In this week’s column, we’re talking Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). For this article, I interviewed AnnMarie Gorham, women’s health and adult nurse practitioner at Baystate Ob/Gyn Group in Springfield, Massachusetts, and got her expert knowledge on the most common STDs, how to prevent them, and what to do if you end up with one (or feel like you might have one). I also spoke to two RWU students, one male and one female, about how comfortable they feel speaking to a partner about their sexual history, and what they think about STDs in general.
Gorham says the most common STD college students get is chlamydia, which is treatable with antibiotics. She says she often tells people “if you had to choose from a menu of STD’s – which of course you want none – it should be chlamydia” because it goes away. Oftentimes, chlamydia doesn’t show symptoms, which is part of the reason why it spreads so easily. However, just because it can be treated doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use protection. Gorham says if left undetected and untreated, chlamydia can damage the fallopian tubes, causing scarring on the tubes. Another common STD is human papillomavirus (HPV), depending on where you live. With this STD, you can have it and not know it. There are also about 40 different strains of it – yikes. Herpes is also on the rise, says Gorham, and is treatable but not curable. It is a lifelong virus, so you can treat it and try to prevent more outbreaks, but it can’t be cured.
When I asked Gorham what to do if you have unprotected sex with someone you don’t know, she recognized that it is a “tricky” situation. If you had unprotected sex, she recommends being seen as soon as possible. Symptoms may not occur right away, but often begin to show within a couple of weeks.
When getting tested, if a person has been exposed to chlamydia or gonorrhea in the last two to three days, the test results will show. Tests for other STDs are done by blood-work, and you have to wait three months, because each infection takes a different amount of time to show up in the body.
When I asked around about this topic, students were hesitant to give out answers, even when I told them they could answer anonymously. There is definitely a negative stereotype surrounding STDs, even though there shouldn’t be. STDs are extremely common among young people, and are nothing to be ashamed about. Gorham agrees.
She worked at a college campus for several years and said that she feels a lot of people felt shame around STDs, even though they shouldn’t.
Gorham also made the point that it’s a lot more “sexy” to talk about what you like and what you don’t like in bed, and thinks that young people feel much more empowered to talk about that.
“That’s a sexier conversation than having the STD talk,” Gorham said.
A 22-year-old male RWU student, who wished to remain anonymous, agreed that talking about sexual history with someone you don’t know can be very uncomfortable.
“If you’re in a relationship, you should feel comfortable because you know that person,” said the male student. “You should trust them to be honest with you. If you’re just hooking up that’s sometimes weird, because it’s like a one-time thing. If you’re just one-night-standing, I don’t think people think about that.”
A 22-year-old female student, who also wished to remain anonymous, agreed with this.
“I’ve never asked a person I’ve been with if they’ve been tested or who they’ve recently slept with and I’m not exactly sure why,” she said. “I didn’t ask the last person I dated because I was really comfortable with them and I’d like to think that if they did have a STD, they’d tell me about it. I also didn’t really want to know who they were with before me because sometimes ignorance is bliss.”
Since her ex-boyfriend, she mentioned she did have a “one-time casual thing” and in the moment, she didn’t ask if they had been tested or who they recently slept with either.
“It wasn’t until a few days after I thought, ‘Hmm maybe I should get tested’. I seriously am considering it because I really don’t know anything about this guy let alone their sexual history,” she said.
So what do you do if you feel like you need to have this conversation with a partner? Gorham recommends thinking about what you’re going to say ahead of time, and maybe talking to your doctor for help. She said it’s a very individual thing that depends on the person and the situation, and you should consider talking to your doctor to ask for help. When Gorham personally has these conversations with people, one of the points she makes is that it’s your health.
“Sex can be amazing and wonderful and it comes with risks,” Gorham said. “Some you can take care of and some you can’t.”
The main thing, said Gorham, is realizing that it’s about focusing on you. This is your life, your body, and your health. Specifically, when speaking to women about STDs, she asks them that if it feels uncomfortable to talk to somebody about it, do you think that tells you something about that person and how you should be involved with them? She also said you can’t judge a book by its cover, and she knows plenty of great, successful people who have had, and currently have, STDs.
“It’s not a character flaw,” Gorham said.
This stigma that people who have STD’s are “dirty” is very much a thought that pops into the heads of many college students, including my own at one point.
The male RWU student added, “I feel like people are embarrassed, especially if they’ve ever had one. I feel like STDs for some reason have a negative connotation in today’s society.”
He also mentioned that there shouldn’t be any shame on a person, because you can’t control them.
Gorham wants people to feel empowered enough to say “hey I can talk about what I like in bed but also talk about STDs.”
“It’s important to protect ourselves and each other,” Gorham said.
If you have any more questions, Gorham recommends www.bedsider.org as a resource. Thanks for reading, Hawks. I’ll be back next week with a new topic!