The Scoop: Taking ownership over your body and health starts with communication.
“Have you gotten tested?”
GULP. SIGH. HOLD YOUR BREATHE.
Oh no… Will they still like me? Was that question a turn off? Will I stay dry forever? UGH MAYBE I’LL AVOID HAVING SEX ALTOGETHER TO AVOID ASKING THAT HORRID QUESTION. Have I even been taught how to handle the answer, though?
It took me four years of risky sex to learn how to utter this sacred question under my breath and yet, I have still not perfected this conversation. Rest assured, someday I will. I am confident that through peer help, we will teach each other how to feel comfortable in asking the necessary questions for the sake of our health. I am learning how to ask sexual partners about their sexual health with confidence because sexual education did not teach me how to be prepared for this. I did not allow myself room to face rejection if someone’s ego gets bruised by this question, or if they do not want to disclose their health information. I did not learn the destigmatization in being prepared for any answer. But slowly, I am learning how to speak up and how to accept.
My fear from asking my partners about STIs stem from a fear of rejection, and being a heterosexual cis woman intimidated by men and their emotional and physical reactions toward others. What if they get angry in me asking? What if they belittle me to point of my self-esteem plummeting? I am a self-proclaimed feminist, but I am still challenged in feeling empowered in my relationships with men because I perceive them as the biggest threat to my self-love. Societal standards, my cultural identity, and my own soul have odds against me speaking up and healing when I need to.
What happens after asking the question? Would I stay and have sex with them anyway? Would I leave and tell them that they have to get tested before we have sex? Would I need proof that they had gotten tested next time we meet, like their medical test results? When I am actually in this situation, I immediately think, I wonder if they’ll ever call me again if I tell them I can’t have sex with someone untested. I wonder if I will go back to being lonely and self-hating. What would happen if they do have an STI? It is a flaw of mine, but I’ve realized that my anxiety comes from the idea of never being loved. I place so much emphasis on men liking me, even if they only enjoy me for sex, that I forget to take care of myself.
I first started asking about STIs when I found out I had contracted Chlamydia from a friend. He was the first person I asked about getting tested. I did not ask for any paperwork. He said he was clean. It was a lie. I told myself I would never have unprotected sex again, and that I would always ask about testing. I followed through on neither of these things, and instead began cycling through dicks that didn't like me. On occasion, I would ask men who didn’t want to use a condom if they had been tested, but I never asked for results because I needed a boost in my self-esteem that would surely follow intercourse.
Three months ago, I got a call from my doctor about a recent STI test I had taken. He said that my blood test had returned positive for genital herpes. I was floored and fainted from shock. I had unprotected sex with a few people, some of whom hadn’t asked me about protection before inserting themselves into my most intimate place. I was infuriated. I started hating myself for repeating my sexual history; I started hating all men and sex itself. I was scared of never being accepted, which shows my own learned stigmatization of STIs. But in the two weeks between this call and the results of my second blood test, I actually learned that self-care goes beyond the bedroom when the bedroom proves to be manipulated for toxic reasons, such as learning how to love myself. I gained a deep solidarity with people diagnosed with STIs, and I started to truly love parts of myself that did not correlate to sexuality. I removed my mind from stigma, and resolved not to have condom-less sex outside of a serious, monogamous relationship, and to find the courage within myself to not only ask every time if a partner had been tested, but to confirm the results for myself, knowing I would provide the same. It was a tumultuous time of personal reflection, but it was also one of utmost tenderness toward myself.
Two weeks passed and my second blood test came back negative. My doctor explained that the first test had been a false positive and I did not in fact have genital herpes. Regardless, the experience had unequivocally changed my life. Sometimes, it takes a health scare to lead us to the voice inside, but I believe we must find and embrace this voice sooner. It’s okay to be nervous and to feel insecure about the reaction from popping the question about testing. But the reality is, being honest with ourselves and our partners is what makes sex so special. We must learn to be aware of the blocks we sense between our own sexual health history and that of our partners, and we must carefully and with support, tear down these blocks to become closer to one another. Popping the question is not easy, but we can start by accepting every emotion we face surrounding this necessary conversation. You can do it, and we can change the culture of sex communication together.
Leilani Leila Riahi is a writer at heart. She believes in a sexually accepting, feminist, free world full of healthy sex, healthy sex conversation, and equality. She is getting her Masters in Social Work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and working part-time as an Elementary School teacher. She hopes to share conversations with you that focus on well-being.