Sexual (re)education series
STIs, the importance of testing, and gaps In Saskatchewan’s curriculum
You may be wondering why I’m using the term sexually transmitted infections (STIs) instead of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). In an online webinar I attended on sexual education, Natalya Mason from Saskatoon Sexual Health explained that “People used to use the term STDs, but diseases usually have symptoms and most STIs don’t.” Robin Hilton, the Sexual Health Outreach Coordinator at URSU, built on that in an interview by saying that with STIs “the most likely symptom is no symptom at all.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what’s commonly taught. A common education on STIs, according to Mason, involves a teacher showing pictures of the genitalia of people who have extreme symptoms, in part as a scare tactic due to the abstinence focus of our province’s sexual education. This does not accurately inform people on how the majority of STIs are experienced. Not only does it teach people that they don’t need to worry about getting tested unless they’re visibly showing symptoms, it teaches that having an STI is something to be ashamed of, which maintains our cultural stigma around STIs.
The demonization of those with STIs creates a binary – those with and those without – which inevitably leads to one category looking down on the other. Our current sexual education model paints someone living with an STI as irresponsible, dirty, or slutty – a perfect example of the ‘just world’ hypothesis where people victim-blame someone in a state for getting into that state to convince themselves they’ll never wind up in that state because they believe those adjectives don’t apply to them. Those stereotypes hurt those that hold them as they’re less likely to get tested for STIs even if their lack of sexual safety makes them more likely to contract one, and it hurts those who contract them by wrongfully implying personal flaws are the cause of their physical infection.
Hilton referred to our culture’s individualism as another cause for the stigma, which can also be seen during the coronavirus pandemic in those refusing to wear masks in public. Taryn Wahl, the Education Coordinator for Planned Parenthood Regina, expanded on that by explaining that wearing a mask protects others if you’re carrying the coronavirus but are asymptomatic (carrying but not yet showing symptoms), much the same as wearing a condom protects a sexual partner in case you’re carrying an STI and are asymptomatic. As we’ve seen, people diagnosed with coronavirus are also painted as irresponsible and dirty, even though anyone could pick up the virus just from going on a grocery run. A lack of adequate physical protection is the cause in most cases of STI contraction and coronavirus spread, not some deep moral flaw, and demonizing people dealing with either of those experiences just makes it more likely that fewer people will use adequate physical protection as they don’t acknowledge it as a major factor.
STIs can cause major long-term damage to your body if left untreated even while asymptomatic, which is one of the reasons it’s essential to get testing done with every new partner, or every 3-6 months, whichever comes first. Wahl explained that syphilis can spread through a person’s organ systems leading to organ failure, chlamydia and gonorrhea can cause pelvic inflammatory disease and lead to infertility, and roughly 40 types of HPV can lead to cancer. Wahl also took care to mention that “there’s a lot of fear about STIs which can make people avoid conversations and testing. To dispel that, all STIs are curable or treatable.”
Another common misconception around STIs is that they can only be contracted through penis-in-vagina or penis-in-anus penetration. In reality, STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, and HIV can all be transmitted through unprotected oral sex. Mason mentioned that sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs) like HIV, HPV, herpes, and hepatitis B can be contracted through the bloodstream if, for example, you have an open cut on your hand that comes in contact with sexual fluids like semen that carry the infection. They can also be passed through sharing needles for drug use, or through non-sanitized needles used for piercings or tattoos.
Wahl mentioned several methods of proper physical protection measures, such as using condoms or dental dams as barrier methods when giving or receiving oral sex, and putting lubricant inside the condom before it’s put on, and again outside to lessen the chance of the condom breaking due to friction. Other safety measures include putting on gloves before you finger someone (and please, for the love of whatever deity you’re on good terms with right now, cut your nails), putting condoms on sex toys like dildos if they’re being used on more than one person, and the basic one we all know, using condoms for penetrative sex even if they don’t always feel nice for the person with a penis, because I’m sure they feel a lot nicer than potential organ failure.
During Mason’s presentation on comprehensive sexuality education, she mentioned that the last time Saskatchewan’s abstinence-based sexual education curriculum had an update was in 2009. Some of the current missing topics include sexual positivity, contraceptive options, and consent.
Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some statistics provided by Mason during her presentation. The average infection rate (AIR) of gonorrhea in Canada is 79 people per 100,000. In Saskatchewan, it’s 120 per 100,000. The AIR for Chlamydia in Canada is 345 people per 100,000. In Saskatchewan, it jumps to 543. Saskatchewan’s AIRs for hepatitis C and HIV are both double the national averages. Saskatchewan also has the highest provincial rate of adolescent pregnancy. It’s obvious that the abstinence-only approach and decade-old curriculum aren’t adequately educating Saskatchewanians on safe sexual practices.
To psych yourself up to have a conversation with a potential or existing partner about sexual health and safety, Wahl recommends keeping in mind that it’s normal for these conversations to be awkward at first. People learn a lot through the examples they see set by others, and not having open conversations on consent or STIs properly modelled in the media means that most people won’t see it as an easy conversation simply because it’s unfamiliar. However, choosing to have that unfamiliar conversation earlier in the relationship can save a lot of heartache going forward, as it gives you the chance to make sure you’re fully informed on the experience you’re considering consenting to. According to Wahl, you are “less likely to get an STI from someone who has one and is careful about it than someone who doesn’t know.”
Another huge perk to having the conversation earlier on is it gives you the opportunity to find red flags that may have escaped notice otherwise. Choosing to have those difficult conversations shows a potential partner that you value their health, that it’s important to you that they’re informed, and that you respect their right to choose whether or not they want to have that experience with you. If someone has no regard for your sexual health, there’s a good chance they won’t prioritize your sexual pleasure either.
Attached below this article you’ll find a link to a survey on sexual misunderstandings you may have had throughout life! These misunderstandings can be serious, funny, or just a mistake made that you feel others may relate to, whatever you’re comfortable with sharing. We’ll be including these misunderstandings in the fourth piece of this series to be released in late November, and all submissions will be anonymous. There’s no prerequisite to being eligible to respond so you don’t even have to be a student at the University to take part!
You can take the survey by clicking here.