For quite a while, I have recommended the City of Austin Sexually Transmitted Diseases Clinic to people who were looking for affordable STI (sexually transmitted infections) testing whether because they had high co-pays or no insurance. However, I had never been there myself. I had not been tested since my last sex partner and needed to do so before my next relationship, so I recently took myself there to experience their services.
The first challenge is getting an appointment. They can only book for the same day or next day, and they fill up quickly. If you want an appointment, you must call at 8 in the morning. I called when my cell phone said 8:00 a.m. one morning, and by the time they got to me, they were fully booked for that day and only had three appointment times for the next day. Luckily one of the times I worked for me or I would have had to keep calling every morning until I got one that worked. You can also show up at 8 a.m. for a walk-in appointment, but you are taking your chances on how long you’ll be there and if there will be availability.
I arrived 10 minutes before my appointment as requested. I was processed quickly at the intake desk and then buzzed through a locked door to pay my $20 fee (credit cards accepted). I then walked down a very long hall to another waiting room. The Ellen Show was playing silently on the TV with closed captions displaying the dialog. About eight other people of all sexes and ethnicities were in the waiting room. Most were in their 20s to 40s.
Playing on my phone, I waited for a few minutes, and then a phlebotomist called me back to get my blood drawn for HIV and syphilis testing. As I sat down in the chair, I let her know that I am allergic to latex to make sure she didn’t use anything dangerous on me though most blood labs only use nitrile supplies now. However, she panicked as she told me, “I only have latex band-aids.” I reassured her that I don’t need a band-aid (not even bringing up my reactions to adhesives) because I stop bleeding quickly after a draw.
The phlebotomist proceeded to do her job and said to me, “That sucks to be allergic to latex. Non-latex condoms are more expensive.” I told her that it wasn’t too bad, and that AIDS Services of Austin will send you 50 free condoms per quarter (including non-latex) if you live in one of five local counties. Both she and the other phlebotomist in the room stopped what they were doing and stared at me. “Did you not know this?” I asked. Both of them said no. I began wondering why was I doing the safer sex resources education at the STI testing clinic. However, my phlebotomist, having noted that they had free non-latex condoms they kept hidden (with the latex ones on the counter for anyone to grab), proceeded to give me a handful of free samples to take with me.
I returned to the lobby and waited for the nurse practitioner to call me back to her room. She asked for basic medical information since I was new to the clinic, and then asked what my concerns were. When I told her that I had none and that I was doing routine testing before having a new partner, her facial reaction told me that she barely comprehended this concept. Clearly many people she saw were worried about an STI and were being tested for that reason. She continued by asking me if I had ever had an STI, and I said no. She looked completely shocked and said, “Not even syphilis?” When I told her no again, her expression was total disbelief, as if it is impossible to get to the ripe old age of 44 without experiencing syphilis. To reassure her I wasn’t making up information, I told her I had been in a 22 year monogamous relationship, and that seemed to lessen her disbelief.
The nurse practitioner then asked when I had last had sex. As I told her that information, I jokingly mentioned, “It’s been a while since I’ve been able to get lucky.” She proceeded to comment, “A lot of women would consider themselves lucky not to have had sex with a man in that long.” Again, I was shocked. Flabbergasted, actually. Here I was, in an STI testing clinic, and I was experiencing very negative attitudes around sex.
I live a very sex positive life. I believe that sex is a natural and normal part of adult life. As long as people are able to give consent and practice safer sex, I consider sex a healthy thing. However, our society does not. We live in a society that promotes abstinence only sex education. Many mainstream religions condemn sex before marriage. We shun people who have affairs even though huge numbers of people have them. Parts of society still don’t believe homosexuality is natural or that there are more than two genders. As a result, many people don’t get STI testing done as often as they should because of the shame they carry around sex. Since I am surrounded by friends who don’t hold these attitudes, I sometimes forget they even exist. However, I was especially shocked to encounter a “lie back and think of England” attitude from a nurse practitioner who works in a STI related health clinic!
As the nurse practitioner continued talking to me, she asked where my new/future partner was. I told her that he had gotten testing done through his general practitioner the previous day. The look she gave me was clearly one of, “And you believed that, honey?” She then continued to grill me about why he hadn’t come with me. I refrained from saying, “Because I’m a big girl who doesn’t need someone to hold my hand while I get my blood drawn and pee in a cup.” While there’s absolutely nothing wrong with bringing a support person if you are nervous about blood draws or STI testing, it’s also perfectly acceptable for a 44 year old woman to take herself to a clinic for the same. Still, the nurse practitioner was clearly judging my new partner as being unsupportive because he went to work rather than coming with me (even though I didn’t ask him to accompany me). All men were obviously very low on her list of people who could be trusted, and I found that very sad.
At one point, she asked if I had been molested as a child because it was part of the intake paperwork. I said that I had been, and she just looked sad. I informed her that it was very common, and the good thing about the #MeToo movement is that more people are talking about sexual abuse which is helping in prevention and healing. She seemed to agree it was probably a good thing that people were talking though she seemed a bit hesitant about it. Later in the appointment she asked if I had ever tried therapy about the molesting because she had heard it helps. I reassured her that I most definitely had seen a therapist and that I now do healing work helping others recovering from trauma. She seemed surprised but stated that there’s a lot of trauma out there, not just sexual, that needs healing.
After peeing in a cup (no help needed!), I returned to the nurse practitioner’s room where she told me my blood tests were negative. My urine test results for gonorrhea and chlamydia would be available online two days later through a patient portal. She gave me a piece of paperwork to hand to the front desk and sent me on my way. Fifty-five minutes after I arrived, I was on my way out the door, an amazingly good time for a public clinic or even a private doctor’s office.
I debated writing this blog post to share my experience, but after attending Bedpost Confessions this week and being reminded by one of the producers about how important it is that we talk about body functions and sexual health, I decided it would be good for me to put my experience out there. If it can help someone else feel more comfortable about what to expect when going to the local STI clinic, then I am happy to share what I went through. However, to anyone going there or anywhere for testing, I hope you remember that sex is a positive thing if practiced safely and consensually. Having it as often as you want with whomever you choose is a completely wonderful thing. Don’t let sex-negative attitudes impact your sex life!
©2018 Elizabeth Galen, Ph.D., GreenHeartGuidance.com