Did you know that many STIs affect women differently than men? Or, to be more specific, they affect people with vaginas and uteruses differently than people with penises. Yeah, I know — annoying. Women already have to deal with so much crap — getting paid less than men immediately springs to mind, along with all the other B.S. of the patriarchy — and it turns out women's bodies are also more affected by STIs than men’s bodies.
So let’s get educated about the differences! Knowing how STIs affect your specific anatomy helps you spot them if you get them. It also helps you take precautions, because the more you know about different STIs, the more you know how to protect yourself. And, yup, that protection might look a little different for a person with a penis than it does for a person with a vagina.
But before we get into the specifics, a quick note on language. I’m sometimes going to use “women” and “men” throughout this article, but please read them as “women and other people with vaginas” and “men and other people with penises.” It’s important to acknowledge that while most women have vaginas, not all do, and while most men have penises, not all do.
So without further ado, here are seven ways that STIs affect women and other people with vaginas differently than they affect men and other people with penises, according to the CDC.
1. Vaginas And Vulvas Are More Easily Infected Than Penises
First things first: vaginas and vulvas have thinner skin than penises. That means bacteria and viruses can penetrate the skin more easily. Also, vaginas are warm and moist, which is basically bacteria’s number one favorite place to hang out and multiply. So people with vaginas are more susceptible to infection than people with penises.
2. Women Are Less Likely To Show Symptoms
Two of the most common STIs are gonorrhea and chlamydia — and women are less likely to show symptoms of them than men. According to the CDC, “most women with gonorrhea do not have any symptoms.” And while that might sound like a good thing — after all, who wants painful urination, discharge, and vaginal bleeding? — it actually means that those STIs are harder to detect, and therefore may go untreated.
3. Women Are More Likely To Mistake An STI For Something Else
In addition to the fact that many people with vaginas never show symptoms for common STIs, they also frequently mistake STI symptoms for something else. Yeast infections and vaginosis are both fairly common, and the symptoms — like itching, painful urination, or a change in discharge — can resemble the symptoms of a bacterial STI infection.
People with penises, on the other hand, don’t have those infections as regularly, and therefore are more likely to assume that symptoms are from an STI. Once again, this leads to earlier detection and treatment.
4. Symptoms Aren’t As Noticeable On Vaginas And Vulvas
In a similar vein, symptoms of skin-to-skin STIs — like herpes, HPV, and syphilis — are less noticeable on a vulva or vagina than they are on a penis. Vulvas have multiple folds where bumps or sores can hide, and sometimes they can form inside the vagina. Penises, on the other hand, are external, making it easier to spot symptoms when they do appear.
5. HPV Is The Leading Cause Of Cervical Cancer In Women
Most men who have HPV never show any symptoms, including warts. But women are more likely to actually form warts. Additionally, certain strains of HPV are the leading cause of cervical cancer in women.
The other types of cancer that HPV can cause are throat, anal, vaginal, and penile. In all but throat cancer (and, obviously, penile), women are affected more than men. The rates for cervical cancer attributed to HPV and throat cancer in men attributed to HPV are about the same. And men who have sex with men are at a much higher risk of developing cancer from HPV. But, generally, HPV — which is the most common STI — has more severe effects on women than on men.
6. Some STIs Can Lead To Infertility In Women
So you know how a bunch of the items on this list are about how STIs are harder to detect in women than in men? That’s a huge problem, because some of those same STIs — gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis, specifically — can cause pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) in women if left untreated. PID can then lead to infertility or an ectopic pregnancy, which is when the fetus grows on the outside of the uterus. Untreated, 10 to 15 percent of women with chlamydia will develop PID.
Some of these STIs can also result in fertility issues for men, but it’s much less common. Chlamydia, for example, the most common bacterial STI in the United States, has very few health complications for men.
7. It’s Possible To Pass On An STI Via Pregnancy
If a person with a uterus has an STI, it’s possible for them to pass that STI on to their baby either in utero or during birth. Some STIs — including herpes and syphilis — can also cause serious birth defects, or even miscarriage. If you have an STI and are planning on getting pregnant, it’s important to talk to your doctor about the best way to carry, deliver, and even whether or not breastfeeding is an option.
But the good news is that people with STIs — even HIV — can have a safe and healthy pregnancy, as long as it's managed properly. And the risk of causing neonatal herpes in the baby is most likely when a person gets herpes late in their pregnancy. Most people who have herpes don’t transmit it to their baby.
So, vagina and vulva-havers: Be aware. Your anatomy makes you uniquely susceptible to STIs and worse symptoms. Keep that one in your back pocket for the next time someone doesn't want to use protection.