Compassion and STI Testing

Messages about the importance of testing for sexually-transmitted infections are all around. I agree with the importance of that testing. However, often when talking about testing, people fail to adequately consider the very real impact of testing on our feelings and how to approach that compassionately. Approaching testing with compassion is a hard-won love skill for me.

Why do I say compassion. Well' let's take a look at what happens when you ask someone to get tested. You're asking them to take a risk. Probably they will learn that there's no concerns identified by the tests. In some cases this might be a relief, but often people are nervous and worried when seeking medical tests. People are typically frightened when they think about learning they have a STI. How will it affect their sex life, and the rest of their life? What will the people who care about them think?

I've been there multiple times when someone told me that they found an unexpected problem as a result of tests I asked them to get. They were frightened thinking about how I would respond. My first reaction was to think about my own feelings. How do these results affect what I'm willing to do with them. I typically feel relief that I asked for testing, along with fear thinking of how easy it would be to choose a different strategy.

However if I've asked someone about their test results, it's because I care about them enough to be more physically open with them. It's easy to forget them in the moment, but they are there hurting and worried and very vulnerable as they tell me test results. Over time it has gotten much easier to focus on their feelings and needs and show them empathy. I try very hard when people ar reporting results to focus on them. I'll have plenty of time for my reactions, but in the moment when they are reporting their results to me is an excellent time to honor and respect the risk they have taken at my request. I can offer a reminder that an infection is not a judgment about them. They are not bad because they have a medical condition. They are still desirable and valuable; they love, and are loved; they are love.

Reporting results is the most obvious place for compassion, but there is room for compassion throughout the process. There's wide variability in what tests people consider important and in how often people test. Some doctors are really reluctant to order certain tests (HSV especially comes to mind). It's hard to ask someone to go out of their way to get some test that their doctor doesn't seem to think is necessary. I don't like to be difficult. However I need to live in integrity, and I need to do what is necessary to feel medically safe. Sometimes that involves asking others to take tests. I can try and explain my feelings. It is really wonderful when my lover shows understanding and is supportive of my needs in this area.

Safe sex practices are about responding to our needs for safety; there is no right answer. There's no right answer. Sometimes medical knowledge can inform things and sometimes when someone understands new information it changes what they are comfortable with. Medical facts and probabilities are only one factor that informs our comfort; often no matter how much data you present to someone, their feelings remain. It's not a group decision; each of us needs what we individually need to feel safe. The question is what can we find in the overlap while respecting each others' needs. Also, of course the importance of handling situations when we're not comfortable with something that our lover wants with compassion. They aren't wrong for wanting it; we aren't wrong for being uncomfortable. This one is hard; I've found that even in the best relationships, there's some sadness and frustration when one person's needs for physical safety don't match another's desires.

In conclusion, I've found it very valuable to think about the human side of testing as well as what I want medically. I try to be supportive and think of my lovers' feelings throughout the process. I try to be strong and own my own needs, while making it clear that conflicts with those needs are a judgment of no one. I hope that you'll give compassion some thought the next time you approach a conversation about testing.