65 million Americans are living with STIs. 1 in 4 Americans will get an STI in their lifetime. In a national survey of US physicians, less than one-third routinely screened patients for STIs. At least 80 percent of women will have contracted genital HPV by age 50. CDC screening recommendations only include women and gay or bisexual men.
I remember the first time I found out I got an STI. I was 19 years old, my mother came up to my college dorm to take me out to lunch. As I got into her car she handed me a pile of mail, and as a signal of my budding adulthood, she only opened half of the envelopes. But of these unopened envelopes was a note from my new gynecologist.
About a week prior to lunch with my mother, I had decided I was going to finally lose my virginity. It was to a man named William. Something about the way he coifed his hair, spoke about Bukowski, and wore a scarf inside my friend’s Los Angeles apartment in the middle of September convinced me that he was the one worthy of my first time. To this day, I am not sure exactly where my 19 year old tastes came from, but could probably blame it on my infatuation with any indie man who looked remotely close to Brandon Flowers. We did everything right as far as first times go and it went pretty smoothly. He was nice enough, he asked for consent, he stayed the night, and he amicably left the next morning. Like any informed former virgin turned sex-positive feminist, I immediately made a gynecologist appointment. Because adults take control of their sexual health and I was finally sexually active. And like any good college student, I used chicken nuggets as modern currency to convince my friend to drive me to my appointment.
When I got the closed envelope, I quickly slipped into the restroom of the dorm after my mother dropped me off and opened my results. There, staring back at me was an abnormal pap smear and positive HPV results. It was in that moment, I learned that when you are woman, being sexual is never truly carefree. Women aren’t awarded the same ability to slip in and out of the beds of their partners, able to stumble into the bed of Jessica, Jane, Tiffany, and Stacy. When you’re a woman, it’s not enough to pat yourself on the back for using a condom and coming away scratch-free. Because, when you are a woman, and you are 19 and decide to have sex for the first time, you learn that HPV disproportionately affects women, and men are basically carriers.
I remember calling the doctor’s office in tears and confusion to schedule my doctor’s appointment. The nurse on the other end of the phone tried to calm me down by telling me, “Don’t worry Sweetie, this doesn’t mean your man was cheating. Men don’t get tested for HPV, it doesn’t really affect them” -- as if that should be the main focus of my concern. That was the first time I learned that that sexual health falls on women. Because it doesn’t affect men, my gynecologist explained to me that the HPV shot isn’t recommended for men - but that I should try to urge all my male friends to voluntarily get the shot. It is incredibly confusing for a young woman to grow up hearing that she shouldn’t talk about sex, to only learn a few years later that sexual health and education should primarily fall on her.
Public health is incredibly gendered and as a result, the false narrative that sexual health should rely on a woman continues. According to statistics, women only comprise 35 percent of physician workforce. There have also been countless studies that reference the reported difference between men’s and women’s experiences in doctors’ offices, with doctors often discounting women’s pain and experience. Furthermore, despite Gardasil being approved for women and girls in the early/mid 2000s, boys and men are just now starting to get vaccinated for HPV; which is why it was so easy for my medically trained gynecologist to look me in the eye and tell me it was MY responsibility to inform my male friends about the shot. We also know that far more women get tested than men. Where women have yearly pap smears, there is no CDC recommendation for men to be tested annually.
With STIs like Chlamydia and Gonorrhea being at all-time highs in California, you have to wonder why the narrative has not shifted to men being tested. Instead, my friends and I continue to have situations with new, adult, college-educated, medically insured males who still continue to ask to not wear a condom during a one-night stand. These men are investment bankers, startup founders, accountants, lawyers, educators, and consultants. Bright men with good backgrounds, in their mid-twenties and early thirties who have never gotten tested and never have the conversation about their sexual status and don’t even know that most STIs can be contracted through skin to skin contact. But are sure to spend $200 dollars a month on their fancy Equinox gym memberships and boast about their participation in marathons. Instead, my educated female friends and I continue to slump into the beds of these accountants and lawyers, bring our own condoms, and call each other about good (and sometimes bad) test results from the gyno the next week. All because we know that sexual health relies on the woman, and sex as a woman, is never carefree.