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STIs Throughout the Ages: The Fascinating History of Gonorrhoea

 

As Ella Dawson said in her 2016 TEDx Talk, “Telling someone that you have an STI should not be brave or shocking. It should be normal, and kind of boring.”

Why? Firstly, because they’re far more common than most people think!

And secondly, because they’ve been around for, well…ever.

Indeed, an article in the Italian Journal of Dermatology and Venerology claims they’re as old as humankind itself and this article notes how the history of STIs stretches back to antiquity. The Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Romans, and Ancient Greeks (among others) all left accounts of them behind.

Today, we’re going to detail the backstory of one particular STI that affects tens of thousands of people in the UK every year: gonorrhoea.

From its origins and evolution to past beliefs about the infection and onto more recent scientific developments, get ready to learn everything there is to know about this ubiquitous STI!

With any luck, learning about the history of gonorrhoea will normalise it. And that, in turn, may help to shift the social stigma around STIs as a whole.

Let’s dive in.

 

Infographic: how gonorrhoea has evolved over the years

 

What is Gonorrhoea?

Before we flick through the history of this STI, we thought we’d take a moment to explain exactly what it is.

Formerly known as “the clap” (for reasons we’ll soon explore), the NHS explains how this common infection is caused by a bacteria called Neisseria gonorrhoeae or gonococcus.

…No, we don’t know how to pronounce it either!

What we do know is that it’s found in the vaginal fluid and penile discharge from infected individuals. When you have unprotected sex of any kind (including oral) or use sex toys that haven’t been washed (or covered with a condom), the bacteria catches a ride from one person to the next, setting up shop there as well. Gonorrhoea can also inhabit the throat, rectum, and even the fluid around the eyes!

According to that same NHS link, roughly 10% of men and 50% of women with gonorrhoea have zero symptoms. For those who do experience symptoms, penis-owners may experience a gunky discharge from the penis, pain on passing urine, and occasionally testicular pain. Vagina-owners may have a change in vaginal discharge, pelvic pain and bleeding between periods or after sex. Where gonorrhoea infects the throat, it can cause a sore throat, swollen glands and rarely swallowing difficulty, and in the rectum it can cause pain and discharge.

Anyone who’s sexually active can get gonorrhoea, although the likelihood increases if you have lots of different sexual partners and/or don’t use barrier contraception (condoms). Statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get gonorrhoea if you’re a man who has sex with other men.

If you think you have gonorrhoea (or any other STI for that matter), then be sure to get tested sooner rather than later.

Gonorrhoea: An Ancient STI

Gonorrhoea is a perfect example of the long history of STIs. Heck, an article in the Journal of Skin and Sexually Transmitted Diseases suggests it could be the oldest recorded STI of them all!

The authors talk about a Chinese Emperor called Huang Ti, who described an infection sounding an awful lot like gonorrhoea in a textbook dating to 2600BC.

Another possible reference comes from the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus. In it, there’s talk of “an issue of seed” alongside various precautionary measures, which experts say could pertain to gonorrhoea.

And we have the Ancient Greeks to thank for the name itself.

While Hippocrates (who lived between c. 460 and 375BC) called this STI “strangury”, a Greek physician called Galen came along a few hundred years later and coined the term gonorrhoea. “Gono” means “seed” and “rhea” means “flow”, which relates to Galen’s idea that the infection was “an unwanted discharge of semen” - perhaps pertaining to the gunky penile discharge that can occur.

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Gonorrhoea and The Clap

Gonorrhoea may be its official name, yet this STI is arguably best-known by its nickname: “the clap”. Another colloquial (and, perhaps, overly descriptive) term for it is “the drip”, but the clap is definitely more common.

Why the “clap”? Good question- and one that’s the subject of much debate!

The article we referenced in our previous section sheds light on this matter too. One argument is that it refers to a “clapping” sensation people with the STI can feel while urinating. Another idea is that it harkens back to old French brothels, which were called “Les Clapiers” and were (quite literally) hotbeds of gonorrhoea.

Interestingly, another possible origin of the nickname “clap” relates to a bizarre former treatment approach…

Past Approaches to Treatment

It almost sounds too ridiculous to be true. Supposedly, there was an ancient treatment called “clapping” in which men had to hit their penis with a big book in a bid to remove the infection. Thankfully, science has come a long way since then!

Although it took a while.

In the 16th century, for instance, a go-to treatment for sailors with symptoms of gonorrhoea was an injection of mercury directly into the urethra. Fast forward a few centuries and people were using everything from silver nitrate to an Indonesian pepper called cubebs. Finally, in the early 1900s a vaccine was briefly introduced, before antibiotics hit the scene in the 30’s and 40s.

These days, gonorrhoea is easily seen under a microscope, and the recommended treatment is usually either an injection of an antibiotic called ceftriaxone, or an oral dose of ciprofloxacin. You’ll normally be advised to avoid sex for at least two weeks, and take a test of cure to make sure the infection has been properly treated. 

STIs in History: Remember the Case of Gonorrhoea

If the history of gonorrhoea tells us anything, it’s that STIs are nothing new. They’ve existed in one form or another forever and a day, steadily passing from person to person over millennia of sexual encounters!

Of course, this long history of STIs doesn’t make them fun to have.

But it sure does make them normal.

The more you read about STIs in history, the more you realise they’re a natural part of life - they have been and likely always will be. Honestly, after thousands of years to wrap our heads around them, it’s astounding any social stigma around them still exists.

We hope the information in this article will help to disperse the myth that you’re somehow amoral, deviant, or dirty for having an STI. Trust us, whether you have gonorrhoea, genital warts, chlamydia, herpes, or anything else, you’re not the first person to have it, you definitely won’t be the last, and you’re certainly not alone!

For anyone who’d like to get an STI test, Yoxly can help. Click here to order one today. It’s convenient, safe, and secure!

 

Yoxly's Awesome Contributors (YACs) are a diverse group of individuals who are passionate about public health, and committed to furthering our mission. Yoxly provides a platform where a variety of sexual health topics (some more awkward than others!) can be explored, in an informative and non-judgmental way. If you'd like to become one of Yoxly's Awesome Contributors, contact us!

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