The first time I had sex with a man, I spent three weeks convinced I was pregnant even though we had used a condom. That anxiety came from years of abstinence training and church talk about the risks of sexual sin. I just could not imagine that latex protection was enough to save me from teen pregnancy or that latex would keep God from punishing me with every sexually transmitted disease for not waiting until I was married.
Despite the anxiety that I was pregnant or had multiple diseases, it was even scarier to think about going to the doctor for testing. I grew up in a small rural town in Oklahoma with no medical offices. The IHS clinic was nearly an hour away. I did not have a car. There were county clinics that were closer, but they would require a payment I could not make, on top of the gas money and finding a ride. Plus, many people from my hometown worked in those offices and at the hospital – the gossip would be swift. Assuming the worst and never having sex again seemed much easier than dealing with any of that.
It took some time for my opinion to change. I went to college, had better access to health services, and learned about sexual self-care. Then I became friends with several people living with sexually transmitted infections. Their stories and backgrounds vary. Finding out how many of them were infected made me stop believing that STIs were punishment from God. Friends with herpes taught me how unprotected oral sex or kissing can lead to uncomfortable outbreaks. My friends with HIV taught me how regular testing had kept them from acquiring AIDS. They showed me each day how important preventative care can be.
I am so grateful for the people who talked to me about their experiences when I was younger and for their friendships. It is because of them that I am tested regularly, which everyone who is sexually active should do. Some things are not easy to talk about, like sexually transmitted infections, HIV testing and having a positive STI, HIV or AIDS status. They talked about those things because they cared about me. I remember wishing I had had friendships like that when I was younger. It would have made so many things easier when I was growing up.
Talking about these things in small communities and rural tribal lands can be difficult. Not everyone knows how to talk about sex in a healthy way. It is often hard to do the unsexy sex talk with romantic partners too. It can be awkward to address your concerns, especially in your earliest sexual encounters. This is understandable, but practicing self-care and safe sex are essential. Talking is the only way to ensure that happens. The nice thing is that talking about important sex stuff is easier the more you practice. The more you talk honestly about sex and use healthy sexual practices, the more normal it feels.
Being tested regularly is a big part of sexual self-care. In Oklahoma County, the rate of Natives diagnosed with HIV or AIDS nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013. And, because we are often slow about getting tested, Natives rank second in the number of people who die from AIDS. There is no reason for our people to die from AIDS these days, especially when giving a little blood a couple times a year is all it takes to prevent it.
The number of Natives dying from AIDS will change if we help change it. HIV is treatable and early detection saves lives. Knowing your status is more important than the gas money it takes to get to the clinic or any negative responses from ignorant people that may come. It is often easier to get used to going for HIV testing as a group for support, so grab your friends and siblings to come along. This is one way you can show your community members how much you care about each other while making honest talk about sex less stigmatized.