For many of us, our only formal sex ed took place in a cold, sterile biology classroom and involved desperately searching for a friend, any friend, to make kill-me-now eye-contact with while the teacher clicked through a procession of festering genitals. If you were lucky, this presentation was followed by a demonstration of how to apply a condom to whatever fruit or vegetable was on sale at King Soopers.
The thing is—that was years ago (in my case, anyway), before some of us were even sexually active. And unless you were lucky enough to attend a school that supported comprehensive, inclusive, evidence-based instruction—a rarity in this country—you probably didn't learn everything you truly needed to know in that classroom.
The reality is that our school system's fear-mongering approach to sex has produced a population of alarmingly misinformed adults. Adults who think that all sexually transmitted infections look like the gnarled, chancre-riddled penises seared into our minds by our teachers and coaches. Adults who believe that the only people who talk about STIs are the ones who have them. And adults who fear getting chlamydia from a damn toilet seat—but don’t think that exchanging bodily fluids with someone else is risky because they’re just not that kind of person.
To put these rumors to rest once and for all, I reached out to sex educators across the country and asked them to debunk the most common myths they hear about sexually transmitted infections and diseases. Here's what you need to know.
A recent study found that teen girls who use the most effective forms of birth control, including IUDs and hormone implants, are less likely to use condoms—but confusion involving birth control and safe sex follows us into adulthood.
There’s a misconception that birth control protects us from STIs, says Jenelle Davis, founder of The STD Project, a campaign that fights stigma and spreads awareness involving sexually transmitted afflictions. “The only method of birth control that reduces risk for STI transmission is a condom, a barrier, or a dam.”
When used correctly, condoms are highly effective at preventing STDs—particularly diseases that are transferred through fluid, such as gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. They also help to prevent conditions that are passed through skin-to-skin contact, including herpes and HPV—though they're less effective in these cases, because, well, condoms don’t really cover everything, such as the base of the penis or the scrotum. But I mean, definitely wear that condom!
Sure, lube can make sex go more smoothly, particularly when you're going at it for an extended period of time (and/or having anal fun). But did you know that lube also helps to reduce the risk of spreading STIs?
“If you’re using a condom, lube reduces friction, so there’s less likelihood of the condom breaking,” explains Davis, who is also a spokesperson for PositiveSingles.com, a dating and support site for folks with STIs.
And even if you're not using a condom? (Which, unless you and your partner have both been tested, why not?) “It adds another small barrier and reduces the friction. So that the small tiny cuts and tears that happen during intercourse—whether it’s vaginal or anal—don’t happen as often.”
This misconception reflects how we conceive of sex in general. “For some people, 'having sex' means that you’re having vaginal intercourse, and that’s the definition," says Fred Wyand, the director of communications for the American Sexual Health Association. "They don’t think of oral sex or even anal sex being quite the same thing."
But just because vaginal intercourse is the only form of sex that results in pregnancy, this doesn't mean other types of sex aren't prone to risks. “There are STD risks from oral and anal sex,” stresses Wyland. “And of course, with anal sex, there’s an enormous amount of risk." Why? Because the anus isn’t self-lubricating like the vagina, anal sex involves more friction, and more friction means more small tears—and thus, more entry points for infection.
“If someone says, ‘Yeah, I’ve been tested for all STDs’—well, immediately, there’s your red flag,” says Davis. “If someone says all STDs, that means they’re actually uninformed.”
While the World Health Organization recognizes more than 30 different types of “sexually transmissible bacteria, viruses, and parasites," Davis says that, typically, people only get tested for four or five STIs. “There actually aren’t tests for all the STIs and STDs out there, and even the ones that have tests aren’t commonly tested."
Given that so many high school sex ed teachers illustrate the risks of unsafe sex by showing us shocking photos of disfigured genitalia, it almost makes sense that we think we’d know if a sexual partner had an STI or STD. But that’s not really how they work, and we’re not all that likely to encounter horrifically mangled genitals in the wild.
“People think that having an STD is obvious, that ‘I’ll know if I have one,” that “I’ll know if my partner has one,’” says ASHA’s Wyand. “That’s usually not the case. Contrary to popular belief, STIs don’t have very obvious signs of symptoms.”
I mean, chlamydia is known as the “silent epidemic” for a reason—people can harbor the disease for years and not know it, because the symptoms simply don’t present themselves. The only way to truly know if you or your partner have a (common) STI or STD is to get tested.
For some dumb reason, many of us are so afraid to talk openly about STIs that we judge other people for being open about them.
“That’s the problem around condom usage and lube usage and talking about getting tested,” says Davis. “There’s this assumption that if you’re talking about these things, you must be promiscuous, slutty, or sleeping with a bazillion people."
In fact, the more we speak openly about STIs, the more we protect ourselves—and promote body positivity. (Davis also assured me, for the record, that there is nothing wrong with sleeping with a bazillion people.)
Our culture teaches us that STIs only happen to certain people, other people, those people. That they lurk in the shadows and don’t happen to us. But they do.
You guys, STDs happen all the damn time. More than half of ALL people will contract an STD at some point in their lives. STDs are everywhere, but for some reason we refuse to acknowledge this—and every single health professional I spoke with for this piece stressed the damaging effect of stigma on sexual health.
This stigma is so prevalent that even some health professionals buy into it. “There’s been some data that has indicated that some physicians maybe aren’t quite as keen to test for chlamydia as often as they should because they just don’t perceive that their patient pool is really at risk," ASHA's Fred Wyand told me.
But progress comes by having open and realistic conversations about sex—and by normalizing the experience of getting tested for and contracting an STI.
“We should encourage more frank conversation about how common STIs are and what that experience of having an STI is like,” says Nicole Cushman, the executive director of Answer, a Rutgers University-based campaign for better sex education.
“There’s treatment available,” she says. “We want to prevent them if we can—but if you get one, it’s not the end of the world.”
She's right. STDs happen! So let’s empower ourselves to learn more and do more to prevent them, rather than treat them like the boogeymen that too many of our high school sex teachers led us to fear.