by Julia Barr
When it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STIs), popular knowledge has suffered from a host of misconceptions and a general lack of information.
This is not a new trend: during the first HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, the popular belief was that only homosexual men and those of African descent were at risk. What’s more, medical advisories frequently failed to address how same-sex relations could be made safer, not wanting to be seen as ‘endorsing’ homosexuality. The result was a culture of misinformation and stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS--underpinned by homophobia, xenophobia and racism--that affected how people thought about HIV/AIDS and how it was treated.
Decades later many popular myths, stigmas and misunderstandings about STIs remain in circulation. In a 2016 survey conducted during Sexual Health Week:
More than half of respondents did not know that you can contract an STI from oral sex
More than two thirds of respondents reported never having been tested for an STI
Less than 10% of respondents had learned in school how to find and ask for what they need from sexual health services
There’s no shame in not knowing all the facts, nor is there shame in asking (or Googling). But how we understand STIs has important ramifications for how they are treated, the availability of resources, and our everyday habits when it comes to our sexual activity and health. If we’re going to shift the way we talk about and treat STIs, it’s important that we start by circulating more accurate and less stigmatized information, quelling popular myths, and making sexual health an open conversation.
Can you get an STI without having sex?
Not exactly. No, you are not at risk of contracting herpes from a toilet seat. Nor are STIs transmitted via mosquito bites. But ‘sexually transmitted’ encompasses a broader range of activity beyond just vaginal sex, including oral sex, anal sex, genital contact, sharing sex toys, and kissing (did you know that over two-thirds of the population carry oral herpes?). This means that regardless of your sexual orientation, number of partners or favourite position, anyone participating in sexual activity with someone else should be conscious of their risk of exposure and proactive about engaging in safe sex practices.
Does the pill prevent STI transmission?
The belief that birth control--the pill, IUDs, arm implants or patches--prevents against STI transmission is a common misconception. In a 2017 study by YouGov, 46% of respondents reported not using a condom during sex because they and/or their partner were on another form of contraception, thus they didn’t feel the need to use one. To clarify: the pill, IUDs, arm implants, and patches only aid in preventing pregnancy, and they do not protect against STI transmission. Neither is washing immediately after sex--also known as douching--a proven method for preventing STIs or pregnancy. The best way to protect yourself and your partner(s) against STI transmission is to also engage in other safe sex practices: using condoms, internal condoms (also known as female condoms) or dental dams. However, you may know (or have experienced) that condoms break, expire, can be worn incorrectly, or sometimes you won’t have one on you. To account for these realities, safe sex practices should also involve regular STI testing. By making it a part of your normal routine, you can be confident that nothing was missed.
How do I know if I have an STI?
Depending on the STI, symptoms vary and may develop differently . Some of these include groin pain, swelling, rashes, anogenital discharge, unusual bleeding, itchiness, or burning sensations. However, in many instances, men and women with STIs won’t exhibit any symptoms: a 2018 study estimated that of the over 100,000 people living with HIV in the UK, 8% are likely unaware of their diagnosis. The only way to know for certain is to get tested, and to get tested regularly. Not knowing your own status or that of your partners can be scary, but if you keep up regular testing when sexually active you can identify and treat a potential STI quickly. Although you may not always know when you’ve contracted an STI, you can assess your risk by having an honest conversation with your partner(s) about their sexual activity and check-up habits before you get down to business. While it might seem intimidating or uncomfortable at first, by normalizing this conversation, you can take some of the guesswork (did we remember to use protection?) and anxiety (do I need to get emergency testing?) out of sex and dating.
Do STIs go away on their own?
The general consensus is no. While in some cases it may be scientifically possible, it’s unlikely, and delaying treatment can lead to medical complications later in life. So while your first reaction might be to ignore and delay, to protect your future health and to prevent the spread of infections it’s better to find out and treat rather than ignore and carry on as usual. Because when you take away the myths and stigmas, STIs are treatable just like any other infection.
Julia Barr is a recent graduate of the University of Cambridge where she studied postcolonial British history. She currently serves as grant writer with Kar Geno, a Kenyan-based non-profit that assists HIV/AIDS-affected women and provides sexual health education to school-aged children.