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The Shame Game: The Reality of Testing for STIs

Safe Sex

Annual testing for STIs (sexually transmitted infection) is something I believe every sexually active person should do for their health, not just for people who are in some form of open relationship but anyone sexually active. It is part of being safe and sane with our own health. Unfortunately testing can often be source of shame and negativity for women and men seeking testing.

For several years I chose to go to the Boulder Women’s clinic, a seemingly progressive place in a progressive town. I am a mother of three children, have been sexually active from a young age and while not always safe from STIs when I was younger ( before HIV awareness) I obtained birth control as soon as I became sexually active. Later, after HIV, I used condoms in addition to birth control. I now regularly educate people on safer sex, awareness of STIs, how to talk about sex and safe sex. Despite this and the fact that I am an adult in my forties, every year at the clinic it was the same, “Annual testing is not necessary unless you practice high risk behavior” or “Why do you need testing, does your partner have something?”  And on occasion I was told that I only really needed was an HIV test unless I had symptoms.

I would explain that I am polyamorous, have three partners and that part of being safe for all of us was annual testing (more if we have a condom break or some other concern). That I wanted testing for several things that I, and my partners, feel are needed. This explanation would be met with  a concerned  look, disapproving head shake, a lecture about how having multiple partners was “unsafe, high risk sexual behavior” and the implication that having more than one lover was wrong. I would explain, "Yes, I understand the risks, this is my choice, this is why I get tested," etc and "please just give the fucking test." Every year it felt like a fight to get testing done, from a supposedly progressive women’s clinic in Boulder Colorado. I put up with the judgment and the feeling that the doctors and nurses were looking at me as the sex crazed slut because I don’t care what they think .Finding a new Dr/clinic is a pain and this clinic was better than others I has dealt with.  In 2006 the clinic stopped doing testing for HIV and I found another place for testing with essentially the same game in play.

I have heard many stories from other women and a few men of the medical personnel heaping on shame and judgment when a person needs testing and even when needed medical attention requires a medical history. Many folks are much are very challenged by all the hostile treatment and judgment.. This conduct is disrespectful and demeaning. Our sexual behavior is categorized as “high risk sex.” The terminology itself is somewhat shaming. When I travel to certain parts of Mexico they recommend caution due to malaria but they never say “high risk” travel. Disease is part of the human condition; it is why we have an immune system. We can catch a cold or flu by shaking a hand, hugging someone or going to the grocery store but we do not categorize hand shaking as “high risk” behavior nor do we question why someone needs cold medicine or a strep test. Sending my kids to school puts them at a significant increased risk of catching a virus or bacterial infection, some that can be very deadly, yet no one recommends keeping kids away from school.

This adversarial treatment and sex negative attitude contributes to an atmosphere that makes testing at best unpleasant and at times humiliating. How many people forgo testing because of these challenges and the perceived shame? This negative atmosphere has, I believe, contributed to the spread of STIs especially among senior citizens and teens. Many people are afraid to get tested, afraid to be judged and want to avoid the grilling by health care practitioners that invade privacy and undermine personal choice. Education of health personnel can help as well as lists of truly sex positive providers, however overcoming the puritanical conditioning in our society is not easy.

When it comes to sex, abstinence is the only true safe route and because our society is so sex negative many people really believe abstinence is the answer. To me this is as ludicrous as never allowing my kids go or play outside; abstaining from sex is not healthy anymore than staying home all the time is. We do not shame people because they catch a cold, flu or strep throat, so why is it ok to shame people when something is spread sexually?. Infections happen when we have contact with other humans, animals or even inanimate objects. Many STIs are preventable with condoms but not 100% and we all may face an infection from sexual contact at various points in our lives. Some infections can be annoying and mild and others life threatening. Either way people need to be given the same consideration they would if they contracted malaria, strep throat or West Nile virus rather than stigmatized and looked down on.

Most important than how others treat us is how we treat ourselves and each other when we find we are facing an STI. Our own attitude is often of key importance.  It is essential to be informed, be safe, be aware of your partners as well as your own vulnerability and use protection but don’t forget to be kind to yourself and others who find themselves facing an STI. It is part of being human, we catch disease, and there is no need to beat ourselves up or feel ashamed for getting an infection from sex any more than we would if we caught a cold from shaking hands with a friend.

As for testing, it can not only save your life by allowing you to get appropriate treatment if you have something, it can save your partner’s life and well being. It would be nice to always have informed and sex positive health care professionals but the reality is we deal with a lot of ignorance and misinformation. For now I grin and bare it while doing my best to educate professionals. Change needs to happen but only can through awareness.  It is vital for people, polyamorous or not, to have access to STI testing without harassment and my hope is that through sex positive awareness and communication we can make it safe for people to get help.


The following are resources for information and testing for STD/STIs

Center for Disease Control Website - Statistical information on STIs and prevention.

Planned Parenthood - Good source of information as well as confidential testing.

Anonymous and Affordable STD Testing - Testing service; they order the tests and set you up to go directly to a lab. Low cost and anonymous which means it does not go on your medical record that you were tested. Law requires reporting to the CDC with certain infections if you test positive.


  1. Robyn, I’m so with you. In fact, I just posted a link to an awesome video by a *13 year old girl* on the topic of “Slut Shaming and Why It’s Wrong.” You can catch the link in my blog entry: http://blog.unchartedlove.com/?p=1187

    Today I went to donate blood, and encountered a woefully uneducated opinion, voiced by the gal taking my information. When I commented on the backwards policy of the Red Cross–which is really coming from the FDA, I’m informed–to systematically discriminate against Gay and Bisexual men, she told me that the reason they did this was because “these guys do things they shouldn’t do, and….” I cut her off, and said “That’s bullshit.” I wish I’d had the presence of mind to do a better job of educating, and had said “HIV does not discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender, or sexual preference. And neither should the Red Cross. The practices the Red Cross still uses are outdated by world standards, and were put in place many years ago when we knew less than we do now. We have much better tests these days. There is no longer a good reason to systematically bar healthy gay and bisexual men from donating blood. Perhaps if the Red Cross were to stop doing so, there’d be less of a shortage in the Bay Area, hm?”

    Slut shaming and sexual orientation shaming are alive and unfortunately far too well in our culture. And the result is that many people fail to donate blood, get needed procedures, or worse yet, fail to know things like their own testing status, because of the fear that they’ll encounter this sort of ignorance from the people who are supposedly there to help.

    Guess in my copious spare time, I should write a letter or call my local Red Cross office tomorrow, to let them know that they need better education of their phlebotomists.

  2. Reading your newsletter inspired me to blog

    I’ve only had positive GUM clinic experiences so far, but in the UK GUM clinic Nurses are pretty consistently trained. I’ve not said anything to my GP/personal doctor, as I’m not sure she needs to know and to be honest, I can’t be sure that I won’t be judged.

    Has anyone had experience of their relationship status being taken into account during mental health treatment? I recently had a Therapist (as a part of an assessment for a course of therapy) pick over my bisexuality as if it were causing my depression.

  3. I was given a test for HPV (genital warts) which came up positive from a new doctor in Florida. Alarmed, I ceased all sexual behavior with everyone except my married, primary partner since condoms do not prevent HPV. When I returned to NYS and was examined by my OBGYN female doctor, she explained to me that 92% of all women who have had more than 3 sexual partners in a lifetime will test positive for HPV. I have had a complete hysterectomy, including removal of my cervix, so my doctor did another exam, looking for evidence of warts. None showed. She indicated that she never gave the HPV test since she was not sure what a positive actually meant. Genital warts are a virus, can come and go like a cold and although everyone who is diagnosed with cervical cancer will have had warts, the 92% rate of women makes the test of little value. I share this experience in hope of helping others to realize there is no simple answer to the HPV problem.

  4. What a wonderful article, it saddens me in this day and age people (especially) women are still judged for enjoying sex and their is some stigma towards being open about sexuality and asking for and being tested. I have always felt pretty comfortable with claiming a slut title and I am lucky enough never to have had any STIs, yet some of the most ‘chaste’ women I know were just unlucky. We have to take responsibility for ourselves ad be as proactive as possible to protect others against ignorance and stigmatising by medical staff.

  5. Thanks for this blog entry. I’m just grateful that we have organizations like Planned Parenthood to sex positive!

    What about health insurance companies? I would assume that folks who request frequent STD tests would send up red flags to insurance agencies. Does anyone know if and when insurance companies cover STD testing for married people? I’m sure they assume that all marrieds are monogamous…

  6. I don’t understand feeling shame at an exam just because a medical professional launches into their usual lecture. I’m in charge of my health care, not them. Why should their opinion of me matter? I ask for the tests I want and I don’t care if they give me a hard time – I’m paying for it. Clinics and doctor offices with poor customer service do not get my business again. I just find somewhere else to go, and if I can’t go anywhere else I give them a piece of my mind. I read somewhere that the first step in not feeling intimidated by doctors is to insist that you call them by their first name. Why elevate them above you? They’re just like any other professional you call on to do a task, like a locksmith or plumber, so we can and should ask for what we need and express disappointment when necessary.

  7. STD tests are critical, and often useless. HPV/HSV (warts/herpes) tests are often nearly useless because all they can test for are *antibodies* — meaning that you’ve been exposed to the virus at some point. Given how prevalent the STD’s are, anyone who’s ever had unprotected sex, and almost anyone who’s had sex — period — will have been exposed. HPV is especially prevalent because it isn’t blocked by condoms.

    We definitely need to be safe, and be tested. But we also need to stop shaming people based upon their disease profile, and considering STD’s to mean that you are “dirty” if you catch one. Even someone with HIV can have a full, active sex life — as long as they take precautions, and are honest with their partners.

    By treating STD’s like a cleanliness issue, or like a judgement for a “deviant” lifestyle, we do not prevent their spread. In fact, these antiquated beliefs ENCOURAGE the spread of STD’s by keeping people too ashamed to get tested, and driving underground the sexuality of the unfortunate folks who contract them. If we treated them as a medical issue, and made it clear that even HIV — and certainly not HPV/HSV — is not the end of your sex life, we’d be doing much better.

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