Myth vs Fact

Six Myths About Sexually Transmitted Infections Debunked

January 2, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Although most people are sexually active, it is surprising how little some people seem to know about sex. In particular, there are a multitude of myths and misconceptions about the topic of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Below, we will review six of the most persistent false beliefs about STIs.

MYTH #1: You can avoid STIs by having oral sex instead of vaginal or anal intercourse. Do not believe this one for a second! Almost all STIs at least have the potential to be transmitted and contracted through oral sex. For instance, many people fail to realize that they can get chlamydia and gonorrhea infections of the throat. Likewise, a large number of people seemingly have no idea that “cold sores” and “fever blisters” are actually caused by the herpes virus, which means that if someone with this infection performs oral sex on you (particularly when they are experiencing on outbreak), they can potentially give you a case of genital herpes. Oh, and it is important to note that “public lice” are not just for the pubic area. In fact, they will seize the opportunity to live in your moustache or beard if given the chance. In short, oral sex is not the “safe” and “risk free” activity that so many people seem to think it is, so it would be wise to start thinking of oral sex as sex and use protection, especially if you have a new partner or multiple partners.

MYTH #2: You can tell if someone has an STI by looking at them and/or inspecting their genitals. Actually, someone with an STI can look perfectly healthy and there may be nothing out of the ordinary with their genitals. The harsh reality of some STIs (such as HPV, HIV, and chlamydia) is that they often cause few to no symptoms initially, yet are still highly contagious.

MYTH #3: You cannot get the same STI twice. Just because you have had gonorrhea once does not mean you will be inoculated against it or any other STIs in the future. In fact, you can get the same STI from the same partner over and over unless both of you get tested and treated for it.

MYTH #4: People who use condoms cannot get STIs. Although condoms provide at least some protection against most STIs, they do not guarantee your safety. For one thing, unless you are wearing a full-body condom, there is still the potential to transmit and contract viruses like herpes and HPV because those viruses can sit on parts of the skin that are not covered by condoms. In addition, people make lots of mistakes using condoms that undermine their protective benefits. For instance, some studies have found that as many as 51% of research participants indicated that they sometimes waited until after they started having sex to put a condom on, and 45% indicated that they sometimes took condoms off before they were finished having sex [1]. A large number of people also reported putting condoms on improperly, failing to inspect the packaging and expiration date, in addition to a number of other errors that increase the likelihood of disease transmission.

MYTH #5: STIs can be transmitted through public toilet seats. If you are having sex on top of a toilet, sure! Otherwise, it is pretty unlikely. It turns out that many viruses and bacteria cannot live long outside of the human body, and even if you happened to sit in someone else’s bodily fluids, infection can only occur if those fluids get inside your bloodstream or genital tract. So, unless you happen to have a lot of open cuts on your buttocks or enjoy dry humping toilet seats, the risk is pretty minimal.

MYTH #6: Only sluts get STIs. Many people think they are not at risk of contracting STIs because they do not have “that many” sexual partners. However, the reality is that you only need to have one partner to get yourself an STI, and it can happen the very first time you have sex.

The goal of this post is not to discourage you from having sex or to scare or frighten you. The point is simply to ensure that you are aware of the risks and understand the nature of these infections so that you can take the appropriate precautions, which includes correct and consistent use of condoms or other barriers (e.g., dental dams) during sexual activity and getting in the habit of regular STI screenings. The key to a lively and healthy sex life is making good decisions and knowing how to protect yourself and your partners.

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[1] Sanders, S. A., Yarber, W. L., Kaufman, E. L., Crosby, R. A., Graham, C. A., & Milhausen, R. R. (2012). Condom use errors and problems: A global view. Sexual Health, 9, 81-95. doi: 10.1071/SH11095

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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