Could you imagine updating your Instagram bio or dating profile to include your STI status? Or hosting an STI reveal party for when you check your lab results?

No? Why not? 

About one in three New Zealand women and one in five men will test positive for chlamydia by the time they are 38. And more than 30% of sexually active adults in Aotearoa have genital herpes. 

And yet, despite how common they are, the stigma of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can make people feel embarrassed, ashamed and alone.

In fact, for most people, the stigma does more damage than the STI itself.

“I feel defeated,” Dave, who has genital herpes, says. He wanted to remain anonymous in this story because of the stigma of the STI.

“It has basically cut off every single relationship that I've had. It’s been a downhill journey.”

Re: News journalist Zoe Madden-Smith spoke to five people about the time they got an STI. 

From laughing about it to feeling ashamed - here are their stories. 

‘It's hard when you get medical advice that seems wrong’

When Dave first found out they had genital herpes four years ago they felt worried and confused. Now, they feel defeated. 

They get about one or two outbreaks of sores on his genitals a year. They aren’t painful or life-threatening and eventually go away. But it’s not the symptoms they care about, it’s the stigma that comes with them.

Dave has had multiple GPs tell them that they don't have to tell their sexual partners as long as they aren’t having a flare up. But he still does, because he’s afraid of feeling like a “massive asshole” if he passes genital herpes onto someone he didn’t tell.

“So I haven’t listened to the doctors and I’ve been telling people once it becomes relevant because I don’t want to hide it from them. And it basically has cut off every relationship that I've had.”

THE FACTS: Herpes is a common STI in New Zealand.

There are two types of herpes. Type 1 (HSV-1) is commonly known as oral herpes and mainly presents as cold sores, whereas Type 2 (HSV-2) can cause sores on your genitals, including your anus.

Eighty percent of the population has HSV-1 and about 30% of adults have HSV-2 - but 80% of people with genital herpes don’t know they have it because they may have very mild or no symptoms.

Herpes can be spread through contact with the mouth, saliva, skin, and genitals. Some people with genital herpes may have a few flare-ups and then never again, whereas other people may have more long-term flare-ups - it’s different for different people. 

There is no cure for genital herpes. It will remain dormant in the immune system even if there are no symptoms. However antiviral medication can be used to treat sores.

Director of nursing at Family Planning Avery says many people in New Zealand who have herpes don’t know it. But for those that do know, and tell people, the stigma is there. 

“Which is extremely unfair,” she says. 

“I think it is an individual choice whether or not you want to tell someone. And there is no right or wrong choice.

“If you've got symptoms, we would definitely suggest not having any sexual contact. But if you don’t, and telling every potential sexual contact is significantly impacting your life, then I don't think there is a need to tell if it’s causing you great concern.”

Dave has heard this advice time and time again but still wants to be upfront about having herpes.

Being open about it closes off relationships, but he also thinks having these conversations is the best way to dismantle the stigma. 

“I once met someone who I really liked who also had herpes. I stuffed it up for personal reasons, but that was lovely. I still think back on that really fondly because we didn’t have to worry about it. They understood it,” Dave says.

“I don’t know what the future world holds but if you ignore the stigma, people can talk about it more and you can find people who also have it and that might make it easier to have a relationship,” he says.

Avery says in the early days of Covid-19, there was a lot of stigma if you tested positive. But now it’s a normal part of life.

“So we know we can move on from stigma really easily. This is possible for STIs too if we make testing and education part of our normal life.”

‘It was an awakening for me that I wasn’t immune and that I needed to be careful’

Up until Tai Zehrakhi tested positive for syphilis, he never really thought he could catch an STI. 

He didn’t take it seriously because he never heard anyone talk about it. 

“I thought ‘oh maybe there’s not many people in New Zealand who have it because I’m not hearing anything about it’. That’s why I thought I couldn’t catch it either. Looking back it sounds dumb, but that’s really where my mind was,” the 20 year old says.

“So it was really surreal to be honest. I didn't even register that I had an STI at first. I guess that comes from my upbringing in a Pasifika community where it just wasn’t talked about at all.”

THE FACTS: Syphilis is a bacterial infection that affects the genitals and throat and spreads to different parts of the body through the bloodstream. If left untreated, it can cause damage to the nerves, bones, skin, eyes, and brain and be a lifelong disease.

Symptoms can start with a painless sore around the mouth or anus but symptoms can take 90 days to show (if at all) so it’s easy to spread without realising.

Syphilis is treated with injections of antibiotics from a health practitioner. The duration of treatment depends on the stage of the infection and ranges from one day to three weeks.

Aotearoa is currently experiencing an outbreak of syphilis so it's more important than ever to test regularly through a blood test.

Tai was relieved to find out the treatment for syphilis, if caught early, was pretty straightforward. He only needed to get the antibiotic injection once. 

Telling the guy he had slept with that he was positive, and that he should also get tested, was more painful. 

“He called me words like ‘slut’ and made me feel shit about myself. My grandmother had recently passed away and so he said things like ‘she’s looking down on you’ to get under my skin. 

“I think there needs to be more education because he thought it was forever lasting. I told him it wasn’t, but he didn’t believe me.”

THE FACTS: If you are worried about telling your past partners, Family Planning has a service where staff can text your partners anonymously on behalf of you. There’s no right or wrong way to share the news, it’s just important that you do. 

Tai says the stigma of STIs is sometimes more dangerous than the STI itself because by not speaking about it or not getting tested you could unknowingly leave it untreated and pass it on to other people. 

“That’s why we need to be okay with talking about it in school, but also in the home too,” he says.

Tai says there are seven billion people in the world and those people didn’t come from nowhere. 

“Sex is normal, so getting an STI doesn’t mean you did something wrong. One of my teachers told me, ‘look at it like any other illness’. If someone had a cold and you caught that cold, it can be resolved. And that really helped me. It made me feel like it wasn't the end of the world,” he says.

‘I got gonorrhoea last year and since then I’ve had it three more times’

Growing up gay in a small rural town, Clay Jenkinson knew he liked guys but didn’t get the chance to physically explore that part of himself until he moved to Wellington for university. 

“I pretty much got it instantly in the first year I was finally able to explore my sexuality,” the 19 year old says. 

“It hurt when I peed, I had discharge coming out of my penal area and I had no idea what was happening to me. I called up Healthline and they told me to get an STI screening and then eventually found out it was gonorrhoea.”

THE FACTS: Gonorrhoea is an STI that lives in the mucous lining of the urethra, rectum, or throat and sometimes the cervix.

If symptoms are present they will usually develop within two to 10 days. But many people who have gonorrhoea will not show symptoms - which is why it is important to test regularly, even if you feel fine. 

“I was quite shocked at first,” says Clay. 

“I felt guilty that I could have possibly spread it. But I found it was easy to tell others in the gay community.”

Clay says he quickly learnt there was an understanding within the gay community that STIs were a normal part of hookup culture and so he was taught not to feel ashamed to tell his past partners. 

“I think there is a stigma in the queer community, but it's not as much as there is in the straight community,” he says.

“People in the queer community often talk about STIs, symptoms and things to watch out for because it is part of our lifestyle if you are on PrEP.”

THE FACTS: PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is an extremely effective HIV prevention medication. 

Clinical studies have shown that if PrEP is taken every day it reduces the risk of acquiring HIV by up to 99%. This means that a person on PrEP can have sex with anyone, regardless of their HIV status, and their chance of contracting HIV is extremely low.

“You have to be tested for STIs every three months to stay on PrEP,” says Clay. 

“So you have to know your sexual history and you have to keep up with your STI tests. Straight people might not have the same regular opportunities.”

Director of nursing at Family Planning Julie Avery says people with a uterus can also get these regular opportunities. 

Females between the age of 15-29 have the highest rates of chlamydia.Young males have much lower rates,but Avery says this just shows males are less likely to test and be diagnosed. 

“For people with a uterus, there is regular screening for cervical cancer or checkups for contraception and so there’s opportunities to have STI testing at the same time. 

“This is much more common for young women than for young men. So I think the increase is because of the disparity about who’s actually getting tested.”

Now, I keep a list of people I have had sex with recently just in case if I get it again I know that I can contact everyone and I’m not leaving anyone out. Also just know that treatment for STIs isn’t difficult.”

‘I got the text on the way to a festival and laughed’

Aliyya Broughan was two drinks deep before going to a festival when she got the text.

‘Hi Aliyya, just letting you know your test came back positive for chlamydia.’

While some people might be hit with an overwhelming feeling of dread, Aliyya found the news funny. 

“I just thought ‘lol okay’. I always knew that that was a part of life. If you are a sexually active person, you're only inevitably going to get one. So I just laughed,” the 22 year old says.

Aliyya found out through a routine test and didn’t have any symptoms - as most people with chlamydia don’t. 

THE FACTS: Chlamydia is the most common STI in New Zealand. It’s easy to pick up through STI screening, but up to 75% of people don’t have any symptoms. So regular testing is crucial. 

If it’s caught early, chlamydia can be easily treated with antibiotics. But if left untreated it can cause permanent fertility issues.

Alia says getting an STI check should be treated like getting a blood test. 

“I have to get my bloods tested regularly for my thyroid so I always get an STI test when I am doing that. 

“I think it's a bit silly not to do it. In the long run, if you do have one and leave it, you may not be able to have children in the future. Which for me, would be the worst thing. 

“So just get over it. You’re an adult, go and do it.”

‘[Chlamydia] is how I found out she cheated on me’

About six months after Reese and his girlfriend broke up, he started experiencing stinging when he peed, discoloured discharge and stomach cramping.

Reese, who is a trans man, has gone through endometriosis and thought maybe it could be a flare-up or a urinary tract infection (UTI) but didn’t think much of it when he went to the doctor.

“But it turned out to be chlamydia,” the 21 year old says, who didn’t want to include his last name for privacy reasons.

“I contacted my ex and said ‘hey I know it’s been a while but I’ve just found out I have chlamydia and you’re the last person I slept with’. And that’s also how I found out that she cheated on me,” he says.

“She already knew she had chlamydia and had been treated for it, but didn’t tell me. And obviously, it was too late and I had a pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).”

THE FACTS: Pelvic inflammatory disease is an infection in the reproductive organs that occurs when bacteria is spread from the vagina to the uterus, fallopian tubes or ovaries. 

Untreated it can cause scar tissue and pockets of infected fluid (abscesses) to develop in the reproductive tract, which can cause permanent damage to the reproductive organs and lead to fertility issues

It took about four months and multiple courses of antibiotics for most of Reese’s painful symptoms to finally fade away. And Reese has been told the PID may cause infertility in the future - “but luckily I’m not really looking to get pregnant,” he says.

Finding out he had chlamydia was a hit to the gut, Reese says. He was mostly disappointed because of the conversations they had had around safe sex. 

“We said we would always be open about it and used to get checkups together,” he says.

“We had to have the conversation about why she didn’t tell me and I had to suffer those consequences when I could have just taken some antibiotics and be fine, just like she did.”

Reese believes people should not be having sex or having sex with a particular person if you can’t talk about safe sex with them. 

“I think a lot of people get embarrassed. People think it's taboo or maybe aren't educated enough about what STIs are and how treatable they can be if you catch them early.”

How to get a test:

  • STI self-tests are an option when you do not have any symptoms and only want to be tested for chlamydia and gonorrhea. You can pop into a sexual health clinic like Family Planning and do the test yourself. 
  • If you have symptoms or want a full STI screening which includes blood tests for syphilis and HIV, you need to book an appointment.
  • If you are under 22, you can call up Family Planning do a STI phone consultation, and have the forms for the lab sent to your home for free. This means you won’t have to pay anything for STI screening at the lab. 
  • For those over the age of 22 who have a community card, you can pay $5 for this same service.
  • Anytime you see your doctor or nurse for another reason, ask for a free STI test then.
  • This option may vary depending on your GP, but you can try and call the nurse at your GP clinic and request an STI screening be sent to the nearest lab. This will make the screening free of charge.
  • You can also pay to order at-home STI tests from Burnett Foundation Aotearoa and Sexual Health 101.
  • EttieKit have released new rapid STI tests that you can do at home. The kits contain four single-use tests, so you can test for Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis and Herpes-2 and get results within 15 minutes. The kit costs $89.

“I want people to know testing is really easy,” Director of nursing at Family Planning Avery says. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation about what testing involves, some people with penises think we will need to swab the penis. But in most cases, it is just peeing in a cup, or doing a self-swab for people with a vagina.”

“There is no judgement, this is what we do. This is what we are here for.”

Watch the full series of Queer Academy now.

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