Q & A

A Lover Has Syphilis: Should I Get Checked?

Couple Flirting in their Underwear

Dear Jamie,

I’m in a network of open relationships, rather than a polycule. I always use a condom, even with my closest lovers, because of these open doors. We occasionally engage in threesomes or moresomes and practically speaking, that includes some same-sex action even for those who don’t identify as bisexual.

A regular partner of one of my lovers went for a check-up and found out that he has syphilis! She is going to be tested, and wants all of her lovers to get tests.

I honestly had no idea that syphilis is a concern. I keep on watch for sores and warts, fearing herpes and knowing HPV is very common, and thought the other big ones were chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HIV. I thought syphilis was a disease from Europe in the past and that it had been eradicated by vaccines and medications.

I don’t really want to explain to my doctor why I need a syphilis test. He’s a little old-fashioned and thinks monogamy is healthier than polyamory, and I’ll get a lecture for sure. Since I’m using rubbers for everyone, I don’t think I have it, and I don’t see any sores or marks on my penis.

What should I do? – Gavin

Gavin, I think you know what you should do but don’t want to face it.

You should go and get tested pronto.

Syphilis is a very dangerous disease that doesn’t always show, or may show where the sun doesn’t shine.

If treated early, it is easy to clear and won’t damage you. If left on its own, it is disfiguring, maddening, and deadly.

If your doctor is not open-minded, go to a sexual-health clinic or a walk-in and see someone else. Your doctor may have his or her own views on what is healthy, but he or she still has to do his job and likely will do the test. Tell them you don’t want a lecture, just the results. If you really don’t get along with your doctor, go somewhere else for this issue and then start looking for a new doctor. It’s too important to gloss over.

No one wants to talk about STIs. Sex feels healthy and pleasurable, and we don’t want to drag our positive vibes into the mud. There is also an old, deep fear inside some of us that disease is a result of a “sin” or bad behavior, and it can feel like terrifying confirmation to hear about a sexually transmitted infection.

Whenever this thinking comes up, we have to squash it away in the light of rationality and science. An infection is a physical condition that happens when viruses or germs are transmitted, not a punishment for having an orgasm, or giving one! When we catch a cold at the library, we don’t think we are being punished for reading.

Not everyone harbors secret guilt or shame. Some of us just don’t want to deal with the hassle and if we feel fine, talking about bacteria and sores is just plain icky and not very sexy.

We have to get over these things and be practical about our health. The very fact that many of us think syphilis is a disease of the Belle Epoch era shows we aren’t informing ourselves as much as we should!

Syphilis is a serious disease with a complex trajectory. There are multiple levels of the infection—primary, secondary, tertiary, latent, asymptomatic, and more. The first signs are usually a sore around the genitals, called chancres. There may be no sign, however, or the sore may have an appearance like a pimple, wart, or ingrown hair. The sores are often on a woman’s cervix or around or inside a man’s anus, so they will go unnoticed.

The bacteria that causes syphilis can be treated easily in early stages with antibiotics. Without treatment, it can spread to a rash all over the body or on any body parts, including the hands, pustules covering the back, and anywhere. It can also cause inflammatory growths under the skin, including the face, and open sores, leading to physical deformities and disfiguration.

One reason we think of syphilis as an old disease is because we see portraits from the 1800s that show these conditions and we seldom see them now. That is because today we can usually treat the infection before it goes that far.

Syphilis is also associated with insanity, because the infection can spread to your brain. This is also rare in the modern world because treatment prevents the disease from moving too far.

You can also be born with syphilis, as pregnant women often pass the disease to their unborn child.

Syphilis is ultimately deadly, and can be a slow and agonizing death as the bacteria invades different body parts. But again, death is rare in the modern world due to medical advancements and treatments.

Syphilis spread is reduced by condom use, but any skin-to skin-contact, including touching, oral sex, manual sex, anal sex, and sex with condoms, is a risk. It is important for polyamorous people, and anyone who is sexually active and not monogamous or not sure their partner is, to routinely test for all STIs.

Infection is quite common with more than 100 000 reported in the USA each year. About half of these are among men who sleep with men (whether or not they identify as gay or bisexual). All people who are sexually active are at risk and should be aware of the basic facts and get tested regularly.

Do you have any advice from your own experience? Please share!

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