prevent pregnancy. Birth control is well and good and is a staple in most women’s lives, one of its uses being able to have sex without a condom. Unfortunately, hormonal birth control methods don’t protect you from STIs. And if you’re on some form of BC and you think you or your partner has an STI, you still have to use protection. So let’s talk about contraceptives that keep you safe all around.
Condoms: good ol’ condoms. They start drilling this stuff into our heads in elementary school so you know what they’re used for and you know that you have to use them, especially if you’re having sex with multiple partners or not on any type of hormonal birth control. Latex is the most common type of condom, but we know there are people who are allergic or have a sensitivity to them (it’s a thing guys!). Non-latex condoms work just as well, without the worry of whether you’ll be irritated afterwards. There are also lambskin condoms, but it’s advised not to use those since there are small holes in them naturally that allow bacteria to pass through, which defeats the whole purpose of a condom in the first place. Latex condoms are 99% effective if they’re used correctly, so don’t use an expired one because it will break. And also don’t ever let anyone tell you that they “don’t like them” or they’re “too uncomfortable” for them. Those people are silly and overestimating themselves.
Dental dams: these are a bit antiquated, but they’re the best way to prevent spreading STIs through oral sex. It’s basically a flat condom — a rectangular piece of latex that you place over the vagina before performing oral sex. They were originally invented for actual dental purposes, specifically to separate a single tooth from the rest of the teeth (source). They became popular in the 1980s during the AIDs epidemic. Most people would consider them pretty unsexy, but protection is protection and making dental dams a regular part of your sex routine will take the awkwardness out of it!
However you choose to do it and whoever you choose to do it with, always remember that your safety comes first! Use protection every time you have sex! And get tested every few months! Sex is great, but it’s even better when you know everything is as it should be.
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