7 Myths About STIs You Learned In Sex Ed
In this week's Sex IDK column, certified sex educator and writer Emma McGowan addresses common STI myths and the facts you should know instead.
Oh, sex ed class — the day that teenagers simultaneously fear and eagerly await. It’s going to be awkward. It’s going to be oddly titillating. And probably? It’s going to be inaccurate. That’s because, according to the Guttmacher Institute, only 13 states require that sex ed be medically accurate. Yeah, you read that right: 13 states. Regulation for sex ed is on the state and local level, which means that a lot of kids are out there getting truly garbage sex education.
Let’s start with the general stuff. Even though the Obama administration reallocated the $14.5 million that was going to abstinence-only sex ed to comprehensive sex ed in 2009, a lot of places still teach that abstinence is the only healthy choice for teenagers and other unmarried people. It’s a message that those of us who grew up in the Bush era know well — abstinence until marriage, period. And if you’re teaching kids to not have sex as part of sex ed, where’s the actual education about sex happening?
Unfortunately, it’s not happening. Our teenagers (and, later, adults) are forced to piece together their own form of sex ed that’s often a combination of online porn, semi-accurate websites, and things their friends say. Can you get pregnant in a hot tub? Will I get HIV from someone fingering my butt? Do all girls yell like that? These are all questions I’ve been asked as a sex educator who works primarily with adults. (And for the record, the answers are yes, no, and some do.)
Here are seven common myths about STIs that people learned in sex ed, as well as the science and fact-based truths behind them.
Myth #1: If Someone Has Unprotected Sex, They Will Get An STI
In most sex ed classes, instructors make it seem like all sex without a condom will automatically lead to an STI. However, you can only get an STI if the person you’re having sex with has an STI. I know that seems obvious, but I’ve had people ask me many, many times if they might have an STI after having unprotected sex. The first thing I ask in response is: “Did the person you slept with have an STI?” You’d be surprised by how often the answer is, “No.”
Secondly, while exact transmission rates are hard to come by (how could scientists ethically test that?), having unprotected sex with someone who has an STI doesn’t guarantee you’ll get it. Your risk differs based on a range of factors, including how high their viral load is (aka how contagious they are), and the type of sex you’re having. For example, certain sex acts that are more likely to cause tearing — like anal sex — come with a higher risk than ones that don’t — like oral sex. And having unprotected sex multiple times with a person who has an STI obviously increases your risk as well. But, no, you won’t automatically get an STI if you have sex without a condom.
Myth #2: Herpes Covers People With Weeping Sores
As does every other STI. I’m referring now to the photos that so many “sex educators” love to show teenagers in order to scare them into not having sex, or at least having sex with a condom. And while those photos are real — there are certainly people who have extreme reactions when they get infected — they’re not common. For most people, the most common STIs have very minor symptoms, or no symptoms at all.
Those scare tactic photos are dangerous for two reasons. The first is that they build up the stigma around STIs, which makes it really hard for people to talk to their partners about a diagnosis, or even about testing. The second is that people don’t recognize the other, more subtle — and more common — symptoms of STIs, don’t get tested, and then don’t get treated. And they don’t prevent teens from having sex. So, please, forget about those photos.
Myth #3: Condoms Don’t Protect Against STIs
Part of abstinence-only sex education is spreading the myth that condoms don’t protect against HIV and other STIs. This one is incredibly dangerous, because it leads to young people not using this incredibly effective form of protection.
Condoms are also extremely effective when it comes to preventing certain STIs. They’re your best bet for protection against any STI that’s found in fluids, including HIV, chlamydia, and gonorrhea. They provide some protection against skin-to-skin STIs, including herpes, HPV, and syphilis.
Myth #4: HIV Is A Death Sentence
First things first: There is no cure for HIV. However, a lot of people (and a lot of sex ed teachers) seem to have the impression that we're still in the first few years of the AIDS epidemic, when people were dying in droves.
In reality, it's now possible to live with HIV and have a long, relatively healthy life. Some drugs help slow the growth of the virus, prevent symptoms, and make it so people aren't infectious, even if they're carrying the virus. Is it an easy life? Not necessarily. But it's also not the end of life.
Myth #5: Herpes Means The End Of Sex
Herpes is another STI that isn't curable. As a result, a lot of people get the impression in sex ed that once you have herpes, you can never have sex again. Here are two reasons why that's inaccurate.
First off, if you've been diagnosed with herpes and have bad outbreaks, there is medication you can take that helps prevent outbreaks and makes the symptoms less intense when you do get one. While it's possible to spread the virus without sores, it is more difficult.
Secondly, herpes is super common. Because it's a skin-to-skin STI, there's no great way to protect against it 100 percent. According to the CDC, more than one out of every six people aged 14 to 49 years have genital herpes. So chances are, you've had a partner or will have a partner at some point who has it.
Myth #6: Relationships Are The Best Protection Against STIs
A very, very common piece of sex ed advice for making sure you don't get an STI is being in a monogamous relationship. Makes sense, right? If you're only doing it with one person and they're only doing it with you, where would the STIs come from?
Unfortunately, the STIs come from cheating. In a 2015 study from the University of Michigan, researchers found that "individuals' compliance with monogamy is likely to be low," which is a fancy way of saying "people cheat." Additionally, they found that people who were cheating were less likely to use protection than those who were in ethically non-monogamous relationships.
So monogamy might not be the protection we once thought it was. Bummer, but true.
Myth #7: People With STIs Are "Dirty"
Have you heard of the sex ed class in Mississippi where they passed around a piece of unwrapped candy to symbolize how women who have multiple partners are dirty? In addition to being horrifying, that story exemplifies this concept of "dirty" and "clean" that a lot of sex ed classes (and the culture at large) perpetuate.
A person who has an STI is not dirty. You can take 15 showers a day and still get an STI. Having an STI just means you got some germs from someone's genitals instead of their mouth or some other part of their body. That's it!
If you've been living with and believing any of these STI myths, don't beat yourself up about it. Like I said, sex ed in this country is notoriously spotty. Just remember, when it comes to sexual health, it's better to look at the science and the facts, not the feelings. Leave those for the bedroom.
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