Can you get herpes from a toilet seat? And other FAQs...

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.

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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.

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4 comments

  • Herpes is a serious and recurring disease which can’t be cured through drugs or injections by the American doctors but the best way to deal with Herpes is by taking natural herbs medicine for it,  I have read about DR EDAGHONGHON the great herbalist doctor who cure me from herpes  with his powerful herbal medicine.  i contacted him to know how he can help me and he told me never to worry that he will help me with the natural herbs from God! after 2 days of contacting him, he told me that the cure has been ready and he sent it to me via UPS SPEED POST and it got to me after 3 days! i used the medicine as he instructed me (MORNING and EVENING) and i was cured! its really like a dream but i am so happy! for the people suffering from the following diseases, Cancer, hypothyroidism, Herpes, COPD, HIV, Arthritis, Hpv, Infections,Liver Disease,, Autoimmune Diseases, Parkinson’s disease,,Lupus and more should contact him for his herbal medicine because i am a living testimony and i was cured of herpes and his medicine is legit.  i sent him what he requested and he sent me his medicine which i took for 3 good weeks and today am out here with negative result. when i went for test i was so happy after going through his medication. you can reach him through his email: dr.edaghonghonherbalhome@gmail.com or call whatsapp number:+2349056731866. he will help you out.

    jame mary
  • It’s obvious some patients with herpes are being enslaved to the antiviral and other supplementary Orthodox medicine just to help suppress the virus and not a cure. I have been with the virus since 2016 until I was introduced by a blogger who also narrated her story online on how she was cured of Genital Herpes after using Dr Noah Herbal Medicine. This is a year and 2 weeks since I was delivered from genital Herpes. All thanks to God for using this Great herbalist to heal me. I have promised to keep telling good things about Dr Noah. Please feel free to share Your problems with him and don’t forget to tell him I did refer you to Him. Thanks. Write him on mail (dr.noahmedicalcenter@gmail.com) He deals with Alzheimer virus, Cancer, HIV, Herpes, Genital, warts, ALS, BV, UTI, Virginal infection, Genital, Wart, HPV, Hepatitis A/B, Good luck, HSV, Pregnancy and lots more.
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    Antônio Gomes
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    Doris
  • This was pretty interesting.

    Jen

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