Getting an STI isn't ideal. They're unpleasant, itchy and sometimes painful, and once you've been diagnosed with one you need to alert any previous sexual partners so they can get themselves checked, too – which, depending on your relationship with your previous sexual partners, can be almost as unpleasant as the infection itself.
The latest statistics show STI rates in the UK are down 4 percent since 2015, but they're also not exactly low, with approximately 420,000 reported in England in 2016. That same year, 59 percent of chlamydia and gonorrhoea diagnoses were from people aged 16 to 24, with the Terrence Higgins Trust pointing out that "young people, black and ethnic minority communities, people living with HIV, and gay and bisexual men" continue to suffer the worst sexual health.
The good news: bacterial STIs, like chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis, are easily curable. The better news: use a condom and you massively reduce the risk of contracting anything. Public Health England want to remind people of that simple fact with their new campaign, Protect Against STIs, so put VICE in touch with a young couple – Gaia and Jesse – who faced an STI together.
The pair used condoms when they started dating, but once they felt they were in it for the long haul they stopped, both under the impression they were STI-free. Little did Gaia know, she was carrying chlamydia – something Jesse realised when he began to experience symptoms like general groin pain and a burning sensation when he urinated.
VICE: Jesse, tell me about the moment you realised you'd contracted chlamydia.
Jesse: It was a mixture of dread, disappointment and annoyance, really. Once I went to the doctor and got it confirmed it was like, 'I've got it now, let’s get it sorted.' Before that, it was a bit more panicked. But it was fine – I've had it before, so it wasn’t a new experience.
Did you guys get tested at the same time, or did you find out afterwards, Gaia?
Gaia: I found out when Jesse called me and said, "Look, we have this." The moment I found out I called the doctor.
Had you discussed STIs at all?
Jesse: It hadn’t really cropped up in conversation. I guess we had related conversations in terms of contraception, but we reached a point where we were like, "We’ve been together this long, we trust each other, we can start sleeping together without using a condom." Gaia was on the pill, so we felt we were in the safe zone.
You were protected against pregnancy and both thought you were STI-free.
Jesse: Yeah. We were both under the impression that we didn't have anything. With men, there seem to be more noticeable STI symptoms, whereas with women it's common that it can be quite dormant.
Gaia, do you know how you got it and did you feel that you should get in touch with previous partners to let them know they might also have it?
Gaia: I think I know how I got it, and I contacted my ex and ex partners, just in case. But my problem was that the last time I was tested was when I was 16 or 17. It’s not that I had so many sexual partners or that I’ve never used a condom, but I wasn’t completely sure about where I got the chlamydia from – but I told the people I could have [contracted it from].
Jesse, you had to contact previous partners when you contracted it before.
Jesse: Yeah. It wasn't the case this time – I was quite certain it was from Gaia. I'd been tested fairly recently and been given the all-clear. [Our relationship] was brand new and she'd been the only person [I'd slept with]. But, before, it was quite uncomfortable, quite awkward. Back then, I was quite casual in my sexual relationships. I was at uni at the time.
How did you go about telling people?
Jesse: I was on the defensive at first. I was like, "You've given this to me." I spoke to the person who I thought it was, and I was quite accusing in my manner – and, much to my shame, it turned out it wasn't her. She went and got checked and didn't have anything. Then I had to speak to a few other people before I realised who it was. But I'd been getting softer and softer in my approach.
"The more you're embarrassed or shy about acknowledging an STI, the worse it is for you."
With the benefit of hindsight, do you have any tips for people who might find themselves having to make a similar call?
Jesse: I think you have to remove all blame from the situation, because to begin with you don't know where it's come from, so you need to tread cautiously when you're having that conversation with however many partners you need to have that conversation with. It's important to bear in mind that it's a very common thing. It can happen to anyone. Treat it like any other illness you have.
Is it something you've discussed with friends, or something you wouldn't bring up?
Jesse: I'm really not fussed about it. I've spoken to mates about it loads because I've got mates who've never had it before, and I suppose it's a topic of interest for them. At the same time, I just don't see the problem with having an STI at some point in your life. I think everyone's probably going to have some encounter like that. I really don't think there's any big deal around it. The more you're embarrassed or shy about it, the worse it is for you.
Absolutely. And another important thing to realise is that, once you've identified you have certain STIs – bacterial ones: chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, trichomoniasis, but unfortunately not certain viral ones, like herpes – they're easily curable.
Jesse: Yeah, definitely.
How long did it take for yours to clear up?
Jesse: Our antibiotics were for a course of a week, or something. But we were told not to have sex, because one of you could be cleared while the other might have trace remnants. But we were a bit silly and had sex again without using condoms. We were a bit careless and ended up prolonging the disease, and had to have another round antibiotics. After we'd done that, we were a lot more careful.
Finally, what are your sexual health top tips?
Jesse: First and foremost, protect yourself. You're always better off safe than sorry. If you like having sex without a condom, it's absolutely fine – there are lots of options available to you. Assuming you're in a committed relationship where you both trust each other, you should wear a condom then have yourself tested before you decide to stop wearing them. But I think, initially, always wear condoms, because it's definitely worth it in the long run
Gaia: For me, obviously use a condom, and don't be shy about talking about STIs with someone, maybe your best friend, somebody close to you. It's hard, but sometimes when we keep a situation to ourselves we think we're the only ones – but STIs are something a lot of people have. If you use a condom, though, you're never going to have one of these problems.
Find out more information about STIs, and where you can get free condoms via Public Health England here.