There is a Sex and the City episode ‘Running with Scissors’ where a guy asks Samantha if she’s had a HIV test. Sheepishly, she says no but insists she practices safe sex. The guy refuses to have sex however, until he knows Samantha is ‘clean’. Although the show makes this scenario seem normal, it can still feel awkward and uncomfortable to ask someone about getting tested before sex.
According to Sheerluxe, STIs such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea have been on rise in the UK since 2012. It’s not just young people being infected – between 2002 to 2012, cases doubled for people aged between 50 – 90.
Data shows that sexual health tests have yet to reach pre-pandemic levels. In the US, STIs such as syphilis rose by 26% in 2021. With an increase in diagnosis but less people getting tested, we have extra reason to prioritise our sexual health.
Is it rude to ask someone to take an STD test?
This is question commonly asked on Google. People also frequently search for advice on how to ask a hookup or a partner about an STI test. It’s not unusual for someone to say they’ve recently been tested, but how well can you trust them?
Here is why getting tested before sex is still awkward to discuss:
In the US, roughly 20 million new cases of STIs are diagnosed each year. It is believed that over half of the US population will have an STI at some point in their lives. In the UK, around 500,000 people are diagnosed each year.
Despite how common STIs are, stigma continues to breathe. Particularly over the notion that STIs are dirty. The fact is, just as we can catch a cold, any person engaging in sex could catch an STI.
Stigma often stems from misinformation and poor education. Family and friends may also pass on their own negative associations as well bias media including social platforms.
When I was in school, I remember flicking through a science book to learn about STIs. Drawings of sexually transmitted infections littered the page. My friend and I cringed and gagged in equal horror.
School taught us to use condoms to avoid the infections. But no one told us how to live with an STI. It was not made clear that sex related health is as common practice as other types – you are not any dirtier or less clean for a sexual infection.
But it’s not surprising we harbour these feelings. Sex in general is a taboo and so is our anatomy. We are much more confident telling people about a rash on our legs or a strange chess pain than we are about a vaginal concern.
Our anatomy is so awkward that we create other names for it – flower, minnie, cookie….
If we’re participating in sex, we owe it to ourselves and the people we sleep with to stay educated on sexual health. As mentioned, stigma is based on poor knowledge and hearsay.
When I watched the TV drama ‘It’s a Sin’, I was surprised at how little I knew about HIV. I’m also amazed at some of the things people believe about STIs. For instance, you cannot catch genital herpes from bedding, towels or soap.
A lack of education results in fear. If we ourselves feel uncomfortable around the subject, we may ignore it completely. Some of us just have sex with condoms until we feel our partner is not sleeping with anyone else.
It can be easier to pretend sexually transmitted infections are not a thing rather than engage in a conversation.
It’s true that the more people you with sleep with, the more chance you have of catching an STI. But it only takes one person and one encounter for an infection to occur. Never assume that someone won’t have one simply because of their appearance, background, wealth or experience.
It’s not sexy
Those graphic images in textbooks – not exactly the sexiest thing to mention. In the beginning phase when we like someone, we’re desperate for them to like us back. One minute you’re having a conversation, the next you’re kissing and slowly removing clothes.
In those moments, it can feel better to keep quiet and worry about the issue later. In general, STIs can be a tough conversation when you’re trying to be sexy and fun.
Of course, condoms are one of the best ways to protect yourself. When used correctly, they are 98% effective. With that said, condoms cannot cover all the genital skin. This means transmission is still possible. Healthline have listed STIs that condoms cannot always prevent.
This alone highlights that STIs can be a normal part of sex and something that happens even when you are taking safety precautions.
One STI that condoms cannot always prevent is HPV. It’s estimated that 8 in 10 men and women will get HPV, but most people can rid themselves of the virus without any treatment. Some of us though can end up with long-term HPV which could potentially become cervical cancer. As the virus can lie dormant for decades, it’s crucial women have regular smear tests.
Why we need to discuss our sexual health
Not all STIs have symptoms. Getting tested regularly puts us in a position of sexual power. If we do have an STI, we can either take medication or look at preventive measures such as antiviral medicine.
If your sexual partner has an STI and you’re unaware, you could unknowingly be carrying it. Although it can feel daunting, it is always much better to know what’s happening than to assume everything is fine.
How to talk about an STI
Firstly, make sure you are clued up on your own sexual health. Getting tested before sex with a new partner will give you peace of mind. Importantly, it means you can disclose of any infection to a new partner.
Have the discussion before you are getting intimate. If you wait until you’re kissing or about to put a condom on, it will feel more awkward and you won’t have a clear mindset to properly discuss.
It doesn’t have to be an uncomfortable sit down. You could mention an STI story such as, ‘I heard in the news that someone was cured of HIV recently. I actually had a test last month, when was yours?’
If you have an STI, you could say, ‘Before we have sex, I want to make sure we have condoms because I have ____ and don’t want to pass it on.’ Or, ‘Are you aware of ____. This is something I have. I wanted to let you beforehand. Here are some resources/information.’
You are well within your right to ask someone to have an STI test before you have sex. This is something you can do together. Likewise, if someone asks you for one, do not feel they are judging or assuming. This is a positive sign that they prioritise their sexual wellness.
Because there is so much STI stigma, your partner may feel too embarrassed to admit they have one. Try to bring up the subject sensitively rather than blurting out, ‘Do you have an STI?’ or ‘Have you been tested?’. A direct question on the spot is likely to make people panic.
It’s no secret that some men and women don’t like the feel of condoms during sex. Before you feel ready, you might be pressured to stop using them. If someone doesn’t want to get tested or is blasé about their last test yet they want to stop wearing condoms, this would be a red flag.
Do not feel that you’re somehow in the wrong if you want proof of an STI test. Again, this is about knowing your options. If your partner does have an STI, you can then learn about the infection and decide the best measures.
Overall, getting tested before sex should be a normality and not a subject we avoid. Get regularly tested, have conversations, and do not feel ashamed if you do have a sexual infection.