7 Myths About Safe Sex and STDs

Avoid misconceptions that can lead to infection

When it comes to making the right choices about safer sex, people often come up short. And it's not that people are necessarily uneducated or irresponsible. It is simply that myths and misinformation about sex spread like wildfire over the internet and from person to person, making it difficult to know what's true and what's not.

Some ill-founded behaviors are learned in childhood and become embedded as fact by the time we reach adulthood. Others are picked up along the way and, as outlandish they may seem, are shared by more people than you might think.

Not only are these myths and falsehoods aggravating, but they increase your risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) by lowering your guard and your perceived risk of infection.

Here are 10 popular myths about sex that deserve dispelling:

"I only date virgins."

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There are several things wrong with this statement. The first is that it assumes that you can either tell someone is a virgin or believe that the person claiming to be a virgin is actually telling the truth.

More importantly, "being a virgin" says nothing about whether a person has an STD or not. For some, a "virgin" simply means that you've never had vaginal intercourse. The problem with this is that anal sex, oral sex, and even frottage can also transmit certain STDs, including human papillomavirus (HPV) and herpes.

In the end, "sleeping with virgins" is no guarantee that your partner is free of infection.

"You only get HIV from anal sex."

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This belief stems from the long-held belief that only gay men get HIV (or, worse yet, that gay men are responsible for passing the virus to heterosexuals). Not only are they beliefs homophobic, but they are also dangerous.

In the United States, heterosexuals account for 24 percent of all HIV infections, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Of these, vaginal sex is the predominant mode of transmission.

Worldwide, almost 90 percent of all HIV infections are transmitted through vaginal intercourse. In the end, any exchange of semen, blood, or body fluids has the potential to transmit HIV.

"I've been tested for everything."

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It is impossible to be tested for everything. There are a number of common STDs for which there are no commercial tests. There are certain tests are only accurate during an outbreak. Even if a comprehensive STD screening is performed, there is no way to know if you were tested in the window period when the results are most accurate.

The point is this: unless a person can show you their test results, you can never really know for sure if they are lying or telling the truth. Even then, it is possible to have gotten an STD after the tests were performed.

Given these odds, the only reasonable option is to practice safe sex or find another partner you can trust.

"I would know if I had an STD."

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If only this were true. If it were, people could save a lot of time and money by not having to go for regular STD testing.

The simple truth is that most STDs are asymptomatic (without symptoms). That doesn't mean they are any less harmful. STDs like HIV, hepatitis B, and syphilis can cause increasing damage to the body even as they remain invisible for years and even decades.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, no less than 20 percent of the 1.2 million Americans with HIV are wholly aware of their status.

It is a statistic echoed with many other STDs and the reason why infection rates fail to reverse despite public health interventions.

"You can tell if someone has an STD."

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No, you can't. Not only are most STD asymptomatic, but the signs, if any, are often internalized or non-specific. It's not uncommon, for example, for an acute HIV infection to be mistaken for the flu or for chlamydia or gonorrhea to present with only mild itchiness.

This is why you can't "blame" someone for giving you an STD if you make no effort to protect yourself. Rather than checking for signs and symptoms that may not be there, you would do better to limit your numbers of sex partners and practice safer sex with each and every encounter.

"Condoms don't work."

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Condoms do occasionally burst or fall off. With that being said, when used correctly, their failure rate is surprisingly low. The simple truth is that most failures are not the result of product flaws but rather product misuse and improper application.

Rather than ditch condoms, learn how to properly size them so that they fit snugly and neither fall off nor break. If you use latex condoms, only buy water-based lubricants. (Oil-based ones can degrade the latex structure and increase the risk of breakage.)

If you are allergic to latex, try one made of polyisoprene (non-latex natural rubber). On the other hand, avoid lambskin and novelty condoms, neither of which provide ample protection against STDs.

Condoms can be stored at room temperature, but keep them away from direct sunlight. If a condom has expired or is any way damaged or discolored, throw it away.

"Oral sex is safe."

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It is reasonable enough to suggest that oral sex is "safe" in that it won't get you pregnant. You can also argue that the risk of HIV from oral sex is low to negligible.

If pregnancy and HIV were the only things to worry about, you might very well declare oral sex "safe." But clearly, they are not.

Chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and herpes can all be readily passed through oral sex. And, if they are, you may not even realize it outside of a scratchy throat.

In the end, almost any form of sex has the potential to transmit infection, including shared toys and mutual masturbation. This doesn't mean you should avoid sex.

Rather, use your best judgment, ask your partner all the right questions, and use protection each and every time you have sex to reduce your risk of STDs.

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