If only sex were all about having orgasms, making babies (if that’s your thing), and creating intimacy. Unfortunately, when you’re sexually active, you also run the risk of contracting an STI (sexually transmitted infection). According to the American Sexual Health Association, one in two sexually active individuals will contract an STI by age 25, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 20 million new STIs occur every year in the U.S. Additionally, the CDC estimates that undiagnosed STIs cause 24,000 women to become infertile annually. Not fun! Part of the reason for this is a lot of misinformation circulating about sexual health, including STIs. Maybe you’ve heard something you’re uncertain of—like you can tell if you have an STI—and you don’t know what to believe. What’s fact versus fiction?
Before you start madly searching WebMD for symptoms or swearing off sex, we consulted with a couple of sexperts who busted the biggest STI myths. Because knowledge equals power, and in this case, it can also lead to safer (and hopefully more passionate) sex.
Myth #1: You can tell if you have an STI.
Think you don’t have an STI because you don’t have any bumps or warts? Think again. “If you haven’t been tested, you don’t know if you have an STI,” Dr. Jessica O’Reilly, host of the @SexWithDrJess podcast, tells HelloGiggles. “In many cases, STIs (e.g. chlamydia) are asymptomatic, so the most common symptom can be no symptom at all.” Which is why regular testing is essential to safer sex practices and long-term health. While an STI may be asymptomatic for some time, untreated, it can lead to health issues including pelvic inflammatory disease, reactive arthritis, ectopic pregnancy, and infertility.
Myth #2: Using condoms is enough to prevent STIs.
While using condoms is an excellent way to prevent STIs, it’s not the end-all-be-all. “Getting tested is also essential, as condoms do not offer 100% protection or protect against all STIs,” says Dr. Jess. “Herpes, for example, can be spread by skin-so-skin contact and condoms do not cover the entire region of contact for most sexual activities.”
For oral sex, you can use condoms, dental dams, and gloves to reduce skin-so-skin contact and fluid exchange.
Myth #3: You can use the male and female condom together.
If you put two condoms together, then you must get double the protection, right? Wrong. “You only need to use one condom—regardless of whether it’s the penis/outer condom or the internal condom,” says Dr. Jess. “If you use two condoms together, it can decrease their efficacy by increasing the risk of tearing and breakage.”
Myth #4: All lubes are condom-tested.
“Not all lubes are designed to be used with condoms and not all products marketed as personal lubricants are condom-tested. Using lube that has been tested per ASTM condom compatibility guidelines as laid out by the FDA is advisable,” says Dr. Jess, who recommends Astroglide’s lubricants, which undergo FDA testing and have different lubes that are compatible with different condoms.
And, most importantly, don’t use oil-based lubes or lotions (e.g. coconut oil, petroleum jelly) with condoms as the oil can increase the risk of breakage.
Myth #5: Some women just have pain with sex, that’s normal!
Experiencing discomfort during sex? Don’t discount it, says Dr. Brian Levine, an ob/gyn and founding partner at CCRM-New York, a fertility clinic. “Pain with intercourse can be a sign of decreased lubrication, which is typically a function of low estrogen, which can also be a sign of an ovarian problem that may cause infertility,” he tells HelloGiggles. “Painful sex can also be associated with a disease called endometriosis, whereby the cells of the uterus are growing outside of the uterus inside the body. This too is a common cause of infertility. If it hurts, or when in doubt, go see a doctor; no need to accept painful sex as the norm.”
Myth #6: Aside from HIV, all STIs can be cured with antibiotics.
While many STIs can be treated with antibiotics, Dr. Levine notes that “even those infections that can be treated with antibiotics, such as gonorrhea or chlamydia, can lead to devastating, irreversible damage to fallopian tubes, which are critically important [if] trying to get pregnant in the future.” He also notes that syphilis, which is curable with antibiotics, is often not caught in its earliest stages, and therefore treatment might not undo damage that the infection has already caused. “Lastly, genital warts are a sexually transmitted infection, and they can require life-long anti-viral medication.” The same goes for herpes.
Myth #7: Your dating life will change drastically after an STI diagnosis.
Contracted an STI and worried about your sex life? Don’t be. “The stigma associated with an STI diagnosis is often worse than the symptoms themselves,” says Dr. Jess. “Some STIs (e.g. chlamydia, gonorrhea) can be cured with simple antibiotics. Others (e.g. herpes) are not curable, but are manageable with medication and breakouts tend to become less intense and less common over time.”
According to Courtney Brame of the Something Positive for Positive People podcast, your sex life will change after an STI diagnosis—but in a good way. Brame, who was diagnosed with genital HSV-2 (the virus that causes genital herpes), tells HelloGiggles that his own STI status has led to better communication with potential partners.
“Creating space for a conversation around sexual health prior to physical intimacy allows for open discussions of turn-ons, kinks, consent, negotiations, dos and don’ts,” he says. “While disclosure itself can ‘ruin the mood,’ there’s something sexy about someone who’s knowledgeable of their own STI status, positive or negative. Having a deeper understanding of my own body has helped me communicate confidently to partners about what feels good to me and give them the safety and security they need to know that my goal is to bring pleasure to the interaction while doing my best to keep them safe.”
Myth #8: Your annual checkup screens for STIs.
It’s important to know that some doctors will screen for STIs, while others will not. “It’s not uncommon for health practitioners to make assumptions about your sex life based on your age and relationship status instead of assessing risk based on behaviors,” says Dr. Jess. “Standard STI testing may not screen for all STIs (e.g. herpes simplex virus), so if you believe you are at risk (e.g. your partner has tested positive), you’ll likely need to ask your doctor to conduct the appropriate screening.”