Why Sex Education Needs To Include UTIs
The first time I had sex, I told my mum about it (yep, that’s the kind of relationship we have). “Did you go to the loo straight after?” she asked. I’d been hoping we’d chat about the magnitude of me having lost my virginity, rather than my bathroom habits - so I was left a little nonplussed. “Um...no?” I said, bemused. She went on to tell me all about UTIs (Urinary Tract Infections) and from then on, I religiously peed after every sexual encounter. That is: until I forgot, several years later. I had sex with someone on a Friday night, we both fell asleep immediately after, and on Monday morning I was in the toilets at my (first ever) office job, grimacing in pain and unable to stay at my desk for more than five minutes.
According to the NHS, UTIs are infections that can affect various parts of the urinary tract including the bladder, urethra and kidneys. Symptoms include needing to pee more often than usual, pain whilst peeing and blood in the urine, among others. Official treatment can include antibiotics and drinking lots of water, which helps to flush the infection out; while natural remedies include drinking cranberry juice.
Dr. Deborah Lee is a sexual and reproductive healthcare doctor at Dr. Fox Pharmacy who has written prolifically on women’s health. “Women are 30 times more likely to get a UTI than men,” she tells me. “One major reason for this is [that] the female urethra measures 3-4 cm, whereas the male urethra measures 19-20cm. Any invading bacteria have a lot further to travel in a male.”
And Dr. Chun Tang, a GP with expertise in sexual health at Pall Mall Medical, informs me that “the urethra is a tube connected to your bladder, and every time you wee it flushes out anything along that tube. Sexual intercourse introduces bacteria to the urethra and this bacteria can then travel upward causing a water infection...weeing after sex helps to flush out any bacteria hovering in the urethra.”
I was never taught about UTIs when we covered sex education at school; I just remember an introduction to menstruation, and being taught how to avoid both getting pregnant and contracting an STI (Sexually Transmitted Infection). It’s always struck me as interesting that the unwanted consequences of penetrative sex we were taught about were those that directly affect men. Getting pregnant makes someone a father, and contracting an STI means you run the risk of passing it on to any unsuspecting future sexual partners. But around UTIs, which disproportionately affect people with vaginas, there is a serious knowledge deficit. “I definitely don’t remember being told about it at school,” says Eleanor*, 26. “I only learnt to pee after sex once my GP told me,” agrees Rachel*, 25.
Some may be thinking - well, ultimately, what’s the concern? Why do we so desperately need to know to pee after sex? A few days of discomfort and then it’s over, right?
Well, for Georgia*, 23, a UTI is the cause of what she describes as one of the most embarrassing moments of her life. “The urge to pee came on when I was out. I thought it was under control, but I realized I couldn't hold it in any longer,” she told me. “I walked, sprinted, and jogged to my flat, swearing as I struggled to open the door. I sprinted to the bathroom...I was so close to making it. I had just undone my belt when I couldn't hold it in any longer and peed my pants, literally in front of the toilet, all down my light wash jeans and faux-suede shoes.” Georgia can’t remember being taught about UTIs at school: “In my experience, sex education focused on condoms, STIs, HIV awareness, anatomy and periods” she says, “I had heard ‘always pee after sex’, but I didn’t really know why.”
UTIs aren’t just embarrassing - they can be highly dangerous. “The very first time I discovered [UTIs] existed was when one nestled itself into my bladder after I lost my virginity,” says Kate*, 27. “I remember the day after I first had sex getting a weird burning sensation in my pee. I tried to ignore it, thinking it would go away on its own.” But it didn’t go away. “After a week, I collapsed on the floor shaking uncontrollably and was rushed to A&E, where it was determined that my UTI had spread to my kidneys. They had stopped working properly.”
Of course, there are other points to consider. Everyone and anyone can contract a UTI, for a start. UTIs are also not only caused by sex - there are myriad other reasons for why anyone can contract cystitis, for example. Equally, peeing after sex does not guarantee anyone an escape from a UTI: it’s just one of seven methods listed by the NHS for potential avoidance.
But the facts speak for themselves: UTIs are more common in people with vaginas, due to their shorter urethras; and the risk of contracting one can be decreased by peeing after penetrative sex. And not enough people know this.
"I'd just bought my first vibrator,” says Annabel*, 26. “I had a great time and naturally fell asleep after I'd climaxed. It wasn't until the following morning when I woke up and it was really painful when I peed. I thought it was nothing and just carried on - got on the tube to go to work, and three stops into my journey I had to get off because I felt so awful.” A week later, the same thing happened. “I was enjoying a little self-pleasure, and the next day I was in agony again. It was only then that I put two and two together - you usually pee after having sex to avoid UTIs, so it would be the same if you're masturbating pentratively.” Annabel wasn’t taught about UTIs at school - something she feels very strongly about. “If we're telling kids they can get chlamydia from sex, we should also be telling them they can get a UTI from sex. And that they can get it from masturbation.”
The Department for Education launched a new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum in September, and I can’t find anything in the 50-page statutory guidance about UTIs. Dr. Tang, too, tells me that he “cannot find UTIs in the curriculum.” That’s not to say, of course, that individual schools or teachers won’t choose to mention UTIs - but they still don’t seem to be treated with the level of severity that is desperately needed.
UTIs are serious, and lack of knowledge on both their contraction, and methods of prevention, can have serious consequences for mental and physical health. They need to be included in sex education, together with information on safe sex, menstruation and sexual health. Let’s stop surreptitiously downing vats of cranberry juice in office toilets, and start talking.
*Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Written by Izzie Price