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Checking up on your sexual health

Mon 15 Jan 2007 In: Living Well View at Wayback View at NDHA

Christopher Cooke When a car is ten years old you realise that to keep it running, you have to do a bit more maintenance. Having recently turned forty, I realised that the same principle applies to my own chassis: touching up the paintwork and keeping the panels polished won't hide any serious faults with the motor. I drew up a list of things to do: check-up with my GP, dentist for x-rays and cleaning, dermatologist to check moles. I got the free patches from Quitline, cut down on alcohol, gave up coffee and started swimming and running. In the midst of this novel interest in my own health I found myself reading about an outbreak of syphilis in Wellington. Worse, it's a disease that can have no obvious symptoms beyond a faint skin rash. I hate that kind of disease; at least with honest diseases like gangrene it's pretty obvious that there is a problem and you can take action before your foot falls off. As I haven't been to Wellington for years and am in a monogamous relationship, the chances of having syphilis are very slim; but I have had my share of sex in the past 20 years and want a clean bill of health. So why do I feel embarrassed about making an appointment at the Sexual Health Clinic? Ringing the dentist or the dermatologist incurred no shame whatsoever. Is there really anything worse about having a STD than, say, athlete's foot? Yes, you got it because of poor judgement and carelessness, but I can't imagine someone red-faced mumbling to the receptionist that they got foot rot as a result of unsafe sox and need to see the doctor. The Sexual Health Clinic – I went to the one in Greenlane – makes it all seem as mundane and routine as having your gums checked. I imagined a waiting room of people wearing dark glasses with clever pseudonyms: “Would you come this way now, Mr... Skywalker,” or “We're ready for you now, Ms Hilton.” Instead, it's full of singles and couples of both sexes flipping through the colourful and simply-written pamphlets on gonorrhoea and chlamydia, who are not, by the way, one bad and the good daughter of King Lear. My mother was probably the last woman to see me naked, but the chatty and caring nurse made the experience less embarrassing than I had imagined. She worked through her list of questions and I began to feel like a failed homosexual. How many sexual partners in the last twelve months? 1. Ever been paid to have sex? No. Which makes me worry why nobody has offered. No tattoos, no piercing. And can you show me a diagram of that position because it's new to me. I feel like I need to do some kind of weekend refresher course before I get kicked out of the club. The examination involved swabs going places not often explored and was uncomfortable but not painful. Blood tests, urine tests. She pushed and prodded and showed about as much curiosity in my body as a butcher to a slab of pork. I loved her, wanted to take her home and make her tea. She was like one of my mother's funkier friends. I asked what would happen if any of these tests came back positive. The good news was that, apart from HIV, almost all of the other conditions could be easily treated with a pill or a jab. I must confess that I didn't know this. I thought that most STDs lead to deformed Hanoverian-looking children and essential pieces of anatomy eventually stopping working or falling off. The nurse told me that the tests would come back in about a week and if they didn't call it meant that everything was fine. I hate that kind of system. I always worry that maybe I have something terminal but the receptionist forgot to call. It's like sitting at home after a great date wanting for the phone to ring: only the opposite. They didn't ring, so I rang them. The nurse went through the list and everything was fine. I decided to have the free Hep B shots, because it's free and Hep B sounds really nasty. The cleverness of the Sexual Health Clinic is that they couldn't give a damn who you are or what you've done; they just want to help you get better. This might be the result of intense training sessions: “Whatever you do, don't show surprise or pass judgement on the patients.” “Yeah, I hear you, but what if they're like really, really slutty and have herpes like everywhere?” “Remember that they are all just regular, taxpaying citizens like us.” (Mumbled in a low voice) “Mmmph. Just getting more action than I am.” The Sexual Health Clinic – isn't the name itself so positive? - makes the whole business seem so, well, clinical. The staff are wonderfully non-judgemental, friendly and caring; just as health workers should be. It's the kind of examination that could become as routine as a teeth cleaning. Let's face it: gay men often have many partners, STDs exist and can cause permanent damage. A lot of us seem more interested in the bodywork – hair removal and body-building – than looking under the bonnet. The good news is that free diagnosis and treatment is readily available. Speaking to friends about my experience, I was surprised how few knew about the services the Sexual Health Clinic provide. The Clinic's appointment schedule is – probably a bad sign – pretty flexible and my appointment was only 20 minutes late. Apparently they get a lot of complaints about the waiting times, but seriously, it's a hospital not McDonald's. Besides, it gives you time to flick through those pamphlets in the waiting room and to play, “Guess what the others are in here for”. So, a big thank you to the Sexual Health Clinic. You've let me tick that last box on the Warrant of Fitness form for my forty-year-old body and sent me racing along the motorway of life. Christopher Cooke - 15th January 2007    

Credit: Christopher Cooke

First published: Monday, 15th January 2007 - 12:00pm

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