If I Still Have My Virginity, How Can I Have an STD?

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Question: If I still have my virginity, how can I have an STD?

In the early winter of 2010, I exchanged a series of e-mails with a young woman who was dumbfounded to learn that she had an STD even though she was still a virgin. I had to tell her that people often define virginity as the state of not having had vaginal intercourse. However, it is still possible for a virgin to be exposed to any number of STDs through other sexual activities -- including outercourse, oral, and anal sex.

It is important to note that the definition of virginity as not experiencing vaginal intercourse is problematic for a number of reasons. Not only does it not fully address any sexual risk other than pregnancy, it both very ableist and heterosexist. In other words, it only addresses the sexual behaviors of heterosexual individuals who are physically capable of engaging in one particular activity. Men who have sex with men and women who have sex with women may have fulfilling sexual lives without ever experiencing vaginal intercourse. So can heterosexual couples who, by choice or for health reasons, do not engage in vaginal intercourse. Very few of these individuals would self define as life-long virgins. 

Answer: There are several ways. 

There is no single definition of virginity (sometimes misspelled verginity). For some people, it means absolutely no intimate contact with another person. For others, it can mean no vaginal intercourse. Individual definitions of virginity can depend on anything from a person's sexual orientation to their religious beliefs to the town in which they were raised. Because of this, people who self identify as virgins may have experienced forms of intimate contact that can lead to STDs. 

For example, some teenagers experiment with oral sex and as ways to be sexual with their partners while still preserving their virginity. They may try these types of sex to avoid exposure to the risk of pregnancy. They may also simply enjoy these activities as relatively low-risk ways to explore their sexuality. That can be true even in an established sexual relationship. Thus, it is important for teens (and adults!) to understand that although these types of sex are relatively safe, they are not completely without risk.

Dry humping and other forms of body rubbing can pass on diseases that spread by skin-to-skin contact. For example herpes and genital warts can both be spread in this way. Oral sex can also pass on these diseases, as well as those that spread via bodily fluids.

Becoming aware of the risks of various forms of sexual expression, even the minor ones, can help people make informed decisions about their sexual lives. Before having sex, or even fooling around with someone, it's always a good idea to talk about previous sexual experiences and exposures. Testing may also be a good choice. People can also practice safe oral sex to reduce its risks. They can use barriers to make dry humping safer. For example, dry humping while wearing clothes is an incredibly safe activity, even if one person has an active infection. 

Maintaining your virginity, if you define that as avoiding vaginal intercourse, is a relatively effective method of avoiding pregnancy. It could also help you in evading parental or religious censure. However, if you engage in other sexual activities, you can still be exposed to other sexual risks. That's true whether or not you are still, technically, a virgin.

Note: The widespread lack of understanding of these topics may be, in part, attributable to the many sex education programs that focus on virginity instead of comprehensive sex education. These programs can leave young people uninformed about the risks and pleasures of sexual activities other than vaginal intercourse. They also leave youth without the tools they need to make good decisions about sex and otherwise keep themselves safe.

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