Fun fact: You don’t have to have sexual intercourse to get a sexually transmitted infection (STI). But before we dive into the specifics of how that’s possible, I want to do some defining of terms. When I say “intercourse,” I’m referring to penis-in-vagina sex, anal sex, and oral sex. Because our society is hella heteronormative, we often default to penis-in-vagina sex when we hear the word “intercourse,” but that excludes a huge number of people who don’t have sex that way. (Also, as sex advice guru Dan Savage likes to point out, both oral and anal sex have “sex” as their last name.)
So I'm going to be broad in our definition here. But even within that broader definition of sexual intercourse, there are still ways that you can get STIs without “doing it.” While anal, vaginal, and (to a lesser extent) oral sex are somewhat obvious ways to spread STDs and STIs because they involve fluids and mucous membranes, not all STDs and STIs need those magic ingredients to spread. Some can be spread by skin-to-skin contact, while others can be spread by contact with blood.
We sometimes get the message from scare-tactic sex ed classes and articles that if you touch someone else’s juices or rub against anyone in a sexual way, you’re automatically going to get a STI. However, in reality, you can only get infected with a STI if the person you’re having sexual contact with is infected with one. And, even then, there’s no guarantee that you’ll definitely get it. While it’s a good idea to err on the side of caution and use barrier methods like condoms to protect yourself and your partners, it’s also important to counter that common message that all sex can and does make us sick.
Finally, oftentimes the stigma around STIs is a lot higher than the actual, lived reality of getting one. Sure, it’s not fun to have to go to the doctor and take medicine for something you caught on your genitals. But it’s also not fun to have to go to the doctor and get medicine for a cold or a dumb infection from a cut you didn’t take care of on your hand or a weird growth on your toe. But you don’t feel terrible about yourself when you have to deal with those things, do you?
So take some time to think about why you might feel terrible if you got an STI — and why you might feel judgy of someone else who has one. If you really consider the consequences of many STIs, you’ll probably realize that the stigma has more to do with our sex negative culture than it does with the ailments themselves.
Phew! Now that we got that out of the way, let’s take a look at these eight STIs that can be spread without having intercourse.
Herpes! Everyone is talking about herpes these days! That’s probably because it’s super common — the CDC estimates that 15.7 percent of Americans between the ages of 14 and 49 carry the HSV-2 virus, which is the one that most commonly causes genital herpes. However, the other herpes virus — HSV-1 — can also cause genital herpes, even though it’s most commonly associated with oral herpes or “cold sores.” An estimated 50 to 80 percent of Americans have HSV-1 and the National Institutes of Health estimates that 90 percent of Americans have been exposed to HSV-1 by age 50.
So, basically, a ton of people herpes. One of the reasons herpes is so common is because it can be spread by skin-to-skin contact. It can also spread even if someone isn’t having a visible outbreak, as the virus can “shed” cells without causing sores. That’s why it recommended to use condoms to reduce the risk of herpes transmission, but if the disease is present on any part of the body that’s not covered by condoms (think thighs, bikini line, cheeks, lips, to name just a few), it can spread even with condom use.
HPV stands for “human papillomavirus” and it’s another one that can be spread with skin-to-skin contact. There are more than 100 types of the virus, about 40 of which can affect your genitals and the area around your genitals. They can also infect your mouth and throat. Like the herpes viruses, HPV can be found in nearly every sexually active person at some point in their life.
A lot of people contract HPV and have no symptoms at all, but two types of the virus — 6 and 11 — cause most cases of genital warts. We’ve also identified about a dozen types of HPV that can cause cancer, but most are caused by types 16 and 18. Cervical cancer is the type we usually think of being associated with HPV but it can also cause cancer in the vulva, vagina, penis, anus, mouth, and throat.
While the most common way to spread HIV is via intercourse, it can also be spread via contact with infected blood or through breastfeeding if the mother has an HIV infection. It’s important to note here that simply touching infected blood won’t result in an infection. There has to be some contact between the infected blood and your own blood like, for example, if you shared a needle for injecting drugs with someone who was HIV positive.
Molluscum contagiosum is an STI that I still don’t now how to pronounce correctly. But I do know what it is and how it’s spread, and that’s all that matters. Molluscum contagiosum is a skin infection that causes little (a bit smaller than a pencil eraser) flesh-colored bumps on your skin. It’s transmitted from skin-to-skin contact, including skin on the genitals. However, it can also be spread from any other body part where it’s present or from “fomites,” which is a fancy word for inanimate objects (like a wet towel) that can carry a virus.
Unlike herpes, which can remain dormant in your body for years at a time, molluscum contagiosum only lives on the surface of the skin. So once the bumps go away, you won’t be at risk of spreading it anymore.
There are three types of hepatitis — A, B, and C. Hepatitis A is spread via oral contact with fecal matter, so if your sex play involves butt stuff, the person you’re playing with has it, and you put whatever was in or near their butt in your mouth, you could get Hep A.
Trichomoniasis — “trich” pronounced “trick” for short — is probably the most common STI that no one has ever heard of. It’s caused by a parasite that likes to hang out in sexual fluids. You can spread it via intercourse but also by sharing sex toys, touching your or your partner’s genitals with infected fluids on your hands, or vulva-to-vulva contact. Like HPV and herpes, people might not show symptoms of trich, even if they’re infected, but if they do show symptoms, they might include irritation of the vulva or vagina or a urethral infection.
Pubic lice — sometimes referred to as “crabs” because they legit look like tiny crabs if you look at them under a microscope — are little bugs that hang out in your pubic hair. They’re spread by rubbing up against someone who has them. (So, yup, this is an STD you can get from dry humping!)
Syphilis is spread by direct contact with a syphilis sore, which can pop up around the genitals, the anus, in the vagina, in the rectum, or in or around the mouth. You can’t get syphilis if a person with syphilis doesn’t have a current sore, but because they can hide inside the body, you might not always know whether or not a person has syphilis.
Let untreated, syphilis can cause multiple organ failure, including of the brain and eyes, and even death. Luckily, it can be treated with antibiotics, but this isn’t a disease to be taken lightly.
So there you have it — eight STDs and STIs that can be transmitted without intercourse. While you can greatly lower your risk of contracting some of these illnesses by using condoms and other barrier methods, there’s no way to protect yourself 100 percent from skin-to-skin transmission if you’re sexually active. But there’s no way to protect yourself 100 percent from the common cold, either. So, you know — perspective.