5 min

Why do we stigmatize STIs like syphilis, but accept other illnesses as normal?

The flu is a pain. Aunt Phyllis is just an inconvenience

Kevin Moroso’s syphilis was successfully treated with two long needles at the Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver. Credit: Indiana Joel/Daily Xtra

I hadn’t been feeling well all morning. I sat at my desk at work, feeling nauseated. Every 30 minutes I needed to run to the bathroom. But I was sure it was only momentary, nothing serious.

At lunch, I met up with some coworkers and we headed to the cafeteria. As I sat down with my tray, one of my coworkers said I didn’t look so great. I was pale, sweating, and my eyes were glossed over. Whatever it was, I needed to get out of there. I went back to my desk and told my boss I needed to go home.

As I left the building, the vomiting began — all over the front lawn. For the next two days, this was my life. Even after the symptoms ended, the dehydration left me exhausted for several days more.

It was norovirus. A highly contagious virus I could have caught anywhere — from dining out, from the bus, or just about anyplace else. And no, I didn’t catch it from sex.

Norovirus is an illness I don’t want to get again, though it’s likely I will. We get all sorts of illnesses throughout our lives — many regularly. Norovirus left me unable to go to work or be meaningfully productive; so too does the common cold at times. Illness is a consequence of living. Yet we stigmatize some illnesses, and accept others as normal.

One day, a couple of years ago, I lay on my sofa watching porn. I lay there naked, stroking my cock. As I worked my hand up and down my shaft, I noticed something strange. There was some sort of sore on it. At first I thought I might have been getting too much action. Had I fucked or jerked my dick to the point of abrasion?

Then I remembered something. I paused the porn, opened Google, and did a search. As I scrolled through the pictures I realized this sore could be something else: a chancre — a symptom of primary stage syphilis.

Aunt Phyllis had never paid me a visit before. However, I was aware of her. Considering how sexually active I am, I knew it was only a matter of time before I caught it. I’d already had gonorrhea and chlamydia several times, so it was time I pulled a hat trick.

Fortunately, I had already booked a regular appointment at the HIM clinic for the following day — I go every two months to get tested for HIV, syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia.

I got the ever-gorgeous Nurse Alex as usual. His milky smooth skin, dark hair, soothing and soft voice, and emotional detachment always made me enjoy my visits. I told him I’d spotted a sore on my dick and was concerned I could have syphilis. He told me to drop my trousers, which I dutifully did. He grabbed the head of my penis and stretched it out. Hmmmmm, yes, this could be syphilis.

He grabbed a swab, wiped it around the sore, then broke it off into a plastic container. Next, he took my usual blood and urine samples. He told me he guessed there was a fifty-fifty chance it was syphilis. Otherwise, it was just a sore from too much friction.

I cancelled all my dates for the upcoming week, just in case. This wasn’t something I wanted to spread. Not only is that unethical, but I know others aren’t so diligent with their testing. I’m lucky I’m mostly a top — a sore is easy to spot on your dick but not so easy in your ass (or mouth).

Four days later, I got a call from Alex. The test had come back positive for syphilis.

I was actually kind of relieved. I had known this moment would come someday, so I was glad I no longer had to wait in dread. Syphilis was the one I’d feared the most, for a number of reasons. I wasn’t too worried about HIV — I was on PrEP, and I knew lots of people living with HIV. Syphilis, however, has an almost mythical quality to it due to its history of driving people mad.

He gave me some treatment options that would fit around my work. One was to go to the bathhouse Friday night to see a nurse there. The other was to go to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) clinic on Saturday morning. I liked the idea of getting treated at the bathhouse but, unfortunately, that nurse called in sick, so I was pushed back to the CDC clinic on Saturday.

As I sat in the waiting area, I noticed a cute guy sitting across from me who I recognized from Scruff. Damn, I could’ve asked him out but, ya know, syphilis. Eventually, my name was called and I accompanied an older female nurse down the hall.

She asked me a few standard questions and got a colleague to join her to help with the procedure — two long needles, one in each upper ass cheek. They would do it simultaneously to minimize the pain. I laid ass up on the bed as the thick fluid was injected into my ass. I got up, they reminded me not to have sex for two weeks, and I left.

I headed down the hill to my favourite noodle house, since I was in the neighbourhood. I walked in and saw my friend Steve sitting there. He waved and asked me to join him. As I sat down, I muttered, “Ow.”

“Syphilis shot?” he asked.

“Yep, how did you know?” I replied.

“Cuz we’re two blocks from the CDC and I always come here after I visit the clinic too,” he said.

Steve has much the same attitude as I do about sex. Free-spirited, debaucherous, accepting of risk. I was glad I ran into him, since sometimes I think my views are too far outside the norm and need a little confirmation bias.

I went without sex for the next two weeks. It was the longest I’d abstained in over a year. I lined up my dates for when my penile quarantine ended and I went back to living and having sex just as I had before.

My strategy worked. Frequent testing and treatment when needed prevented any of these STIs from ever becoming a serious issue. Gonorrhea? Take a couple of pills and it goes in a week. Syphilis? Get a couple of shots in the ass and it goes in two weeks. Furthermore, they had no impact on my quality of life. Okay, the no sex does affect my quality of life, but I could still go to work, hang out with friends, go to the gym and eat normally.

And yet, we freak out about STIs. Many guys feel dirty. We worry about notifying our partners and the reactions we might receive.

And we do whatever we can to avoid getting one, to the point of obsessing over STI prevention. It comes down to the shame we feel around sex. But I’m not going to play that game. I’m not going to freak out about getting an STI — I’m going to just shrug my shoulders and get the treatment.

I’m not going to do everything possible to avoid them; I’m going to accept them as natural, minor inconveniences associated with enjoying the sex for which our bodies are intended.

As for norovirus, however, I’m going to avoid that like the plague.