General ignorance surrounding the sexual health of lesbian and bi women has enabled the myth that women who have sex with women can’t or don’t catch sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Unfortunately, this is not true.
This misconception, alongside fear, embarrassment and stigma, means that many women who have sex with women have never had a sexual health check, or that if they have, it’s not a regular event. But of those women who have sex with women that did attend a sexual health (or GUM) clinic in 2012, 40% of them received a diagnosis compared to 18% of women who had sex with men. This indicates that many of the women who are making the trip are doing so because they have noticeable symptoms, rather than having routine check-ups.
For many STIs, early diagnosis means that treatment is straightforward and there are unlikely to be long-lasting consequences. But if left untreated, some STIs become more difficult to remedy and could have a negative impact on your long-term health and fertility. Click here for more information on STIs.
But before you sweat, there’s an easy alternative… practice safer sex and get checked regularly. Ideally after every new partner, get down to your local sexual health (GUM) clinic or GP and ask for a sexual health screening. With the sexual health clinic you may be able to call ahead and book an appointment, but if not you’ll be asked to turn up, potentially first thing in the morning, to the “walk in” clinic. With the GP, just tell the receptionist you’re after a sexual health check, although some may not offer this service.
Once you’re there it’s straightforward and confidential; there are no age restrictions at a sexual health clinic and no judgment. They will ask for your name and contact details and, according to the NHS, it’s ok if you want to give a fake name, just ensure your other details are correct incase you have to wait for results. You can also request a doctor or nurse of a specific gender if you would prefer, although you may have to wait a little longer if so.
The doctor or nurse will ask you about your medical history and whether you’re currently taking any medication. You may also be asked about drinking, smoking and drug use. You’ll then be asked some sexual history questions such as when you last had sex, whether it was unprotected and whether you have any symptoms. Be clear about your sexual orientation and the gender of your partners. Although this should not happen, a lack of training and understanding towards LGBTQ sexual health means that some health professionals still make assumptions.
It’s likely that they will take a urine and blood sample as well as a vaginal swab. At some clinics you’ll be asked to take the swab yourself, in other settings a nurse or doctor will do this for you. These will be tested for STIs such as Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Thrush, Bacterial Vaginosis (BV), Syphilis and HIV. However some infections common among lesbian and bisexual women, such as herpes and genital warts, may require an examination to look for lesions. If you have any symptoms, such as unusual discharge, pain during sex, lower abdominal pain, bleeding, lesions or sores, make sure you tell the doctor or nurse. If you are due a cervical screening (smear test) you may also be offered this (it’s important that lesbian and bisexual women have cervical screening too – find out more here).
When your tests are done, you may receive results on the day, however don’t worry if not, they can take up to two weeks. The person treating with you should inform you how you will find out your results – this may be by letter, phone, email or text.
If it turns out that you have a sexually transmitted infection, you’re encouraged to tell your previous partners. That, of course, can be a difficult ordeal so some sexual health clinics offer a service that contacts them for you anonymously. You will also be asked to return to the clinic for treatment. Most STIs can be treated easily with antibiotics and/or creams; warts may require freezing and HIV cannot be cured but can be managed.
All in all, although getting tested may seem scary or uncomfortable, the benefits of being proactive about your sexual health status, and keeping yourself and your partners safe, far outweigh any awkwardness.
LGBT Foundation does not current offer a sexual health clinic for lesbian and bisexual women but we can offer testing through a nearby GP surgery in central Manchester – you don’t have to be registered with the surgery for this service. Call us on 0345 3 30 30 30 or email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out more. Alternatively, go to the NHS Choices website to find your nearest clinic. For psychological support regarding sexual health issues, LGBT Foundation offers counselling, including psychosexual counselling, call 0345 3 30 30 30 for more information.