I’m sitting in the sexual health clinic at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney. In the waiting room there is a young Anglo woman with her mother. She looks about 20 years old. An Asian man walks in and casually sits down. I take in their faces but none of us make eye contact. There is an odd silence here, a desire for invisibility, a sense shamefulness as though we have done something wrong. I pick up a National Geographic magazine and pretend to read while my mind entertains stories about their sexual lives.
I wonder why they are here. I know why I am. A week earlier I checked into emergency. Every time I went to urinate it felt like daggers. It got so bad that going to the toilet became an episode of anxiety - a moment of anticipating a cruel sensation in a part of your body that generally brings you joy or relief. Initially I thought it was a urinary tract infection, but I should have known better.
The night before, I engaged in unprotected sex with someone I barely knew. We met online and hit it off. Things escalated quickly and we ended up at her hotel room in Haymarket. I had regrets after I left the hotel. My mind played through a thousand what ifs. I am not generally careless with sex. I was when I was a teenager and in my early 20s. Yet as an adult I knew about the dangers of unprotected sex, but failed to act. And she didn’t seem to care about me wearing a condom.
In truth, during those moments of sexual desire and intensity, concern about contracting an STD was secondary to pleasure. For some, the pleasure is in the risk taking - in the rawness of that experience, in the heightened and unhindered physical contact.
When I checked myself into the emergency room, I was basically beside myself.
When I checked myself into the emergency room, I was basically beside myself. I started to wonder if I had contracted HIV. As I waited to see the doctor, I took out my phone and began to read up on life expectancies living with HIV. As I read more and more, I discovered that HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was. If it’s detected early then it has a very good prognosis.
I worried that living with HIV would make it more difficult to form an intimate relationship with someone. And it was difficult enough for me without having a notifiable infection. I imagined the kinds of conversations I would need to have around negotiating sex with any future partner, the alienation I might feel. I felt it already as I sat there rehearsing future scenarios.
When I saw the doctor, I explained what had happened and what I was feeling. He had a quick look and told me that it was probably gonorrhoea, also known as ‘the clap’. The clap is said to have derived its name from a medieval Parisian brothel named ‘Les Clapiers’ but the disease itself has probably existed for millennia. One of its earliest mentions was in a 1587 collection of English Poems The Mirror of Magistrates which read:
They give no heed before they get the clap.
And then too late they wish they had been wise.
For a person who writes and enjoys poetry there was a certain irony to finding and reading these words.
Before I arrived at emergency, I had only heard of gonorrhoea in passing mostly in film or on TV. But at that point all I cared about was whether it was curable. The emergency doctor said it was and gave me two different antibiotics. I remember the pills being quite large. He also recommended I take post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) pills to prevent contracting HIV as a precaution as it couldn’t be ruled out. I took two PEP pills and was discharged after I was told to make an appointment with the sexual health clinic to get blood tests.
Before I arrived at emergency, I had only heard of gonorrhoea in passing mostly in film or on TV.
At the clinic a week later, the young woman went first, followed by the Asian man and then finally it was me. A big burly man shook my hand and ushered me into one of the many rooms down the hall. It would be a few days before I would find out about the gonorrhoea, but a while longer before I would know anything about whether I contracted HIV.
It was an anxious period waiting for my results. The thought of living with HIV would enter my mind at least once every day. As I crossed off time on my fridge calendar, every X brought me closer to what I called ‘judgement day’. On that day I saw the same burly man back at the health clinic, he had the same friendly smile and made the same small talk. But he had good news. No HIV. It turned out all I had contracted was the clap.
Since this incident I have never quite looked at sex the same again. It has made me much more cautious and even fearful of sex. The psychological effects of contracting or potentially being exposed to STDs made me feel extremely vulnerable, unsafe, untrusting and at times morbid. And if I can help it, I never want to feel that way again.
*Their name has been changed