The Internet is brimming with contradictory claims about sexual health, and you don’t know what to believe. Your friends give you advice, but you’re not sure if it sounds right. To make things worse, you might not have had evidence-based, medically accurate sex education in your school. In this edition of our STD Awareness series, we’ll take on a few myths about sexually transmitted diseases to help you sort fact from fiction.
1 MYTH: You can tell if someone has an STD by looking at them.
You might expect that if someone has an STD, their genitals would have blisters, warts, or noticeable discharge. But your partner looks fine, so you might think there’s no need to ask when his or her last STD test was.
However, while many people with STDs do have visible symptoms, they’re the exception rather than the rule. For example, three out of four women and half of men with chlamydia have no symptoms. Herpes is often spread when there are no symptoms present. Someone can be infected with HIV — and capable of transmitting it to others — and go years without showing any signs. A quick visual inspection can’t tell you very much about someone’s STD status.
2 MYTH: You can’t get an STD from oral sex.
While it is generally true that oral sex presents less of a risk for contracting STDs, this risk is not trivial. Most STDs can be passed along by oral sex, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis B, herpes, human papillomavirus (HPV), and HIV. You can reduce your risk by using barrier methods like condoms and dental dams consistently and correctly.
3 MYTH: Condoms can’t prevent the spread of HIV.
Many proponents of abstinence-only education state that condoms don’t protect against HIV, claiming that latex condoms have holes that are large enough for viruses to pass through. This claim isn’t backed by evidence. An intact latex condom dramatically reduces your risk of being exposed to sexually transmitted viruses such as HIV. (It is true that a lambskin condom does not provide adequate protection against HIV.)
4 MYTH: You can’t get an STD from a virgin.
The concept of “virginity” is problematic. While many people define a “virgin” as someone who has never engaged in vaginal intercourse, there are plenty of sexually active people who have never experienced vaginal intercourse, and this narrow definition of “virginity” marginalizes their experiences. Regardless, even if we limit ourselves to this narrow definition of “virginity,” the fact remains that STDs can be transmitted by a variety of other sexual activities — including oral or anal sex, as well as direct genital-to-genital contact.
Even among people who truly have had no partnered sexual experience whatsoever, it is still possible for them to have an STD. Some STDs, such as HIV, can be transmitted to a fetus or baby during pregnancy, childbirth, or breastfeeding. Additionally, some STDs can actually be acquired nonsexually — for instance, as children most of us were exposed to the virus that causes oral herpes, which can be transmitted to the genitals during oral sex and cause genital herpes. Lastly, a virgin could be infected by certain STDs that can also be transmitted via blood, such as HIV and hepatitis B.
5 MYTH: Vaseline is a good lubricant to use with latex condoms.
Latex is degraded by oils, such as Vaseline and other oil-based lubricants. However, silicon- or water-based lubricants are not only safe to use with latex — they will enhance sensation and increase the efficacy of latex condoms.
6 MYTH: After sex, you can prevent STDs by douching, washing your genitals, or urinating.
Douching can actually push germs farther into your reproductive tract rather than wash them out, and can also alter your vaginal pH, which is normally protectively low. Even washing your genitals is ineffective in protecting against developing an STD after exposure — although health advocates used to tout genital washing as an effective preventive technique back in the 1930s and ’40s, this idea is not supported by evidence. While urinating after sex doesn’t hurt, it is not effective as a strategy to protect you from infections such as HIV.
7 MYTH: There are natural cures for herpes, HIV, genital warts, and other chronic viral infections.
While you can find unethical supplement manufacturers peddling bogus STD cures and making false claims about curing herpes, HIV, or other chronic infections, their claims are too good to be true. There are no cures at this time for chronic viral infections such as herpes and HIV. However, there are medications that can help you manage chronic viral infections. A health-care provider at Planned Parenthood can discuss options with you.
8 MYTH: Lambskin condoms are a natural, effective alternative to latex condoms.
Lambskin condoms are made out of sheep intestines, and are by nature quite porous. Just as nutrients can pass through the intestines to nourish the body, so too can viruses and possibly bacteria pass through the microscopic pores in lambskin condoms. These condoms do not protect against the viruses that cause AIDS, herpes, genital warts, and more.
9 MYTH: Lesbians can’t get STDs.
While it would be silly to attempt to characterize the sexual practices of one very large group, there is a wide variety of potentially pathogen-spreading sexual practices that two people with vaginas can engage in. Such activities aren’t exclusive to lesbians, and might include:
- oral-vulvovaginal contact (cunnilingus), which can transmit STDs such as herpes and syphilis
- digital-vaginal contact (fingering or fisting the vagina), which can transmit trichomoniasis, chlamydia, gonorrhea, HPV, and herpes if cervical or vaginal secretions are shared
- digital-anal contact (fingering or fisting the anus), which can transmit hepatitis A, intestinal parasites, gonorrhea, HPV, and herpes if anorectal secretions are shared
- sharing sex toys, which can transmit the same STDs as those transmitted by digital-vaginal or digital-anal contact by sharing secretions
- oral-anal contact (rimming), which can transmit syphilis, herpes, hepatitis A, or intestinal parasites
- genital-to-genital contact (tribadism), which can transmit HPV, herpes, and syphilis
- s/m (sadomasochism), which can transmit hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV, if activities involve sharing blood
10 MYTH: Pretty much anything involving hot tubs.
Hot tubs show up in a few myths about sex. One version states that you can contract an STD merely from sitting in a hot tub. However, unless you are having sex in it, using a hot tub doesn’t put you at risk for STDs. Another version states that the chlorine in the water will protect you from STDs if you have sex in a hot tub. This is also false!
It might seem difficult to get accurate information about sexual health, but there are many excellent resources at your disposal. Planned Parenthood has a fantastic Info for Teens website, which features an “Ask the Experts” forum where you can ask questions and receive accurate information. Their website also contains an informative section on STDs and safer sex. Other trustworthy websites include Scarleteen and Go Ask Alice. It’s OK to have questions, and knowing about reliable resources is empowering!
Click here to check out other installments of our monthly STD Awareness series!