On a real note: My middle school’s sex ed program was low-key comparable to the “Don’t have sex. You will get pregnant, and you will die” narrative from Mean Girls. (I wish I were joking). The program was extremely fear-based and literally used scare tactics deeply rooted in sexual shame to push “abstinence-only” programs, which is actually BS.
Thankfully, it’s now 2020 and there seriously has been so. much. improvement. in normalizing women’s sexuality. But on the other side of that, STIs have reached alarmingly high rates, and the numbers prove that young people just aren’t really getting tested at all. Big yikes.
So let’s address the topic that is STIs. There are so many harmful misconceptions out there due to misinformation, so please, dear reader, forget all that garbage stigma-shamed bias you’ve been told before. Read below for what you really, actually need to know:
MYTH: “STD” is the correct term
In almost all cases, you should be using the term STI, not STD. The difference being its language: one is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the other is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). An infection occurs when a pathogen makes a home in its host, though may not grow into anything more than that. A disease continuously presents signs and symptoms that disrupts the host’s ability to function normally, says Emily L. Depasse, licensed sexologist.
FWIW: The most common STIs like chlamydia or gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics, just like any other bacterial infections (Colds! UTIs! Swimmer’s Ear!), so no need to treat them like a “disease.”
MYTH: Some STIs are better to have than others
This is not a ranking system, bb. None are “better” or “worse” to have than others because, hello, all STIs are treatable, manageable, and/or curable. “Saying one is better to have than the other reinforces the incorrect narrative of people being labeled as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty,’” says Depasse. And no, you’re not dirty for contracting an STI. You’re not even dirty for spilling spaghetti on your white tank. Sure, the shirt may be dirty, but you, my goddess, are not.
MYTH: STIs are consequences for unsafe sex
The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) reports that 1 in 2 sexually active young adults will test positive for an STI by age 25. “This number is likely higher considering fear around STI screening and stigma disclosing a positive STI status,” says Depasse. So phrases like: “You should’ve used a condom” are not helpful—especially considering an STI like herpes, which is contracted via skin-to-skin contact, can be contracted with a condom on (more on that later).
Plus, the word “consequence” insinuates that you did something bad. But healthy, consensual sex with a partner is not bad, nor does it warrant a consequence. Ever.
MYTH: You can tell someone has an STI just by looking at them
“While many STIs do have presenting symptoms, some have none at all,” says Depasse. For multiple reasons, symptoms may be unnoticeable, or resemble other things like cuts, ingrown hairs, or yeast infections, she adds. But instead of relying on a genital inspection to access someone’s STI status, she suggests initiating a conversation with your partner about sexual wellness, including the last time you were tested, the results, boundaries, and what you’re looking for.
MYTH: If you have an incurable STI, you have to date someone who does too
“A positive diagnosis can seem like a sex and relationship death sentence to folks diagnosed with herpes or HIV,” Depasse explains. But people can—and do!—maintain and create sexual and romantic relationships with partners with and without STIs after a positive diagnosis.
“This often remains unbelievable, especially upon diagnosis, because we never received narratives around these types of relationships or how to navigate them with one another. Don’t let your own narrative of self-rejection prevent you from seeking a sex life outside your diagnosis,” she adds. It all comes down to communicating openly and efficiently with your partner.
MYTH: STI screening panels include all STIs.
STI screenings are a huge part of sexual self-care and wellness, and FWIW: You should be getting tested, at the very least, once a year at your annual, or after every new sexual partner. But! You might find it interesting (or more so ridiculous) that the CDC doesn’t suggest routine screening for asymptomatic individuals. What this means: If you’re not feeling weird down there, you don’t need to be tested. Not true.
If you ask to be tested for “everything,” you might not be tested for “everything” depending on your doctor. “A standard STI screening includes chlamydia, gonorrhea, and others, depending upon your age and sexual engagement and activity.” These are typically performed via a urine sample. But very commonly, herpes and HPV do not fall into that category (herpes STI testing requires a blood sample or scraping of the lesion).
What you can do: If there’s a certain test you’re hoping to have performed, you should tell your doctor explicitly you want to be tested for it. But no worries if that’s super intimidating and daunting: There are several sites that offer at-home STI testing kits that you can either mail in or take to a lab to be tested.
MYTH: You won’t get an STI if you practice safer sex
Remember when I mentioned that herpes can be contracted even with a condom? It’s true: Even if you practice the safest of safer sex, you might still test positive for an STI one day,” Depasse says. “Since some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact, barriers like condoms and dental dams don’t cover all of the skin around the genital region, so there’s still the possibility of transmission.”
So no matter how many screenings you get, what barrier methods you use, or how many times you tell your partners that you have an STI, she warns there will ALWAYS be the potential for transmission. “That’s just what happens when we put bodies together.”
MYTH: Cold sores aren’t herpes.
The “cold sores” you may find on your mouth are, in fact, herpes (literally caused by the herpes simplex virus or HSV). “There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 can present orally or genitally, while HSV-2 almost exclusively presents genitally. Despite this, HSV-1 and HSV-2 share more similarities than differences,” she explains, adding that refusing to believe this truth is further evidence of STI stigma, which really is rooted in an overall discomfort with sexual expression.
Myth: You can only get an STI from semen or bodily fluids.
There are a lot of ways to contract STIs, which means there are STIs that don’t require intercourse or the exchange of fluids. “You can contract HPV by just general contact — you know, like, grinding,” says Rachael Ross, MD, family doctor, sexologist, and host of “The Doctors.” Manual stimulation can spread HPV, pubic lice, or crabs, too.
Eliminating bodily fluid exchange does minimize risk of transferring STIs like HIV, but “It’s completely a myth that you cannot contract an STI from fingering or oral because you absolutely can,” says Ross.
Myth: Oral and anal sex are safer alternatives to vaginal intercourse.
The truth: Oral and anal obviously negate the risk of pregnancy, but they don’t prevent STI transmission. Although your risk of transmitting STIs is generally lower with oral— STIs like gonorrhea and chlamydia can still be transmitted via oral. Same with anal.
Myth: You can’t get an STI from a hot tub.
People assume the heat from the hot tub will kill germs and bacterias, so therefore can’t result in STIs… but, nope. STIs can survive for several hours in a warm, moist environment, and swimsuits don’t protect your genitals from infected water. On top of that, Ross says the hot water opens your pores and makes your skin more vulnerable to cuts and chafing.
Myth: You can put vinegar on sores to test if they’re HPV.
There’s a rumor that HPV sores actually change color when exposed to regular household vinegar, but it just isn’t true. “When we’re looking at lesions, sometimes we’ll put acid on them and it forms a color. Then we might do a biopsy, but this is more so done during a colposcopy when we’re looking for cervical cancer. I think what’s happened is everybody is taking what we do during colposcopy and looking for the effects of HPV and translating that into this home remedy, and that’s absolutely not true,” Ross explains.
Myth: You can get herpes anywhere on your body.
Well, yes and no. Herpes can appear places other than your mouth or genitals, but it won’t appear around an open wound anywhere on your body. “We have ocular herpes, which is in your eye,” says Ross, “But it’s usually in more mucus types of membrane areas — mouth, eyes, vaginal area, anus, and the areas that surround those places. You can potentially get it on your hands and transfer it to your eye or mouth or genitals. But typically, if you touch someone’s genital herpes, you won’t get warts on your hands.”
Myth: You can’t spread herpes if you don’t currently have an outbreak.
“That’s a huge myth, and unfortunately that is one many people believe,” says Ross. If your partner has herpes, the best way to prevent contracting it is for your partner to be on immunosuppressant therapy, a daily medication that makes them non-contagious. Otherwise you are always at some risk to contract the STD.
Myth: You can get an STI from a toilet seat.
“It is very hard to get an STI from a toilet seat,” says Ross. “Theoretically it is possible, but it is highly improbable.”