Let’s talk about chlamydia

Stigmas, STIs and sconces: an exploration of sexual morality in Oxford

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I feel an odd sense of solidarity as I take my seat in the waiting room at 9.31am – a time I have chosen to minimise my chances of encountering my peers. One girl is reading Cosmo. A guy is writing out some fractions. A middle-aged business woman is calmly perusing a leaflet on genital warts. I have to say – I thought that rampant moral degeneracy would be more visible on a trip to the clinic.

My name is called and I follow the nurse into a side room, where we make small talk about the H&M sale while she runs a blood test to check whether I have HIV. Then the inevitable question comes. Why am I here? And, in spite of all the support and acceptance I have encountered, the inevitable feeling of shame begins rising again.

I explain the story as briefly as possible – an ex-boyfriend has tested positive for chlamydia, and has told me in no uncertain terms that I must have given it to him, thus here I am. The nurse shrugs, pulls out a swab test, and directs me to the toilet, which also doubles as a baby changing room, so I spend a good ten minutes attempting to penetrate myself with a giant cotton bud while trying not to think about how this is defiling the nappy changing area.

“I think you’re unlikely to have it,” the nurse says. “You haven’t seen this guy since Christmas.” She asks how many sexual partners I have had while at Oxford. The answer is apparently enough to pre-empt a diagnosis, and I am given antibiotics immediately. I leave the clinic an hour later with a box of pills and an overwhelming sense of inexplicable shame.

The funny thing about chlamydia is that, as STIs go, it really isn’t that bad. It has no long-term health consequences (unless undiagnosed for years, in which case it can cause pelvic inflammation or infertility in women), and can be easily treated with a week of antibiotics. To be frank, I have had colds more annoying than chlamydia. And yet, the very mention of the word is enough to inspire terror – one need only look at the prevalence of STI-themed ‘confessions’ from trolls on Oxfess to see how much we as a student body fear infection. In a study by the University of Michigan, two sample groups were confronted by hypothetical scenarios, in which their partner had given them either chlamydia or a potentially fatal flu which could be sexually transmitted. Even though chlamydia is easily treatable and the flu was potentially fatal, the scenario with the chlamydia was considered to be far worse. Reading studies like this as I desperately Googled my situation, I couldn’t help but wonder whether such a response was symptomatic of a naïve ignorance of the realities of infection, or indicative of a darker channel of moral judgement and leftover sexual conservatism.

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Sexual morality at Oxford is, in my opinion, fairly progressive. In around eight months of having casual sex, I have been called a hoe approximately once, and been praised as a feminist approximately ten times. At no point in my first two terms did I ever doubt what I was doing, but after getting off the phone to my ex, who came out with such gems as: “I don’t want to slut shame you, but…” and “I just hope you didn’t give me this deliberately,” I began to reassess my lifestyle –what had been a standard way to end Thursday Bridge became something I associated with shame and guilt. This was my fault. I was a slut. My ex was right: the hatred I would presumably incur was deserved and inevitable.

It is worth saying that I am by no means alone in experiencing feelings of worthlessness in the immediate aftermath of the diagnosis of a suspected STI – incidences of depression following this are well-charted.

Fortunately, my friends did not see things this way, and found the entire debacle hilarious. My Facebook nickname was changed to ‘chlamydiaaaaa’, an STI-themed Spotify playlist was created, and a cocktail was devised (Squash-Tequila-Ice). While their reaction was definitely comforting, and gave me some excellent inspiration for my linguistics coursework (which I ended up writing on the NHS webpage for chlamydia), the underlying feeling of worthlessness that that conversation with my ex had inspired didn’t fade.

My next task was to compile a list of everyone who would have to be informed if the diagnosis came back positive. Partner notification is morally complex – you are legally obliged to inform partners only from the past 3 months, but we decided that I should inform everyone on the list, even though, as one friend put it: “you’re going to have a lot of people to avoid in Park End.” The debate as to how best to notify ex-partners is very contentious. Most online sources tell you that a face-to-face conversation is the only acceptable way, but it seems excessive to arrange to meet someone for coffee, when the coffee might be longer and more engaged than the original encounter. “Make a group chat,” one friend suggested. “Pidge them urine tests,” suggested another. Eventually we colour-coded those who should be told in person, and those for whom a polite Facebook message would have to suffice.

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And still, although the experience had produced some excellent sconces, I couldn’t help but feel contaminated. As I looked at the list of names, I imagined how each of them would remember me – not as the girl whose room had been really messy, but as the girl with chlamydia who had ruined their first year at Oxford. I basically felt worthless and tainted.

Although I hadn’t received my diagnosis yet, we decided that the ex-partners with whom I was still friends might as well be informed immediately. Logically, the process of notification is just protocol, but as the time got closer I was so ill with nerves that I could only keep down soup. “I’m really sorry,” I babbled, expecting anger and hatred, “but I have to tell you something.” And so I rambled on about statistics and the effectiveness of condoms, close to tears. I will always be grateful to the guy who gave me a hug and told me it was fine, that it was not my fault, and that we should just wait and see what the results came back with.

The truth is, he was right. The risk of contracting an STI is something you have to factor in when you have casual sex, and since more than half of us will have an STI before we are 25, at least one person reading this will have undiagnosed chlamydia and be none the wiser. The best thing you can do is to use condoms, get tested regularly, screw the haters, and remember that chlamydia is easily treatable. In my experience at least, the stigma surrounding chlamydia is far worse than the reality of the condition.

I do not blame my ex at all for his initial reaction. He was understandably scared by his own diagnosis, and, although his comments were unacceptable, blaming the person you think has infected you is a fairly common reaction, and one that is symptomatic of the fear and ignorance which surround STIs. I know this article won’t do much to combat the stigma, but I do hope that you can take away some basic life lessons – if nothing greater than the fact that if you’re mature enough to engage in casual sex, you’re also mature enough to face the consequences. And finally, to any of the men on that list, I am sorry if reading this article has been an emotional rollercoaster for you. I should probably end the suspense by letting you all know the news – my results came back clean.