Starting a conversation about STIs


Sex Panther

This week’s column is the first installment in a multi-part series on STIs.

Gather around the fall leaf-fueled campfire; let’s talk about STIs. I’ll start by saying that you should not be having unprotected sex, unless you’re certain that your partner doesn’t have an STI, that you don’t have an STI and that you’re unable to become pregnant (either because of the kind of sex you’re having, or because you’re taking a backup birth control method to avoid pregnancy). Sure, using protection is a great first step, but you should probably have an understanding of what you are protecting yourself against. When I use the acronym STI, I mean Sexually Transmitted Infection, not Subject To Inspection or Star Trek Insurrection (just to clarify for anyone who never had the pleasure of their eighth grade P.E. teacher explaining what chlamydia was in front of a classroom of terrified pre-teens). 

STIs are transmitted through sexual contact. The most prevalent STIs are chlamydia, gonorrea, syphilis, HPV and HIV. Over the last five years, there has been an increase every year in the rate of people contracting STIs, making them a lot more common than you might think. While rates of teen pregnancy are dropping (hurrah!), rates of STIs are rising (oh no!). 

By no means are we immune to STIs within the Middlebury bubble. It is estimated that one in four college students will contract an STI. Now, you may think that you’re one of the 3 who won’t get an STI — and by no means am I implying that you’re just a statistic — but there is definitely a much higher chance that you will get an STI than you should be comfortable with, especially if you’re having unprotected sex (and no, the “pull-out method” does not count as protection). Almost half of the people diagnosed with STIs in America are 15–24 year olds, putting us, as college students, at a very high risk. The bottom line is that if you’re sexually active with multiple partners (or heck, even one regular partner) you should get tested regularly.

Often, the symptoms of STIs don’t present themselves. For instance, the only physical symptom of HPV is genital warts (again, super common — you should definitely get a pap smear to check for abnormalities next time you go to the OB/GYN, even if you don’t present any physical symptoms). The STI most commonly contracted by college students is chlamydia, which often goes unnoticed for long periods of time (if and when you experience symptoms, they include burning sensation while urinating, abnormal discharge or itching rash). 

You can’t tell who has an STI just by looking with the naked eye. Did you know that Vincent Van Gough lived with untreated syphilis? I sincerely hope that you don’t want to go the way that Gough did (ha, ha), because untreated syphilis can lead to blindness and infertility. I know that you’re probably thinking you share very few lifestyle similarities to Vincent Van Gough, but hear me out. Rates of syphilis have been increasing over the last few years (despite the name syphilis sounding like it belongs in an old-timey, black and white movie). The symptoms for the first stage of syphilis include chancres on your genitalia, which are easily mistakable for pimples. The sores are super contagious, so if you’re concerned, get tested immediately. 

The good news about STIs (at least for the bacterial ones like syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia) is that they’re curable by antibiotics if caught early. The even better news is that you can get tested for free at Parton — without any need for insurance, or parents finding out! You can get a prescription for birth control from Parton, too (and you can get it delivered to Parton, instead of the pharmacy), as well as a prescription for an HIV prevention drug like PrEP or Truvada.

You can get tested for free at the Planned Parenthood in Middlebury. Any kind of surgical birth control (such an implant or IUD) is available there too. 

Yes, the idea of getting an STI is scary, but there are resources and information available to you. So the next time your partner tries to dissuade you from using protection because it doesn’t feel good, kindly remind them that neither do STIs.

If you want to be having responsible and informed, unprotected sex, start by getting tested — and stay tuned for part 2 of this series on STIs.