Why Didn't We Learn About UTIs In Sex Ed?

If you are a lady who has sex, you probably know how to deal with urinary tract infections. But chances are, you didn't learn that in sex ed.

Or at least, I didn't. Even though I went to public school in Los Angeles, my sex ed was solidly of the fire-and-brimstone variety. We're talking lots of slideshows of late-stage syphilis. Lots of emphasis on abstinence (though we did also have a condom demo one time). A lady who told us every time you have sex with someone, it's like putting a giant piece of duct tape on your arm and then ripping it off. I definitely learned a lot about sexually transmitted infections, but I learned hardly anything about a type of infection that's related to sex but not actually sexually transmitted: the dreaded UTI.

Result: I knew all about testing and birth control and protection when I started sexing, but I knew nothing about the feeling that sometimes came after — the feeling that if I didn't pee right away I was going to die, but then when I did pee it felt like I was dying, and I had to go again right away anyway. Those in the know will recognize these as classic UTI symptoms, but I just thought they were anxiety — for years. Miraculously I managed to avoid a serious kidney infection (which can happen, kids, if you don't get your UTIs treated promptly) — I think the infection was usually low-grade enough that it went away on its own after copious drinking of water, which I discovered on my own as a home remedy. But sometimes this took weeks of misery — and though I had regular gyno checkups, I never thought to ask about it.

It wasn't until graduate school that I met a woman who complained about frequent UTIs after sex. My first thought was, I'm so lucky I don't have that problem. Then I thought, waaaaait a minute. The next time sex me feel like death, I went to my doctor and got some antibiotics. Magic! I did not feel miserable! I did not have to lie around slugging water for weeks and feeling like my bladder was trying to push itself out of my body! Sure, getting the drugs can be kind of a pain, and they made me feel a little nauseous, but they were totally worth it — a lesson I should've learned long ago.

I think my school didn't cover urinary tract infections in our many presentations on sex ed because none of these presentations was really about giving practical advice for a happy, healthy sex life. With the exception of the condom demo and a few others, they were mostly about convincing us not to have sex until some vaguely defined point in the future. Sometimes this point was marriage, and in one video I remember it was a "committed, monogamous relationship," but mostly it seemed to just be "later" — some time to come when we would be "ready," until which we were "waiting" (one big campaign my school took part in had the slogan, "I'm worth waiting for"). And when "later" came, we were missing a lot of information.

We did learn how to reduce our risk of pregnancy and STDs, which I'm aware isn't the case for every teen, and for which I'm very grateful. But beyond minimizing the most serious consequences, we didn't learn much else about sex. UTIs weren't the only blind spot. The only thing I remember learning about yeast infections, for instance, was that they could spread from towels (a word on cotton underwear and the avoidance of wet bathing suits would've been way more helpful). And on a more emotional level, we never learned anything about how to decide if we were ready for sex or how to communicate with a partner when we were. Basically sex was treated as a catastrophe for which we were given a bit of emergency prep (the aforementioned condom advice), rather than a normal practice we'd most likely engage in someday.

Like I said, the sex ed I got in school could've been a lot worse. But still, here's (some of) what I wish somebody had taught me: always pee after sex. If you feel like you have to pee every second, and/or it hurts to pee, go to the doctor! He or she might be able to give you some medicine that will help. In the meantime, drink lots of water and cranberry juice, or take cranberry pills. And relax — this happens to a lot of women. Oh, and for dudes: this happens to a lot of women. Do not treat it as disgusting, frightening, or hilarious. You aren't going to get it from her, and she likely didn't get it from you (UTIs are often caused by bacteria already in or on a woman's body). It's not weird. It's not gross. Now you know. You're welcome.

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