I once was taken on a second date to a GUM clinic. I’d very excitedly agreed to go to the cinema with what I considered at the time to be ‘an older man’ – in that I was 20 and he was 26 which, considering the universe is 13.75 billion years old, isn’t really all that much of a difference. He had taken me for a wonderfully romantic dinner the previous week and I was optimistic about the guy already; practising my signature with his last name, imagining where we’d go for our summer holidays, that kind of completely normal and not at all crazy thing. This was back in the days when I still wanted a relationship, you see, and MAN did I want this relationship.
I’d been looking up cinema times and had already decided what we were going to see, but when he picked me up in his car I feigned coolness and told him I wasn’t too fussed. I was just about to launch into my carefully crafted ‘but I’ve seen these adverts for this thing called Kick-Ass that looks good?’ speech when he turned to me and said, “There is this thing I was thinking we could go and do. I’ve been meaning to for a while, so I thought we could make a thing of it?”
I won’t lie, my first thought was “oh my God, he wants to go dogging, that’s why he has brought the car.” I wasn’t sure if I wanted to, particularly not in a three door at 4PM on a Thursday, but I’ve never been one to say no too quickly. Still, it wasn’t a definite, so I put on my most intrigued face and asked what he was thinking of.
My date smiled sheepishly. “I thought we could both go and get tested?”
I cannot be the only person who sees something wrong with this, can I? The GUM clinic is at least a eighth or ninth date, when you’re definitely in an exclusive relationship (which in my mind is never something to agree to until at least two months in). It’s certainly not second date territory; you’re still trying to make a good impression at that stage and that’s usually not helped by a nurse asking you to recount your last three sexual experiences in excruciating detail whilst she rams a sharpened cotton bud up your arsehole.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised, though – the first time I’d met my date he’d drunkenly thrown up all over the place before trying to bareback me on the floor of my friend’s apartment, so this probably explained why he thought it was a ‘normal thing’ to ask me to get checked for STDs before he’d even learnt my birthday. It also raises some uncomfortable questions about my taste in men but I can probably get several more columns out of that subject.
Ironically, I love going to the clinic in the normal course of things. I find it weirdly enjoyable to show off how much I know about ‘social diseases’ and, while the actual mechanics of the test itself aren’t exactly enormous fun, I’ve never met an unfriendly nurse or doctor when I’ve been to visit the clinic. With the one I visited when I was at university, it got to the stage where I was on first name terms with the receptionists. All eight of them.
The peace of mind getting tested brings is the greatest benefit. I have once had to go to the ‘special doctor’ about something specific that was worrying me – it turned out to be strain from an overly vigorous night in, as it happens – but for the most part I book myself in or rock up at the walk-in clinic with almost complete certainty I’m not going to hear anything surprising. Safe sex is non-negotiable for me. While I respect people’s right to go casually barebacking, I respect it in the same way as I respect people’s right to buy tickets to Chris Brown concerts; if they want to be that wilfully stupid, fine. Even in relationships I still prefer to use protection all the time, for reasons I’ve covered before. I am as safe as safe can be without literally wearing a condom at all times.
Still, there will always be times for everyone when the condom breaks or it slips off. I don’t know many people who have never woken up unsure if that latex layer went AWOL during the parade the previous night. It’s not a good thing but it is human – it’s very easy to make mistakes when you’re caught up in the heat of the moment, particularly if you’ve been lubricated by a few sambucas as well as whatever brand of Slip-N-Slide to which you’re partial.
So even if you’ve not been asking the question, it’s still preferable to have an answer for definite. There’s nothing less sexy than a man who’s never ever been tested – either they’re lazy and apathetic about their own health or they don’t have enough sex to think it’s worthwhile. I don’t think getting tested regularly is carte blanche to insist on going raw with your partner, of course, but knowing your status in a fairly up-to-date way is definitely a plus in my books. Perhaps not an opening chat-up line though – “Hello, my name’s Bax, I’m a Leo and I definitely will not be giving you hepatitis” probably won’t go down brilliantly (or maybe it will? Someone try it and let me know).
I try and make it a habit to run a scan every six months but I believe the standard is yearly for most people. Being in a relationship shouldn’t stop you from going either – I have known far too many friends receive the gift that keeps on itching from the man they thought was their one and only. In many ways they were lucky, because it could have been a symptomless disease, and some of them can really do a proper number on your insides if left untreated.
If you really don’t want to broach the subject of you going to get your downstairs mix-up investigated by a trained professional with your significant other, I can understand that, because the sad but unavoidable truth is that a lot of the world still thinks if you’re getting tested, you’re a dirty slag with no morals or scruples. A girl I knew informed her boyfriend she was getting tested as ‘moral support’ for a friend who didn’t want to go alone and he got all uppity. Apparently he felt like she was insulting him because going to the clinic meant all his friends would think she’d been cheating on him, and this would make him feel like less of a man. As you can imagine, I was terribly sensitive and understanding of his feelings when she told me this story later that week (I definitely didn’t say he’d be more suited to living in the 19th century where tiny-bollocked slut shaming misogynists like him would fit in better) but it did remind me that not everyone is quite as liberal as myself when it comes to getting your GUM on. Some people still think heading out to get swabbed from your mouth as well as plenty of other places means you’re definitely riddled with disease.
It’s a belief that barely has a dribble of truth in it. I mean, sure, if you’re visiting the STI clinic you’re probably not a nun, but there’s nothing wrong with being sexually liberated AND well educated about your own health. In 2010, a boom in STDs amongst OAPs hit the headlines (just let that mental image roll around in your head for a minute) because the horny grannies and grandpas weren’t taking any precautions when it came to safe sex. A mature and responsible attitude to safe sex combined with good habits about checking your own status is something that will see you well for a lifetime, not just one lost weekend in Berlin.
We never actually got tested that day, my ex and I. When we arrived at the clinic, it turned out he’d fucked up on the dates and it wasn’t the walk-in clinic that Thursday. In retrospect, it was probably for the best. You always get the hottest men in the waiting room there and I do so love a gamble.