How To Feel About Your STD | 06.2016

STD incidences on the rise have triggered a flurry of chorus finger-wagging from the self-appointed moral authorities of the LGBT communities.

BY BRENDEN SHUCART

Hello, gentle reader. We need to have a frank conversation about your STD. The gay communities of the United States and and Western Europe are experiencing a marked uptick in reported cases of sexually transmitted infection.

Rising STD incidences have engendered a chorus finger-wagging from the self-appointed moral authorities of the LGBT communities. Everywhere one looks—from your Facebook feed, to the LGBT media, to the pages of the New York Times—one sees admonishments for gay men to “grow up,” stop being so motivated by our genitalia, and take advantage of our newly claimed Equality, adopt a couple of kids, and keep our darn legs closed.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way. As the Huffington Post’s Noah Michelson recently wrote in his essay “I’m A Gay Man Who Loves Sex (And Here’s Why That’s Suddenly A Problem):”

“Even in the face of AIDS, which has ravaged our community and caused so many gay men—myself included—to tragically equate sex with death, we didn’t stop looking for opportunities to get off, we just found ways to do it more safely.”

“In 2016 there is just no good reason to feel any kind of shame or stigma attached to STIs.”

Before AIDS, the gay community wasn’t really concerned about safety at all. Before the Plague Years, condoms were almost exclusively something straight-folk used to keep from getting pregnant. They were adopted as a temporary measure until the epidemic came under control. Before that, STDs were considered by most gay men to be part of “the price of doing business.”

But spillover AIDS-anxiety and decades of deeply stigmatizing “abstinence only” sex have engendered the widespread notion that sexually transmitted infections are shameful “dirty things” that happen to “dirty people,” rather than the annoying ubiquitous inconveniences (given access to testing and treatment) they actually are.

But don’t worry, I’m here to help! I’m going to tell you how to feel about your STDs.

Bacterial Meningitis

Bacterial meningitis is an inflammation of the spinal tissue which can be caused by several bacteria. Not technically a sexually transmitted infection, bacterial meningitis spread through contact with saliva and mucus—meaning its an condition most likely to get from making out. It should be noted that small outbreaks in New York and Southern California in 2013 and 2014 resulted in the deaths of several gay men—but compared to the flu it’s relatively less contagious, and there exists an effective vaccine.

Chancroid

Transmitted during sex or through skin-to-skin contact, chancroid is an especially uncommon infection in North America and throughout most of the industrialized world—so give yourself a pat on the back! Either you are well traveled or you move in very cosmopolitain circles. Either way, yours is an interesting life story worth listening to at a cocktail party. But don’t hold onto that trophy too long. Chancroid can cause painful penis ulcers and painful urination. If left untreated it can result of swelling of the lymph nodes in your groin that will ultimately drain out through the skin. Thank goodness chancroid is easily cured with antibiotics.

Children

Say what you will about HIV, but I’ll never have to worry about putting my virus through college.

Chlamydia

Easily one of the most common STIs, Chlamydia may cause painful urination, discharge, and even vaginal bleeding in women. Though as many as 50% of infected men and 75% of women won’t show any symptoms at all, which leads chlamydia to be a slightly more common occurrence among heterosexuals. Enough soldiers serving in WWII that Disney made an amazing propaganda video about it, which is totally worth you Tubing if you have a passion for old educational cartoons and some time. Chlamydia is easily treated with common antibiotics.

Genital Warts (HPV)

Genital warts are caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). They appear in and around the anus and genital area as clusters of bumps which are though as many as 90% of people living with HPV will never show symptoms. The warts are sometimes itchy—though rarely painful—but are very contagious and should be removed as soon as possible (either through antiviral creams or light surgery.) HPV has also been associated with cancer, especially cervical cancer, though a vaccine was developed and made available to the public in 2010. So who is living with HPV? Just about everybody. In 2012 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported that HPV is so common that nearly all sexually active people will get it at some point in their lives.

Gonorrhea (The Clap)

Gonorrhea is fairly widespread—especially among gay and bisexual men. Gonorrhea diagnosis rates among MSM are between 10 and 14 times higher than those of heterosexuals. Men often feel burning when they pee, experience a mucus-y discharge, or pain in their balls—but many men show no signs at all.

The origin of the term “the Clap” is thought to be a reference to an early treatment method—smashing the penis between two paddles in order to force out the offending bacterial build up and relieve discomfort. Thankfully, medicine has come to favor antibiotics over penis-smashing. Though several strains of the disease have become resistant to antibiotics, these are (so far) fairly uncommon. If you are diagnosed with gonorrhea be responsible, tell all potentially exposed partners, and be diligent in finishing your antibiotics.

Hepatitis

There are five varieties of the hepatitis virus, but the three most commonly encountered in the West are conveniently named after the first three letters of the alphabet. Hepatitis B is contracted through sexual intercourse. Hepatitis A is often not included among lists of STDs because it’s more commonly associated with food contamination than sex, but it can definitely be passed through the eating of butt. Hep C is sometimes left off the list because blood-to-blood contact is required for transmission, meaning rougher sex and improperly cleaned toys can sometimes facilitate infection.

Hepatitis could be considered an indication of adventures sexual appetites, but it should be noted that all three varieties will lead to inflammation and scaring of the liver which over time may lead to death—though very rarely in the cases of A and B, as the majority of persons living with those strains eventually develop antibodies. Vaccines exist for both Hepatitis A & B. While Hep C has no vaccine, there is a recently developed cure.

Herpes

If someone in a bar, or on TV is cracking jokes about an STD, herpes is probably the punchline. Some combination of its visibility and painful yet basically harmless nature makes it the go-to virus for slut-shaming. Which is some real bullshit considering nearly everyone up to and including your great-aunt Connie has herpes of one kind or another. According to the CDC a full 2 out of every 3 individuals has herpes simplex-1—commonly called “oral herpes.” Another 1 out every 6 have the genital variety. And then there is a kind that wrestlers get just from touching each other. To top it off, some 80% of people living with herpes will probably never find out they have it because they’ll never show any symptoms—but they can still pass it on to a partner.

So if anybody ever tries to give you shit for your herpes, “meh” your heart out. This planet is awash in herpes, and at this point anyone who doesn’t have it must be keeping themselves in an underground bunker somewhere.

HIV/AIDS

For many men who have sex with men receiving an HIV diagnosis is the worst of all possible fates. It’s no surprise really; we were afraid of AIDS before we even really understood sex. And once we did understand… HIV felt like the end of the world.

I’ve been living with HIV for a little over a decade. In the first weeks and months after my diagnosis I thought that no one would ever love me again, that my life had come to an end. But here we are ten years on and in all honesty, if I had the power to go back in time and somehow undo my seroconversion, I wouldn’t. HIV changed the course of my life, I think (ultimately) for the better, it didn’t end anything.

There’s no end ‘til it’s over. Everything until then is a series of choices.

Lymphogranuloma Venereum

Lymphogranuloma Venereum, or LGV, is an STD so rare that I had never heard of it before beginning the research for this essay. Since a 2003 outbreak in the Netherlands gay community cases have begun pooping up all over the West. LGV is a bacteria that congregates in the lymphatic system, and it is almost always transmitted during anal sex. Signs of infection include enlarged lymph nodes, ulcers, rectal inflammation, and abbesses. LGV can be treated with a number of different antibiotics, so if you suspect you might be infected, seek out treatment as soon as possible and help keep this infection a rare one.

Molluscum Contagiosum

A virus which can be transmitted through either sexual or casual skin contact—or even by way of dirty towels and clothes. Molluscum causes itching and little circular bumps on the genitals. It’s not dangerous and it’ll probably go away on it’s own within a year or so, but go get treated anyway to keep the infection from spreading to to your friends and loved ones.

Pubic Lice (Crabs)

Pubic lice—more commonly known as crabs—are tiny parasites who hang out on your pubic hair, and they usually itch like the dickens. And I should know, when I was in my twenties I had the little monsters twice.

Crabs used to be a lot more common, but experts credit an episode of Sex and the City with helping to bring the critters to the brink of extinction. They will not be missed.

Scabies

Crabs are annoying but scabies are maddening. These tiny parasites burrow through the skin which causes unbelievable itching and small bumps or a rash. Sex isn’t required to contract scabies, in fact they can spread easily just by sharing bedding or towels. If you find yourself with an intense and mysterious rash, protect your friends and sexual partners by keeping them out of your bedroom, bathing frequently, and avoiding skin-to-skin contact until you can see a doctor for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Syphilis

There have been two truly devastating sexually transmitted diseases in recorded human history: HIV and syphilis. Though in modern times syphilis is relatively easy to treat with antibiotics, in the past it was a terrifying bringer of blindness, insanity, and death.

The gay community has seen a sharp uptick in syphilis infections over the last several years, which has generated understandable concern among healthcare professionals. Its potentially fatal nature makes regular testing particularly important, and if you do test positive for syphilis you should take fastidious care to inform anyone you may have exposed. These conversations will sometimes be difficult—learning you might have a potentially deadly disease is never pleasant, no matter how easily treatable it may be—but they can also be opportunities for growth and connection. I once told a one-night-stand that I had exposed him to syphilis, and he was so impressed by my candor he asked me out on a real date which developed into a two year relationship.

Trichomoniasis (Trich)

Trichomoniasis is the most common STI that gay men have never heard of. It is associated with all the classic STD symptoms—discharge, painful urination, and sometimes nothing at all. Trich feels most at home in a vagina and it’s almost unheard of in gay men.

Zika

Yes it’s got a funny-sounding name. But with the first confirmed case of male-to-male transmission of the virus in April—and the news Australian Olympians are being given “Zika-proof” condoms—it’s time that we give Zika serious consideration. The illness often begins with a fever, before progressing to a rash, headaches and listlessness. All symptoms tend to disappear within a few weeks. It is not generally harmful to adults, it can cause birth defects when pregnant women become infected.

It’s still not clear if Zika can be spread by way of kissing or oral sex and any intimate contact with a carrier.

If you are experiencing any of these infections, I hope this has provided you some comfort—or even just amusement. If you feel offended, please accept my sincere apology. I know first-hand just how serious a sexually transmitted infection can be, and it is not my intent to make light of anyone’s health circumstances, only to bring a little ease to a topic so uncomfortable and seeped in stigma that many people never have these conversations at all.

And that’s unfortunate, because anyway you look at it, in 2016 there is just no good reason to feel any kind of shame or stigma attached to STIs. From a medical standpoint, provided one has access to testing and treatment, STDs should rarely be anything more than an annoying inconvenience—like a case of poison ivy or lactose intolerance—certainly not a referendum on one’s moral character. There are more people on this planet living with sexually transmitted infections than not, and the only way to dispel the cloud of stigma that surrounds them is open and honest conversation.

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