Today, I had my first STI check-up. And yeah, I know how bad it is that I’m 21 and, after 4 years of being sexually active, am only having my first set of STI tests done now. But, like a lot of young people, I was terrified of the thought of them, and was under the (incredibly naïve) assumption that I didn’t need to get one. As I am what can only be described as serial monogamous, and have always used condoms, it was always something that I never thought I particularly needed.
But having started seeing, and then sleeping with, a new guy, it came up in discussion, and we decided we’d get tested – both for our own peace of mind and so that we wouldn’t have to be as careful with using condoms as I’m on the pill. I never had any symptoms of anything, nor any accidents; his tests had always come back negative. There’s this idea that we didn’t even really need to get tested, that we were probably grand. But better safe than sorry.
So I started looking for where I could go to get tested, and realised that I’d probably have to do some saving. The fact that you can’t get STI checks everywhere for free is ridiculous to me. Some universities do discounts, and by discount I mean it’s still bloody expensive. As a UCD student, I go to the university with the most expensive STI tests – lucky me. Most other places, at least those which offer them, are around €20 or €30, while in NUIG, it’s free.
If you’re not a student, most clinics charge between €120 and €150, though some offer discounts for couples attending together. There’s the option of going to James’ GUM clinic, which is free, but it involves getting there at 7am and hoping that you’d get an appointment. Apparently the GUM clinics outside of Dublin are much better and much less stressful. There’s also a free clinic for men who have sex with men on Baggot Street, or seeing if your GP does the check-up. In the end, I decided to go to the Well Woman clinic. It’s still €70, the same as UCD, but I’ve gone to the Well Woman for stuff before and they’re lovely, so I’d rather them have my €70 than UCD.
So I arrive at the Well Woman clinic this morning, and am instantly made feel at ease. There’s the super fun chat about my sexual history, and the small talk about what I do and if I’ve any plans for Christmas. I have some blood taken, which is grand – the needle is considerably smaller than the one when you donate blood. Then the even more fun bit of getting naked from the waist down and lying with my legs open.
The process itself, for someone who has a vagina, was nowhere near as terrifying as I’d imagined. The doctor has a general look/poke around, and then you have swabs taken. For some reason, the thought of the cervical swab scared the shit out of me, probably because speculums look like instruments of torture. I’d never had a pap smear before, because they’re only free from the age of 25 (apparently the HSE thinks that people under 25 can’t get cervical cancer…), and I’m pretty sure the trans-vaginal ultrasound I had to confirm PCOS rearranged my uterus, so my nerves didn’t really help the situation much, but it was still actually quite alright. Not the most pleasant thing in the world, but quick and painless – a little bit uncomfortable, but only for a few seconds.
For people with penis’, the procedure is slightly different – though I’m told there’s a similar level of apprehension and nervousness the first time round. You’ll be asked about your sexual history, have bloods taken and the doctor has a look/feel of your bits, and you also get some super fun swabs. The dreaded urethra swab is, from what I’ve heard, on a similar level to my dislike of speculums. But the experiences are considerably less awful than you’d imagine, and like the cervical smear, it’s over in seconds. Some places will let you pee in a cup instead of the swab, so you might get lucky.
There’s still a huge stigma surrounding STIs and getting tested. I’m a fairly open person when it comes to all this kind of stuff, but I still feel a bit apprehensive writing this and putting it on the internet for all to see. It shouldn’t be like this. There shouldn’t be barriers, monetary or social, which prevent or delay us from having our sexual health monitored, even when we don’t think there’s something wrong. Anyone who is having sex, be it oral, vaginal or anal, should be tested annually, even if they’re always having safe sex. While it can be a personal and somewhat embarrassing thing to talk (or write) about, it serves an educational purpose. If even one person reading this who has been putting off getting tested goes and gets it done, then the potential awkwardness of me talking about all this is worth it. With STI’s on the rise, and with the average Irish person having 11 sexual partners in a lifetime, regular STI check-ups should be more thoroughly promoted, and most importantly, actually accessible.
They need to be free, if not more affordable, because there’s already this big stigma or shame associated with them which puts people off. Imagine gathering up the courage to getting a check-up only to find that you couldn’t afford it. I know from personal experience that I would have had my first test a lot early than today had cost not been a factor. There’s no point promoting sexual health and getting tested regularly when the services aren’t accessible. People wait until they think something might be wrong before going to get checked out, and the longer you wait, the worse things can often be. You might have passed something on to a partner/partners, and some STIs can be treated more effectively the sooner they’re diagnosed. Then there’s STIs like Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea which often have no symptoms, and are on the rise in Ireland. Unless you were getting a regular check-up, you could be undiagnosed for years. If STI check-ups were free, I’m almost certain people would get check-ups more regularly. So if we really cared about promoting sexual health and discussion about safe sex, one of the first steps would be to make sure STI check-ups are affordable and accessible to everyone.