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Think you know about sex? Think again.
You may think you know everything there is to know about sexual health, but you’d be surprised to hear the number of myths on this topic which are so persistent that they have become accepted as fact. Here we look into and debunk five of the most prevalent sexual health myths.
1. You can’t catch an STI if both partners are virgins
Though this may seem logical, it is perfectly possible to transmit an STI to your partner even if neither of you has had penetrative sex in the past. This is because STIs can be passed on through any form of unprotected sexual activity. Though STI transmission most commonly occurs during penetrative sex, it can also occur during oral sex and manual sex, and even through the sharing of sex toys. Some STIs, such as herpes, can even be spread through simple skin-to-skin contact, such as kissing.
This does not mean that you should be scared of any kind of sexual contact, but simply that you should remain alert to the possibility of STIs, especially with a new partner. Don’t be afraid to discuss sexual history with new partners. We recommend that every sexually active individual gets tested for STIs regularly, ideally once a year. You should take an STI test every time you have unprotected sex.
2. Most of the time, you can tell if someone has an STI
Though many campaigns have been run over the years by various health bodies and sexual health charities to combat this myth, it continues to persist. The vast majority of STIs are asymptomatic, which means that no symptoms will be present to indicate an infection. This means that there is no way to know by looking at someone whether they have an STI, and it equally means that it is entirely possible that they do not know themselves. Some STIs do present characteristic symptoms, like the fleshy growths of genital warts, but even these tend to be concentrated to a specific, usually-covered area.
As above, make sure you get yourself tested regularly for STIs, and never engage in unprotected sex with an individual unless they too have been given the all-clear.
3. You can catch an STI from a public toilet seat
This is one of the oldest sexual health myths around, and though it seems most people are now aware of its inaccuracy, some people still believe it. The myth has possibly persisted because it has the scare factor of public toilets in general, but the truth is that the bacteria or viruses that cause STIs are not physically able to stay alive outside of the body for long enough to be able to infect you. This means that in the unlikely event that a bodily fluid from an infected individual was left on a toilet seat, it would still not be able to infect you even if it came into contact with you.
Though STIs can’t be spread by this method, you should still bear in mind the ways they can be spread as detailed above, and take adequate precautions to stay protected.
4. Bacterial STIs are not as bad as viral STIs and will go away on their own
It is true that there is an important difference between bacterial and viral STIs, but it is not true that one is “worse” than the other. Viral STIs, like genital warts and genital herpes, are incurable and their symptoms tend to be far more visible, which is likely to be the reason why people assume they are worse than bacterial STIs. However, though bacterial STIs can be cured very easily with a course of antibiotics, they are potentially very dangerous if they are not treated, and as they are usually asymptomatic, an infected individual can go for months without seeking treatment. Potential health complications include infertility and pelvic inflammatory disease.
5. STIs only happen to people who sleep around
This is perhaps one of the most pervasive and most dangerous myths that continues to persist in today’s culture. This is the reason that many people, especially young people, feel reluctant to discuss STIs with new partners and hold back from seeking medical treatment and advice if they suspect they may have contracted an STI. The truth is that anyone can contract an STI, as it just takes one instance for transmission to occur. As stated above, penetrative sex does not necessarily have to take place for an STI to spread; in some cases simply kissing will spread an infection. STIs can happen to anyone, regardless of the frequency of their sexual activity, and they do not and should not have any kind of an effect on an individual’s reputation.
Want to know more about sexual health? The NHS UK website has a sex myth buster section on all areas of sexual health here. If you are worried that you may have caught an STI, we recommend you take a test.