n a real note: My middle school’s sex ed program was low-key comparable to the “Don’t have sex. You will get pregnant, and you will die” narrative from Mean Girls. (I wish I were joking). The program was extremely fear-based and literally used scare tactics deeply rooted in sexual shame to push “abstinence-only” programs, which is actually BS.
Thankfully, it’s now 2020 and there seriously has been so. much. improvement. in normalizing women’s sexuality. But on the other side of that, STIs have reached an all time high, and the numbers prove that young people just aren’t really getting tested at all.
So let’s address the topic that is STIs. There are so many harmful misconceptions out there due to misinformation, so please, dear reader, forget all that garbage stigma-shamed bias you’ve been told before. Read below for what you really, actually need to know:
MYTH: “STD” is the correct term
In almost all cases, you should be using the term STI, not STD. The difference being its language: one is a sexually transmitted infection (STI), the other is a sexually transmitted disease (STD). An infection occurs when a pathogen makes a home in its host, though may not grow into anything more than that. A disease continuously presents signs and symptoms that disrupts the host’s ability to function normally, says Emily L. Depasse, sexologist.
FWIW: The most common STIs like chlamydia or gonorrhea can be treated with antibiotics, just like any other bacterial infections (Colds! UTIs! Swimmer’s Ear!), so no need to treat them like a “disease.”
MYTH: Some STIs are better to have than others
This is not a ranking system, bb. None are “better” or “worse” to have than others because, hello, all STIs are treatable, manageable, and/or curable. “Saying one is better to have than the other reinforces the incorrect narrative of people being labeled as ‘clean’ or ‘dirty,’” says Depasse. And no, you’re not dirty for contracting an STI. You’re not even dirty for spilling spaghetti on your white tank. Sure, the shirt may be dirty, but you, my goddess, are not.
MYTH: STIs are consequences for unsafe sex
The American Sexual Health Association (ASHA) reports that 1 in 2 sexually active young adults will test positive for an STI by age 25. “This number is likely higher considering fear around STI screening and stigma disclosing a positive STI status,” says Depasse. So phrases like: “You should’ve used a condom” are not helpful—especially considering an STI like herpes, which is contracted via skin-to-skin contact, can be contracted with a condom on (more on that later).
Plus, the word “consequence” insinuates that you did something bad. But healthy, consensual sex with a partner is not bad, nor does it warrant a consequence. Ever.
MYTH: You can tell someone has an STI just by looking at them
“While many STIs do have presenting symptoms, some have none at all,” says Depasse. For multiple reasons, symptoms may be unnoticeable, or resemble other things like cuts, ingrown hairs, or yeast infections, she adds. But instead of relying on a genital inspection to access someone’s STI status, she suggests initiating a conversation with your partner about sexual wellness, including the last time you were tested, the results, boundaries, and what you’re looking for.
MYTH: If you have an incurable STI, you have to date someone who does too
“A positive diagnosis can seem like a sex and relationship death sentence to folks diagnosed with herpes or HIV,” Depasse explains. But people can—and do!—maintain and create sexual and romantic relationships with partners with and without STIs after a positive diagnosis.
“This often remains unbelievable, especially upon diagnosis, because we never received narratives around these types of relationships or how to navigate them with one another. Don’t let your own narrative of self-rejection prevent you from seeking a sex life outside your diagnosis,” she adds. It all comes down to communicating openly and efficiently with your partner.
MYTH: STI screening panels include all STIs.
STI screenings are a huge part of sexual self-care and wellness, and FWIW: You should be getting tested, at the very least, once a year at your annual, or after every new sexual partner. But! You might find it interesting (or more so ridiculous) that the CDC doesn’t suggest routine screening for asymptomatic individuals. What this means: If you’re not feeling weird down there, you don’t need to be tested. Not true.
If you ask to be tested for “everything,” you might not be tested for “everything” depending on your doctor. “A standard STI screening includes chlamydia, gonorrhea, and others, depending upon your age and sexual engagement and activity.” These are typically performed via a urine sample. But very commonly, herpes and HPV do not fall into that category (herpes STI testing requires a blood sample or scraping of the lesion).
What you can do: If there’s a certain test you’re hoping to have performed, you should tell your doctor explicitly you want to be tested for it. But no worries if that’s super intimidating and daunting: There are several sites that offer at-home STI testing kits that you can either mail in or take to a lab to be tested.
MYTH: You won’t get an STI if you practice safer sex
Remember when I mentioned that herpes can be contracted even with a condom? It’s true: Even if you practice the safest of safer sex, you might still test positive for an STI one day,” Depasse says. “Since some STIs are spread through skin-to-skin contact, barriers like condoms and dental dams don’t cover all of the skin around the genital region, so there’s still the possibility of transmission.”
So no matter how many screenings you get, what barrier methods you use, or how many times you tell your partners that you have an STI, she warns there will ALWAYS be the potential for transmission. “That’s just what happens when we put bodies together.”
MYTH: Cold sores aren’t herpes.
The “cold sores” you may find on your mouth are, in fact, herpes (literally caused by the herpes simplex virus or HSV). “There are two types of HSV: HSV-1 and HSV-2. HSV-1 can present orally or genitally, while HSV-2 almost exclusively presents genitally. Despite this, HSV-1 and HSV-2 share more similarities than differences,” she explains, adding that refusing to believe this truth is further evidence of STI stigma, which really is rooted in an overall discomfort with sexual expression.
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