Myths about who gets sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and how they’re transmitted abound. Read the myths, in bold, below, followed by the truth.
1. You can tell by looking if someone has an STI. There is no way to know for sure who may have HIV or another STI. Many people don’t know themselves that they are infected. Many STIs are silent diseases, meaning that they produce few, if any, symptoms.
2. Being sexually exclusive with one partner will keep me safe. A monogamous relationship reduces the risk of infection, so long as neither partner came to the relationship with an existing infection. However, many people enter new relationships not knowing if they are infected with an STI, and people don’t always tell the truth about their past or current sexual practices. If you are having sex with only one person but that person has other partners, you can be exposed.
3. If he pulls out before he comes, I can’t get infected. Pre-cum—drops of fluid that the penis discharges during arousal—can contain HIV, other STIs, or even sperm. It’s best to use a condom as soon as the penis is erect.
4. My birth control will protect me from STIs. Condoms are the only birth control method that offers dual protection against pregnancy and STIs. The pill, hormonal injections and implants, diaphragms, and the IUD do not protect against STIs.
5. Lesbians don’t get STIs. All women who engage in certain sexual activities are at risk for STIs, though the risk is less for women who have sex only with other women. Some STIs can be transmitted between women by genital-to-genital or oral-to-genital contact that involves the exchange of vaginal fluids or by sharing sex toys, and some can be transmitted by skin-to-skin contact.
6. I have an STI and we’ve already had sex, so there’s no point using protection. Practicing safer sex is still essential. Your partner may not yet be infected, and even if you share an STI, you could have different types or strains of the same infection that could make the infection worse for both of you. Or your partner could unknowingly have a different STI, which could speed up the progression of your current infection. You and your partner can pass an infection back and forth if you’re not both treated.
7. I am too young (or too old) to get an STI. Girls and women of any age who are having sex can contract an STI. Adolescent girls have the highest risk because their cervix cells don’t produce as much protective cervical fluid as the adult cervix, which makes them more susceptible to infection. Tears in the vaginal wall, which are more common in postmenopausal women owing to decreased production of natural lubricants, can increase susceptibility to bacteria and infections.
8. STIs happen to other people, not me. Besides, you can’t get an STI the first time you have sex. Anyone engaging in certain sexual activities with someone who has an STI can contract an STI, whether it’s the first time or the hundredth.
9. My partner and I fool around naked and have oral sex, but we haven’t gone all the way, so we’re not at risk. Not having anal or vaginal intercourse decreases your risk of getting an STI, but some infections can be spread by oral sex and by skin-to-skin contact. You can contract HPV, for example, if your partner is infected and you rub your genitals together. Herpes is transmitted by genital or oral contact with a developing or existing sore; the virus can also be spread without symptoms.
10. We shower before sex so we won’t spread infections. Lather up if you want to, and then cover up. Washing the genitals, anal area, and hands before and after sex, and between anal and vaginal or oral contact, is good hygiene and may cut down on urinary tract infections, but washing does not prevent STI transmission. (Douching, by the way, is never a good idea; it may even push infections higher up in the vagina and affect other reproductive organs, and it alters the vaginal flora, making you susceptible to other infections.) After you wash, don’t forget to reach for that condom or dental dam.