The City of Ottawa is officially into watersports! Our public health department has been making friends with the University Of Ottawa and the two local bathhouses in one of the most innovative sexually transmitted infection (STI) testing pilot programs ever seen in this country — and all they want is your pee.
In a move taken to thwart the rising rates of STIs among gay men in the city, the collaboration aims to allow men to test themselves for chlamydia and gonorrhea with a pre-packaged kit picked up at Steamworks or Club Ottawa and then return it to the bathhouse for pick-up by the city's public health department. Literally putting the piss in our own hands, the tests' kinky how-to details involve picking up one of the kits from a box located inside the bathhouse, peeing inside a cup, drawing it up with the straw provided and squeezing it into a vial. There's a form to be filled out and tucked back in the testing kit with your sample, and then the whole deal gets dropped back inside a secure box right beside the one where the kit was originally taken. It can be done right there in the bathhouse or anywhere else you feel comfortable.
For a while now, the city's public health department has had a nurse doing bathhouse STI testing on Wednesday nights. But the urine drop-off program takes the power of STI testing out of the hands of clinical health practitioners and puts it in the hands of the people who want to get tested.
"Since guys do the tests themselves, there's nobody asking any intrusive, personal questions," says Patrick O'Byrne, lead contact for the pilot project's research arm at the University Of Ottawa. "If you like going to the baths on the weekend, then you'll be missing out on the Wednesday night testing. The urine drop-off program means that all guys have a chance to get tested on their own time."
Ideally, STI testing should be as easy as walking into your local community health centre, smiling at the receptionist, getting tested and then coming back with an anonymous number to get your results. Unfortunately, it's not always that easy in Ottawa — waiting in a long line is standard practice if you're looking for a test at most facilities. Even the city's own sexual health clinic at 179 Clarence Street, which offers anonymous HIV tests as well as testing for all other STIs, has a note on its website advising people that they may not actually get tested during walk-in hours because of the volume of clients.
Given that it takes steely nerves for some of us just to walk into the sexual health centre, this makes for some pretty big barriers.
And that's why testing in the tubs is such a strangely novel and wonderful concept. Gay men, statistically, don't feel as comfortable in traditional health care venues as other men and may not have the same level of "buy-in" to the status quo health system. And who can blame us? Our history speaks to some pretty wretched treatment by doctors — from electric shock therapy intended to "cure" us of our queerness, to the AIDS crisis with its scores of ethically dubious treatment experiments literally turning our bodies into someone else's property.
Certainly, if our governments actually implemented their own policies in the area of public health, we wouldn't have to walk into clinics to get our health care. Imagine a health system that included free eye tests at the bookstore, guaranteed cheap and healthy food and anonymous do-it-yourself STI test kits available at high schools — right beside the condom boxes. Our own federal public health agency recognizes that homophobia, poverty and racism all impact negatively on our health, and yet policies that respond to this are rare. You can't even find a family doctor in this city.
But there are some bright spots. The city's public health branch has been working with gay men in the community for a number of years in doing bar- and bathhouse-based STI testing.
"This is an important first step — we are anxious to see the results and eager to explore this method of testing in other areas," says Christiane Bouchard of the city's sexual health centre. Bouchard sees potential for the program being expanded to other non-traditional sites like local bars.
All of this leads to another question: why do we always have to give our names? Ontario's health act forces health practitioners to report names alongside STI test results. The only exception is HIV — as long as you go to a specific anonymous HIV testing site and make sure that the test you are getting is, indeed, anonymous.
There are, however, a few tricks you can follow to make your own tests relatively anonymous, especially now that we have self-testing kits in the baths. The kits ask for several pieces of information, including your name, phone number and address. If you don't feel comfortable using your real name, use another one. If you have a buddy who is willing to accept mail and a phone call under the name "Justin Timberlake," it's a great way to make sure that your identity stays safe. And no one except you and your friend will know any different.
For more information on the testing program or any other questions on how to keep your hot sex safer, call the AIDS Committee Of Ottawa at 613-238-5014 ext 224, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.