The Vagenda

TMI: Shamed at the Sexual Health Clinic

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Let’s talk about cysts, baby!

I’m going to tell you about that time that I didn’t have herpes.  It was a totally awesome and lazy diagnosis, because I was 24 and sexually active.  The fact that I’d been sleeping exclusively with my recently ex-boyfriend for six years, and that he’d never had sex with anyone but me was totally irrelevant.  I was in my twenties, and I’d been having sex since I was seventeen.  Of course I’d picked up an STD. It couldn’t possibly be anything else, could it?  It couldn’t have anything to do with all these cysts that had been recurring since I was thirteen.  No – I was a sexual deviant, and I had to take my punishment: herpes.  

I’ll set the scene for you: I’d just broken up with my boyfriend.  I was living by myself for the first time in my life, which was initially really scary.  I was really down – even though I’d been the one to leave, it still really sucked.  And now, I had a vaginal cyst that had gone wrong; it was infected, and it was really painful.  I couldn’t get an appointment with my doctor for a week, and I really couldn’t wait that long.  I was working twelve hour shifts in a pub: no way could I run around for that many hours whilst feeling like my vagina was trying to kill me – “You’ve deprived me of regular sex, and I will have my revenge!”  Thanks, vagina.  It’s good to know whose side you’re on.

So I did what any incredibly uncomfortable woman would do: I went to the NHS walk in centre.  A two hour wait would be less torturous than a week long wait for an appointment, surely?  I should have waited for the appointment.  I could have saved myself a lot of panic and despair.

I did actually get to see a doctor, which was surprising.  Usually at this walk in centre you saw a nurse first, who would then decide if you actually needed to see a doctor. Now, at this stage in my life I was not massively comfortable with the vagina inspection. I’d yet to have my first smear, and dropping trou in front of a total stranger without the social armour of tequila was intimidating.  There was a very brief consultation with the lady doctor, where I told her what the issue was; I had an infected cyst.

Her immediate response was “that sounds like herpes.”

I then explained again that I’d been getting these cysts since I was thirteen. It was not herpes. I explained again that I’d only ever had unprotected sex with one person (I know that condoms are not 100% effective against disease, but they sure do lower the possibility that you’ll get one) and that this person, my ex, had never slept with anyone else.  I really didn’t see how a previously diagnosed issue with Bartholin cysts (read more about them here) had morphed in to herpes.

This was duly ignored, and there followed a very brief examination that lasted less than thirty seconds.  The verdict was that I had herpes.  A tad shell shocked, I asked how it could have happened.  The answer was that it just does sometimes.  I asked what I was supposed to do about it.  The answer was that there was nothing that I could do.  Was there a test that could confirm this diagnosis?  There was, but she didn’t think that it was necessary as I clearly had herpes.  There was some antiviral medication that I could take to calm this flare up down, but I was probably past the worst of it.

I fled.  In tears.  I’m not sure that I even did my jeans up properly before I actually ran away.  I wailed down the phone to my mum.  I googled herpes and found a really helpful website (here) that gave me all the answers that this doctor should have. She actually called me later that afternoon to invite me back in for a test.  I said no – I would wait for an appointment with my own doctor.  I never went back to that walk in centre.  Incidentally, I got an emergency appointment with my own doctor two days later.  He told me that it was definitely not herpes, but that he would do a full sexual health screen to reassure me.  He said what I had was a Bartholin cyst which had got infected.  I got some cream and instructions to not wear tights for a couple of weeks.  This time, I didn’t leave in tears.  And my all of my tests came back negative.

We live in a world where sexual liberation is reportedly ok. Sure, you can sleep with as many guys as you want, but you run the risk of being branded a slut.  You can take responsibility for your sexual health, but you run the risk of major judgment from sexual health professionals.  No one wants a disapproving stare aimed at their vagina when you’re just asking for help and clarity.  I’m 28 now, and my last sexual health screening was 18 months ago (I haven’t had sex since.  If you are having sex, then I suggest you have a more regular screen).  The difference between taking responsibility for my sexual health at age 26 rather than at age 24 was incredible.  I didn’t leave my doctor’s office with a diagnosis of herpes or clamydia, or feeling like I was about to be forced to wear a sandwich board that said “unclean”.

But really my question is why should two years image make such a difference?  Is there an assumption that once you pass the ripe old age of 25 your hormones may settle enough for you to say, “hey, buddy – no glove, no love”? Why was the automatic assumption when I was twenty-four that if I were having any vagina issues, they must have been STD related? What was it about that time I had a miscarriage that just cried out for a diagnosis of chlamydia?  Why was the information that I’d had cysts since I was thirteen and they sometimes get infected translated to herpes?  I guess that at least with the chlamydia incident they actually tested me.  Yep, I was clean.  I was told that if the bleeding didn’t stop in the next couple of weeks that I would probably have to change my Pill.

Sexual health and shame should not go hand in hand.  In fact they shouldn’t even talk to each other. They should not be best buddies.  They should not be the mean girls of medicine.  You should not be made to feel ashamed for taking responsibility for your sexual health, and there certainly shouldn’t be any jumped to diagnosis based solely on your age and the fact that you’ve had sex before.  The only person who should have felt shame that day was that utter quack of a doctor.

- Laura-Anne Williams

13 thoughts on “TMI: Shamed at the Sexual Health Clinic

  1. I had a similar experience in which I went to see a doctor with pelvic pain when I was in my early 20s. They assumed it *must* be chlamydia since I was a sexually active young woman, even though I couldn’t see any way I could have caught it. When the test results actually came back a week later, of course, they were all negative. In the intervening period, I’d had to have a super awkward conversation with my recently-ex boyfriend, which turned out to have been completely unnecessary…

  2. When I was a 19 year old Uni student my now-husband and I moved to a new area and got a house together. The postcode was as rough as hell, like scary to go out after dark rough. my Mum actually cried when she saw where we were living. It was short term and cheap and we were saving up for a house deposit, so we didn’t care.

    We registered at the local doctors. On my first time there the Dr asked me ‘are you pregnant?’ and I said no. He then said ‘are you sure?’ and I said yes’. He then said ‘when were you last pregnant?’ and I said ‘never’. He raised his eyebrow at me with a suspicious look, and insisted I go give a urine sample for a pregnancy test, which was of course negative.

    I’ve always guessed that because I’d moved to an area with a high rate of teen pregnancies he was convinced I was also having unprotected sex? He was rude and judgemental but I was too young to say so.
    He quizzed me about contraception and gave me a stern lecture about how to avoid pregnancy and disease, which frankly wasn’t required!

  3. I was left completely and utterly pissed off by my last trip to the GUM clinic (I’m 23 and have been deadly serious about sexual health since I became sexually active at 18). I was there to have my contraceptive implant removed, on account of my finally having come to terms with the fact that I’m a lesbian. I’d actually been out for nearly a year and hadn’t had sex with a man for about two, all of which I explained to the horrified doctor, who insisted on loudly and repeatedly informing me that “if you start sleeping with men again you won’t be protected!” I could *maybe* kind of understand tactfully mentioning this once, but it was abundantly clear that this woman just didn’t believe that I was gay and refused to respect my sexuality. I was genuinely shocked.

    She also insisted that the spotting I’d been consistently getting a week after my period like clockwork ever since I had the implant put in was chlamydia. She totally ignored me when I told her that I’d been assured by other doctors that this was just a side effect of the implant, and when I told her that, despite exclusively practising safe sex I get regular STI screenings (I just can’t turn down any test my GP offers me….), that I’d been tested since my last sexual encounter, and that as usual the test had come back negative. She still insisted on me taking another test (which also came back negative, obviously).

    I have rarely felt so disrespected. I’m glad my reaction was one of anger and disbelief rather than feeling hurt or having my confidence knocked, but that experience definitely put me off going back to that clinic despite all the positive experiences I’d had there in the past. Talk about an own goal on the NHS’s part…

  4. My sister once went to the doctors for a check up after being diagnosed with herpes at 17. She was nervous, so outbreak mum went with her. The doctors response to the diagnosis was “well, if she will sleep around…”. She didn’t sleep around. She’d been raped. None of us went to that doctor again.

  5. My sister once went to the doctors for a check up after being diagnosed with herpes at 17. She was nervous, so our mum went with her. The doctors response to the diagnosis was “well, if she will sleep around…”. She didn’t sleep around. She’d been raped. None of us went to that doctor again.

  6. Nothing to do with sexual health but bad experiences with one NHS Walk-in Centres (now closed)
    I am a bit prone to skin things.
    1. Doctor and I poring over his book of skin conditions trying to spot whether what I had was ringworm or not.
    2. Me: I have irritated skin around the mouth. Doctor: That’s peri-oral dermatitis (medical Latin for irritated skin around the mouth)
    3. Colleague with acute stomach pains etc. Doctor: you must have eaten something that disagrees with you. Next day colleague is rushed to hospital with ruptured appendix and peritonitis.

  7. My doctor once rudely insisted I had an STD, which was impossible because I was in a long distance relationship of several years with someone on the other side of the planet, so I wasn’t even having sex with him.

    “Are you sure you haven’t been sexually active?”
    “Um… yeah. Pretty sure.”
    “This is all confidential.”
    “I know. I haven’t been.”
    “What about your boyfriend.”
    “I really couldn’t have caught anything from him.”
    “Don’t be too sure about that. Just because a guy say they’re faithful doesn’t make it true. Are you using protection?”
    “What kind?”
    “The Atlantic Ocean.”

    Kind of worth it.

  8. When I was 20 I went to my then local GUM clinic for a check up after splitting with my partner. Because he was bisexual, and had slept with men before me (safely, I might add), the two nurses launched into a massive thing about aids/hiv and how my friends and family would definitely abandon me when I definitely had aids and how I would struggle to cope alone. And then I had to drop my pants and let them poke around. I was fine (as I expected) but it was utterly humiliating, unnecessary, & homophobic. I never went back because I couldn’t face them again & didn’t continue regular check-ups again until I moved.

  9. Late to comment, but I thought it was important to add my point of view (as a gynaecologist) to the comments here.

    Firstly, OP, I agree that your doctor behaved like an ass here. They clearly didn’t make you feel comfortable and their communication skills sound awful – I can’t comment on the incorrect diagnosis though, having not seen the cyst.

    Secondly, you weren’t ‘shamed at the sexual health clinic’. You were shamed at the walk-in centre by a generalist doctor who before you was probably treating a child’s cold and afterwards a man’s back pain. This, of course, doesn’t make it any better for you but knowing how difficult and embarrassing it can be for people to attend GUM and emergency gynaecology clinics and knowing how hard the staff work to make it a comfortable and non-shaming place (no mean feat when your job is asking young women who are already feeling vulnerable to get undressed), I like to think/hope that most people don’t leave my clinic feeling ashamed or embarrassed.

    Finally, and most importantly, people lie ALL THE TIME about this stuff. You can get offended about the doctor not believing you, but when I see a young woman who tells me she’s not sexually active, or has only had sex with one person, or always uses protection, my exploring all options is NOT a reflection on my thoughts about your moral character. I am thinking about the positive chlamydia test last week on the woman who told me she hadn’t had sex for seven years. I am thinking about the women with IUDs who thought I was stupid for doing a pregnancy test, and the one with a life-threatening ruptured ectopic pregnancy. I’m thinking about the lesbian who had a tubal abscess from a one-off one-night-stand with a man while drunk, and who missed out on vital early treatment of PID (which could prevent infertility) because she had told the practice nurse she was a lesbian and the practice nurse was too embarrassed to question further. I’m thinking about vulnerable children and young women who don’t report abuse and how assumptions can lead to things being missed. I know you’re probably telling the truth, but don’t be offended when I want to do some tests. I am not judging you; I am trying not to miss a vital piece of the puzzle.

    I hope no-one ever leaves my clinic feeling shamed and judged – but if they do, it means I have failed in my communication skills… but not necessarily in my diagnostic abilities.

  10. Not exactly STD related but still this is my experience with NHS sexual health stuff.
    Before I went to university I went to my doctor and asked about contraception options, I had just turned 18 was at that point a virgin still, but thought I wanted to be responsible and also ask if it could (and it did) help with my heavy irregular periods. When I told the doctor at my GP this she just looked at me and said, I kid you not, “Your too young to have contraception come back when you’re 20. My advice is if you don’t want STDs use condoms. In future consider your actions before you come in and waste NHS time” I was so angry but then I went to the sexual health clinic, the doctor asked me some non-patronising questions and lifestyle stuff, we discussed my period and she said “No problems we’ll get this sorted I think you’re a prime candidate for the implant” answered my questions about the implant and I booked the appointment to get it sorted. The opposite of your story but yeah!

  11. I’ve personally found that there is a broad spectrum of the treatment and judgement you receive at GUM clinics and from nurses and GPs. I’ve had a few check ups in the past as I want to look after my sexual health.

    I’ve encountered many different reactions in the past from genuine care and understanding to obvious judgment and shaming, and unfortunately, to the point of being sent on a horrible wild goose chase to 4 different clinics where I could, apparently, have a check up but which ended in me not having one at all and standing in the pouring rain in the middle of god knows where and crying.

    I recently have developed symptoms but have not been sexually active and have been putting off going for a check up because of previous stresses and let downs by the system. No one should feel this way about their personal health whether it’s related to sex or not. The stigma attached to STI’s and sexual health needs to be addressed because it’s not helpful for anyone!!

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