The Health Education Authority's ideal is a sexually healthy nation that regards a regular trip to the GUM clinic as being as normal as going to the dentist. As a journalist I thought I would test this theory out. Would it be an ordeal?
The check-up was to test for infections such as chlamydia, non-specific urethritis (NSU), gonorrhoea and syphilis. The male organs are daily bread and butter for the GUM clinic's doctors and nurses. I was just one of half a million clients seen throughout the country every year.
But knowing I was to have my private parts examined and that I would be quizzed about my sex life still felt like an embarrassing ordeal. A wave of shyness and anxiety rolled over me as I stepped through the door. The receptionist looked sympathetic.
"No appointment is necessary, just take a seat and fill in the form," he said calmly. He also assured me that all information on the registration form, held on computer, is treated confidentially and that if worried, I could use a false name. The only way I would be identified was by the reference number on my card.
Having decided on the name Roy Short for my registration form, and clutching my numbered but nameless card, I entered the waiting room. Four men and three women sat there, digesting DIY and gardening magazines. I picked up a leaflet about genito-urinary infections. Chlamydia, I read, is a bacteria that infects the genitals, and sometimes the eyes and throat. It is usually passed on during sex with a new partner. You can't get it from a swimming pool or a toilet seat, nor from a cuddle or pecked kiss. Sometimes there are no symptoms. As I read, Billy Holiday singing "Good Morning, Heartache" was being piped through the speakers in the roof.
We all pretended to be totally uninterested in each other. But I couldn't stop myself wondering about the others. What did they have? How had they got it? Were they married? Ashamed by my thoughts, I persevered with the leaflet.
A female doctor in a white coat breezed into the room. She looked at the waiting men.
"Is Roy Short here?"
We all looked at each other. Who? For a few seconds my new identity escaped me.
"Sorry, that's me," I blurted.
She smiled a neutral smile and led me into the consulting room. She began writing notes in a purple file. She explained that fluid from my urethra would be collected by swabs to test for gonorrhoea, chlamydia and NSU. A urine sample would also be taken, and a blood sample would be needed to check for syphilis, a disease I had always associated with the ravaged poor in Victorian London; one that began with a painless sore on the penis and could end with lasting damage to the brain, heart and other organs. Fortunately, it is rare nowadays.
I was assured that none of the tests would be painful.
Next on the agenda were questions about my sex life. When did I last have sex? Was it with a regular partner? When did I last have sex with someone other than my regular partner? Do I use a condom? Strangely enough I did not feel coy about giving the answers, which were entered into the purple file.
"Thank you," said the doctor. "Now, drop your trousers and pants, please. I need to take a look at you." This was the worst moment so far: instantly, I felt like a little boy facing the school nurse. She put on disposable surgical gloves as I fumbled nervously with my flies.
I need not have worried: the examination was both gentle and diplomatic. "Any tenderness there? Any pain?" She asked me to pull back the foreskin. "Looks fine, a bit dry. OK. Get dressed. Go and wait next door."
In the adjoining room was a couch and a trolley laden with swabs, syringes, cotton wool and a dispenser for the obligatory surgical gloves. My purple file lay open on the side of the trolley: I tried vainly to read it upside down. As I went to turn it round, the nurse opened the door. I muttered some excuse for trying to see the file.
"Don't worry," she said. "It's your file, after all. If you have any questions, just ask one of us to help."
Again I was asked to drop trousers and underwear. I nervously complied with her request to pull back the foreskin and open my penis. The first swab, for gonorrhoea, was removed from its wrapping: a long piece of wire with a cotton wool bud, it was wiped over and inside the penis. Uncomfortable, but not painful. Untreated, said the nurse, gonorrhoea can lead to painful swelling of the testes or a narrowing of the urinary passage. It causes a white or yellow discharge.
The second swab test was for chlamydia; the nurse said it entailed the bud going two centimetres inside. I felt even more nervous. The nurse encouraged me to widen my urethra opening and in went the tip. It felt ticklish, then uncomfortable and a little painful. The tip was pulled out: I was grateful for her permission to retrieve my underpants.
The swabs would be immediately examined under a microscope: if there were any sign of infection, treatment would be started immediately.
Zipped and trousered, I was then given a blood test for syphilis and finally sent to the loo with a plastic cup to provide a urine sample. Ten minutes later I was summoned back in to the doctor, who gave me the all clear; 10 days later the results were confirmed.
My trip to the GUM clinic had been less shameful and less painful than I had feared. But these clinics still carry a stigma, which can put people off getting checked and which can, in turn, prevent the early diagnosis and treatment of sexual disease.Reuse content