All through high school, in Life Orientation and Biology class, via the SABC and different medial platforms and health institutions, I was told about the ‘terrifying’ STDs. Love life had posters and adverts, the internet had images. STDs where a big, fat NO-NO.
As I have grown, had more sex, been with more sexual partners, learned more about my body, sex and sexually transmitted diseases, I understand now why it all seemed so ‘terrifying’ back then. South Africa grouped infections and disease into one thing. At the tender young age of 14, I thought that having sex meant that I would die. Disease in a South African context sadly, is often misunderstood, over exaggerated and coupled with death.
Here I was, 14, 15, 16, starting to grow a new body, starting to think about boyfriends, starting to explore my soft spots. The only support that I was getting from the outside world was, don’t have sex. Don’t get pregnant. Don’t die.
17, 18, 19, came along, I didn’t get pregnant, I didn’t die. I began to think myself immune, as we, the youth do. I had had my first introduction to thrush, but thrush was one of those infections that a girl or woman can get from drinking too much sugar or eating too much bread. It is a sugar and yeast infection. It comes and goes easily. I was ok with it because people called it what it was. We TALKED about it.
20, 21, 22 and 23 came along. I was studying and drinking and enjoying my new-found comfort in my body, my sexuality and my skin. One night stands, hook-ups and I-dare-you-to games ruled my life, ruled the night. We discussed what to shave, where to epilate and how to pluck. We discussed the positions and awkward situations, we discussed everything except the possible and very likely case of contracting an infection.
We went about our lives, growing from boys into men, girls into women. Telling stories but always careful to leave out the ugly truth. Some of us unknowingly spreading infection, others of us silently treating that which others had spread.
At 22 years old I discovered that I had been given HPV – Human papilloma virus. A type of genital warts. A type of herpes. I was very lucky. I have always been very close to my body. I recognised right away what was happening to my body. I went to a doctor and treated it before it could become anything harmful.
There are some types of herpes that will stay with you forever. It is an infection that can be avoided by using a condom, but most of us actually carry HPV without ever having symptoms or knowing that we have it. It is an infection that alters the cells in your cervix and can cause cancer. It is not harmful in some cases but can become very dangerous if left. It is vitally important for both men and women to get tests.
My girl-friends have spent many a day at the gynecologist getting creams and pills and injections, for this that and the other infection. Still we don’t talk about it. I was told that I would have the HPV infection forever. I was told wrongly. I cried for days. I was ashamed and embarrassed. I felt dirty. The doctor who told me, did not know the whole story. I have spent time educating myself.
When I met my partner I knew I had to tell him somehow that I had an infection. It was after 2 years of being with him, that I found out that my body was rid of the infection and that because I had recognised it fast and treated it, I was in the clear.
As women, as South Africans, we are slowly beginning to find out place in the world. Women are speaking out about rape, about HIV/AIDS and about abortions. Women are slowly finding their power. We are slowly learning not to feel ashamed, how and where and when to place blame. We are learning to let things go.
It is important for there to be a healthy conversation about sexually transmitted diseases ad sexually transmitter infections. Hospitals and clinics need to make sure that they identify the differences and that both women and men know how to identify the symptoms. There is no need to fear death when death is not the outcome. Sex is not dangerous, but we are not immune to anything.
I had my first HPV conversation with a woman who I had known for 3 weeks in a country and place that was foreign to me. She made me realise how normal it was to contract HPV. She made me realise that the infection was no reflection on my hygiene or personality.
If I was writing this blog to tell you that I had HIV I would like to know that my infection would not make you cast a judgement on me. There is not shame in contracting an STD or STI. There is shame in passing it on and shame in not educating yourself about your sex,your body and the infections or disease you might carry.
Break the stigma, educate and step away from hate.