So, while you were basking in a Valentine’s Day bubble of pink champagne, long-stemmed roses, and sweet Belgian chocolate, I was busy burning my minutes chatting up sexual health experts, entrepreneurs, and activists across the country. (Lucky for you, my sweetheart is used to rescheduling a dinner date for a deadline).
Here’s what I learned about STD stats (way more common than you’d think), what your doctor is checking for (a little less than you’d think), how to get tested (it’s easier than ever), and more.
1. Brush, Floss, Test
First off, get tested. Yes, you. With numbers like one in every two people getting an STD by age 25 and half of all sexually active people contracting HPV (human papillomavirus) at some point in their lives—every woman should take getting tested seriously.
Dr. Lisa Oldson, MD, STD expert and medical director of SexualHealth.com, an online space geared toward discreet (and speedy!) testing, explains the rationale behind routine screening: “Preventative care for your sexual health is just as important as your heart health, dental health, and so on… I don’t think it should be any different than going to see your dentist every 6-12 months, getting your cholesterol checked, or going to work out.”
2. Make Sure You Understand What “Testing” Means
OK, so hopefully I’ve convinced you. But Oldson also wants you to know most primary care doctors—two-thirds, to be exact—don’t do adequate STD testing. “That’s not the way it should be, but it’s a sad reality—doctors are human, too, and they’re often embarrassed to talk about this.”
Even if you’re going in for annual Pap smears, Oldson explains, does not mean you’re getting STD tested. “A Pap smear is only looking for a type of HPV that causes cervical cancer. It’s a common misconception that women think their MDs are doing comprehensive STD testing.”
Which means you’ll have to stop blushing, belly up, and ask your doc for comprehensive STD testing if have a new partner (or more than one since your last STD test). And this holds true even if you feel perfectly fine—some STDs show no symptoms at all and “the only way to know is to get tested,” explains Oldson.
And do consider dragging the new Mr. or Ms. Wonderful to the lab with you—Oldson is a huge advocate of couples testing. “It’s not a sexy topic—but everyone knows STD prevention should be addressed. I think most people are relieved if their partner brings it up.”
3. STD Testing Doesn’t Have to Suck
The good news is, advances in technology have also made STD testing less invasive—today’s screening for chlamydia and gonorrhea is as easy as urinating in cup. And online services like Oldson’s SexualHealth.com may allow you to skip sweating it out under the clinic fluorescents altogether.
“People can get tested the same day they register online or on the phone. It’s great for women to know they don’t have to wait and get an appointment with their doctor—they can run to the lab on their lunch hour, pee in a cup, get their blood drawn, and get results within a few business days.” Olson adds that if you are diagnosed, physicians are at the ready to review your results (and link you to a local clinic, if needed).
Sharing results with a new someone shouldn’t be excruciating either, says Ramin Bastani, founder and CEO of Qpid.me, a start-up that’s offering a novel way to talk about STD testing. “We want STD testing to suck a lot less,” he explains. “I got slapped by a girl that I’d gone home with because the ‘have you been tested’ conversation came up in a really weird way.”
A quick three-minute sign-up on Qpid.me sends a secure HIPAA-compliant request to where you were last tested, and after Qpid.me receives and verifies your results, you’ll be able to text them to a new suitor. You can also link to a private profile with a photo of yourself (the link expires after being accessed) for an extra level of assurance.
Says Bastani, “We don’t think we’re a silver bullet—we’re just one tool in the harm-reduction tool kit. Condoms are still important. This is just one piece of data to consider if you’re going to hook up with someone.”
4. STD’s Will Not Ruin Your Life
Although getting word that you’ve tested positive is hardly welcome news, Oldson wants to reassure women that “If you have an STD, it’s going to be OK. You don’t have to wear a scarlet letter or abstain from sex forever. You can still have children. Many STD’s are curable—and all of them are manageable.”
Even an ongoing diagnosis like genital herpes can be mitigated with medications to reduce transmission risk. And HIV is now considered a chronic condition, thought to be more like diabetes (as in, you have to take medication, see your medical providers regularly, and make lifestyle changes). “[HIV] is not a death sentence,” says Oldson. “I tell people, don’t stopsaving for retirement—you might need it.”
Jenelle Marie, who founded The STD Project (a web-based story-telling platform for those diagnosed with STDs) after contracting genital herpes, says, “When you know the statistics [an estimated 45-50 million people have Type 2 genital herpes—which is 1 in 6 sexually active people below the age of 50]—it’s maddening that people are made to feel so horrible.”
“I was so incredibly embarrassed and felt like I would never be able to have a healthy relationship or sex life and men wouldn’t want date me. Actually, it’s been quite the opposite, to my surprise—it hasn’t been a deal breaker.”
In fact, Marie hopes telling her story (and encouraging others to do so) will reduce stigma surrounding STDs. “The fear and the stigma is what keeps people from getting tested regularly… until we can eradicate that—you won’t be able to [fully] promote prevention.”
5. Practicing Prevention Never Goes Out of Style
And lastly, although medical advances have given us the ability to live healthier lives with STDs, it doesn’t mean you should let your guard down. “STDs are preventable. Keep a condom in your purse, backpack, wallet, or pocket—there is nothing to be ashamed of. It makes you smart and it makes you prepared,” says Oldson.
“No matter how advanced we get—prevention is still cheaper than treatment,” agrees HIV awareness activist Luvvie Ajayi. She cites a startling statistic: “Every 47 minutes a woman tests positive with HIV in the U.S.—and black women make up 66% of new infections in women.”
With that in mind, Ajayi and her co-founder Karyn Watkins launched The Red Pump Project. On March 10, 2013, National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day—they are encouraging women everywhere to slip on a pair of spikes or stilettos in a shade of fire-engine red and upload a photo to their Facebook fan page.
“When people hear the word activism, it sounds like a heavy word. But I would say activism is doing the small things—even it that means you tweet once a day about something you’re passionate about. We’d love people to sign up to Rock the Red Pump—so get those shoes ready for March 10!” says Ajayi.
So, what’s the takeaway as we slow to a close on today’s column of love? Sort of the same message I’m always giving, I suppose: Be smart and take care of yourself. Any time you take out of your schedule to treat that body (like a temple) is totally worth it.