By columnist Diana Pearson

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Send your questions, concerns, and curiosities about sex to Diana via column@thenav.ca. Your questions stay anonymous and confidential!

STIs are one of the big risks of engaging in sexual activity, so learning about STIs is essential for safer sex practices. So before you get down n’ dirty, let this Q&A be a conversation-starter between you and your current, and future, partners.

Please note: this is a short overview of STIs. For up-to-date, thorough medical information about STIs, seek information from Island Sexual Health, HealthLinkBC, a sexual health practitioner, or links provided in this article.

Sex-ed high school curriculum varies by province, and BC’s curriculum is hit or miss. As a result, not all of us who grew up in BC learned about how STIs are passed on, prevented, or treated. If you grew up in Nanaimo, there’s a chance you had the wonderful Kerri Isham as your sex-ed guru. I grew up in Port Alberni, where our sex-ed curriculum began as early as grade four.

On the other hand, some students have very little access to sex education. Some high school teachers, embarrassed and untrained, resort to scare tactics or (hopefully) pass the job off to a nurse. Another friend came of age just after the AIDS epidemics of the ’80s, so her sex education from teachers was as follows: “if you have sex, you will get AIDS and die.”

All this to say, public knowledge of STIs is wobbly, and syphilis and gonorrhea are on the rise across Canada. Education is the first step to preventing the spread of STIs. Luckily, having Google at our fingertips means we have access to great sexual health resources, including:

sexualhealth.org/infections

sexualityandu.ca

optionsforsexualhealth.org

sexualhealthandrights.ca

catie.ca (Canadian AIDS Treatment Information Exchange)

Here are a few questions about STIs posed by The Nav readers:

Q: Why did the name change from STD to STI? 

A: The acronym STD stands for sexually-transmitted diseases. The word disease was changed to infection for two reasons. First, an infection does not always show symptoms, but can still cause physical damage. For example, chlamydia can cause infertility when left untreated, yet in many cases, it shows no symptoms to those infected. For another example, one can become infected with HPV (Human Papilloma Virus) without ever developing cervical cancer (which can be caused by some strains of HPV). This change in terminology was also made to reduce social stigma.

Q: Is it possible for a woman to pass on an STI to another woman during sex, if neither woman has had a male sexual partner? 

A: STIs do not discriminate by biological sex. In other words, yes, it is absolutely possible for a woman to pass an STI on to her female sexual partner. Most STIs are passed through bodily fluids. HIV in particular can be passed through blood, vaginal fluids, semen (including pre-ejaculate), anal fluids, and breast milk. Some are passed on through skin-to-skin contact, including herpes (there are two strains: HSV-1 and -2), genital warts (which is caused by a strain of HPV), pubic lice, and scabies.

Having sex involves getting sweaty, wet, and sticky, and sharing bodily fluids. So all sexual play involves some level of risk, not just P-in-V intercourse. Oral sex, anal sex, sex toy play, and BDSM all pose a risk of contracting an STI between partners.

Q: Can you talk about social stigma surrounding STIs? 

A: A social stigma is an unfair belief of someone or of a group of people in society. In regards to STIs, some people hold the belief that those who have or have had an STI are “dirty”, “slutty”, “sleazy”, or “unclean”.

Two of the most socially stigmatized STIs are HIV and herpes. I’ve heard jokes about “gettin’ the HIV” from having sex with someone who might look or seem sleazy.

For another example, I get cold sores, and when I point out my insecurity about having a big blistery outbreak on my face (caused by internalized stigma, no doubt), I hear this response: “Well, at least you don’t have herpes.”

(Pssst: coldsores are caused by herpes: HSV-1. Genital herpes are typically caused by HSV-2 strain, but the strains can be passed from mouth to genitals and vice versa.)

These jokes and phrases can come either from an honest lack of education, ignorance, or deliberate negative view (stigma). But be mindful: social stigma about STIs can shut down conversations and encourage a culture of silence. A 2008 study among university students showed that social stigma can be powerful enough to prevent a sexual partner from feeling comfortable sharing the truth that they have an STI, and even discourage sexually-active students from being tested. Yikes.

The answer to all these concerns are—yep, you guessed it—education and communication. Learn about how STIs are passed on, prevented, and treated. Take a big breath, embrace those sweaty palms, and tell your partner about your sexual history. Ask about theirs. Don’t judge them by their “number.”

Fill your cupboards with all the joyful supplies available to prevent STIs, including condoms (male and female), dental dams, and gloves. Use them whenever necessary. Get tested regularly (after having unprotected sex with a new partner, and once a year). And please, please, when you hear those unpleasant jokes about “the HIV” or “the herp,” politely let those jokesters know that those terms might indirectly encourage the spread of STIs, and the associated stigma.

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One of Diana’s passions is to encourage sex-positivity and open, shameless conversations about sex and sexuality through her column, “Dirtyin’ The Nav.” Her future path includes completing a Masters in Gender Studies and Social Justice, and teaching pleasure-based sex education. She is a non-fiction writer and a musician. As a copy editor, she revels in making The Nav look pretty.  

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