Few things strike fear into the heart of a person like the thought of having a sexually transmitted disease. An unfamiliar bump or strange rash, that little sting, the uncomfortable itch, that weird smell… these can ignite anxiety like nothing else. If you have ever found yourself frantically poking around on WedMD or image searching “herpes,” I would like to take a moment to describe for you the process of getting checked here in Reykjavík. Consider it a pubic service announcement. Heh.
Though I am not at high risk for an STD, I had an angry itch between my legs that recently got annoying enough for me to swallow my pride and pay a visit to the Landspítali clinic at Fossvogur, where the people of Reykjavík get their STD testing done (don’t worry, Mom, everything is fine). Even though it’s embarrassing to talk about—and wildly unsexy—I am a firm believer that everyone who has sex should be prepared to go through STD testing, and I act on that belief. Especially when my vulva is so itchy I can’t sleep. Or focus. Or think about anything other than how to make it stop.
Read on to learn more, but in case you’re in a hurry here’s my main takeaway: Given the record-setting rate of chlamydia infections in this city and the relatively frisky population, I was shocked to find that whoever’s responsible is not doing more to make testing easy, accessible, and routine in Iceland.
The Reykjavík Handshake
When it comes to sexually transmitted infections, the one you’re most likely to pick up in Reykjavík is chlamydia, by far. Iceland has had the highest rate of chlamydia infection in Europe for the past decade, an accomplishment that lead the condition to be nicknamed the “Reykjavík handshake.”
Chlamydia is a tricky little bugger. It doesn’t always have symptoms, so a person may be infected for years and not know it. In that time, the infection can pass to other people, who in turn might not know, who then go on to pass it along to someone else…and that sexy snowball just keeps on rolling.
The good news is that chlamydia is curable with antibiotics, and can be easily prevented by using condoms. The bad news is that it can cause infertility if not treated early enough, which is seriously shitty. All the same, reported rates of chlamydia infection in 2014 were increased 14% from two years earlier. So, short of an epic testing and sexual health education revolution, this issue doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.
The Ultimate Walk Of Shame
The STD clinic is not located in Landspítali’s main building at Fossvogur. Regular sick people who need the emergency room, or outpatient care, or stitches after a drunken brawl, can enter from the front. If your junk is sick, however, you go around the back of the main hospital with all the other sinners and promiscuous people who make bad decisions, like you do. It’s the slut’s entrance, if you will.
This alternative entrance may have come about intentionally, because it is more discrete. Or because the clinic was added as an afterthought. Or maybe it was to save money? Maybe all those things. Once you walk to the back of the building, far across the parking lot, you can see a small forgotten one story building in the distance. I thought I saw buzzards circling and an ominous storm cloud above it. Is that a dog barking in the background?
As I hike toward the building, my shoes crunch on the gravel of the parking lot. I look down and try not to get noticed. This is Iceland after all, and chances are very high that I will see someone I know.
When I arrive at the little building, I wonder if I am in the right place. The house is small, and in the windows I see construction supplies, paint, saws, timber and the like. The sign outside said “göngudeild,” but the clinic apparently shares its space with the hospital’s maintenance department. That’s odd.
I press on, wondering how disturbing it would be to hear a table saw coming from the other room while my feet were up in stirrups during a pelvic exam. I learn that “walk-in” clinic does not mean what it does where I come from. The tired, irritated woman at the front desk tells me that I can have an appointment four days later.
The fire between my legs gives me strength. Even though it is immensely painful, I am grateful for my discomfort, as it fortifies me to refuse to put up with anyone’s bullshit. No, I will not wait four days. I need to see someone now. Immediately. My eyes burn into hers. I am absolutely not to be fucked with at this moment (poor lady). She reluctantly tells me to sit in the waiting room, that she’ll try and squeeze me in. I take a number and sat down, triumphant. I make a mental note to call ahead next time.
There are a few people in the waiting room, but it is not busy. All of us look at our phones and make absolutely zero eye contact. We all deeply wish to be elsewhere. In a Thai prison. In Siberia, with no food or shelter. At a Nickelback concert. Anywhere else.
The nurses and doctor I speak with are nothing short of wonderful. After the doctor examines me, she looks me squarely in the eye and says those words I so desperately need to hear, “We are going to make you better.” She informs me that I likely do not have herpes (which I could have told you after my extensive image search) but she orders a bunch of tests anyway. Did you know that you can get eczema on your pussy? Because I didn’t. Apparently, you can also get a yeast infection at the same time, which is double uncool.
She prescribes a super-steroid, and I wonder silently if my pussy on steroids will bulk up like a body builder or the Incredible Hulk (Pussy SMASH!). I walk out with a little spring in my step and a plan of action in hand. I will get better! And of course, all the tests were free of charge. Thank you, socialized medicine!
Getting an STD test is stressful, not only because you are worried about your own health, but because you are worried for your previous partners. Your brain starts playing out the awkward phone calls to people you’ll have to tell. It’s 2015, don’t we have an app for that yet? Like, reverse Tinder? Rednit? If your test is positive, Rednit could just send an anonymous message to the people you have slept with to let them know they should get checked (this is why they don’t ask me to develop apps). On top of stress for yourself and former partners, you can add anxiety about how you will explain your situation to future partners. To put a word on it, the whole scenario sucks.
In an ideal world, getting an STD test should be a stigma-free, regular event for most people. From a public health standpoint, it would pay off to make this an easy and comfortable process. There could be champagne and chocolate covered strawberries and luscious robes and one of those little rock fountains in the corner. OK, maybe that’s going too far. But at least there should be more clinics, and they should be easier to get to. My main concern after experiencing the Ultimate Walk Of Shame to the existing one at Fossvogur is that people will go there once and not want to go back. People may wait for that itch or bump to get really serious before making the hike again. It feels shameful, but it shouldn’t.
We have a puffin shop every five metres in Reykjavík. Would it be so awful to convert one of those to a real, state of the art walk-in STD clinic? We could show all the tourists how serious we are about our health and combating the “Reykjavík Handshake” epidemic. We could pass out condoms on Friday and Saturday nights.
Until then, I hope you walk proudly to the small hidden building at the back of Fossvogur. If you have never been tested, you should. Make an appointment. Don’t be shy. The people there are friendly. Sex is fun, and this is just a part of doing it right. Have fun kids, and wrap it up.