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Mythbusting Sex Part 2: STIs and Pregnancy Prevention

In part 1 of our Mythbusting Sex series, we tackled some of the pervasive myths about our genitals and how they work. Here in part 2 we're getting into some of the many misconceptions around STIs, contraception and sexual health.

Why does this matter? Understanding how contraception works and how STIs are (and aren't) spread is vital to reducing rates of unwanted pregnancies and STIs. Misconceptions around STIs also contribute to their stigma and the shame people often feel if they catch one - but as we'll discuss, getting an STI isn't the end of the world.

Pregnancy Myths

Two hands holding a positive pregnancy test
Image Credit: Cottonbro Studio

Myth: You can’t get pregnant if you have sex standing up/shower after sex/douche after sex/the first time you have sex/if you’re on your period/if it's a full moon...

Fact: You can potentially get pregnant any time you have penis-in-vagina sex

It is possible to get pregnant when you are on your period, depending on your menstrual cycle. Sex position has no effect on how likely you are to get pregnant as sperm can swim against gravity. Showering or douching after sex is also not shown to reduce the risk of pregnancy. Use condoms and/or other birth control to reduce the risk of pregnancy.

Myth: Pulling out is a good way to prevent pregnancy

Fact: There are a lot of ‘pull out’ babies in the world

 The ‘withdrawal method’ of contraception, or pulling out, involves removing the penis from the vagina before ejaculation. While this does reduce the likelihood of pregnancy somewhat if done reliably, the key word is ‘reliably’ - it can be very hard to stop and pull out when you’re close to orgasm! Additionally, pre-cum (that fluid that sometimes leaks from the penis when you’re sexually stimulated) can contain some sperm, so there is always a pregnancy risk with this method.

Myth: Birth control is a form of abortion

Fact: Birth control is not a form of abortion as it prevents pregnancy from happening in the first place

All birth control acts by either preventing ovulation (the release of an egg into the fallopian tube to be fertilized) or by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus lining, which is the definition of when pregnancy begins. Even emergency contraception isn't abortion and is designed to prevent implantation into the uterus lining.

Myth: Emergency contraception doesn't really work

Fact: Emergency contraception is over 95% effective at preventing pregnancy if taken correctly

Emergency contraception is contraception that is designed to be used after you've had unprotected sex. Emergency contraception options include hormonal medication (aka the 'morning after pill') or insertion of a copper IUD. According to the World Health Organization, emergency contraception is effective at preventing 95% of unwanted pregnancies if taken correctly - this means as soon as possible after sex (within 5 days, but ideally sooner), and in the correct dosage for your weight if taking it as a medication - many morning-after pills don't work well if you weigh over 165lb or 195lb depending on brand.

For more information on different forms of contraception that are available, check out Planned Parenthood's contraception resource page.

Condom Myths

Many brightly colored condoms on a table
Image Credit: Bruno from Pixabay

Myth: Condoms don’t work

Fact: Condoms significantly decrease STI transmission and pregnancy risk

This dangerous myth seems to have come out of the abstinence-only education movement. The fact is that when used correctly, condoms significantly decrease the risk of both pregnancy and of contracting an STI. Condoms work because they create a physical barrier that prevents you from being exposed to your partners’ bodily fluids. They work best when used correctly - see Planned Parenthood’s guide - and should be something you carry with you if you expect to have sex involving a penis.

Myth: You won’t feel anything with a condom

Fact: Condoms do not make you numb

While sex with a condom can feel slightly different to sex without, it’s simply not true that you won’t feel anything. If you’re using a condom that’s the wrong size or fit or not using enough lube it can make things feel less pleasurable. So try a few different brands and sizes of condom (yes, they come in different sizes and even shapes!) to figure out what feels best. You should never feel pressured into having sex without a condom because your partners says they won’t enjoy it otherwise - they are either misinformed or lying to you.

Myth: Doubling up on condoms makes it safer

Fact: It’s safest to use condoms one at a time

If one condom gives you some protection, then two should be even more effective, right? Afraid not. Condoms are engineered to be used singly. Using two condoms - one on top of the other - actually increases the likelihood that they’ll both tear, as they are designed to rub against skin, not other condoms. 

Sexually Transmitted Infection Myths

Two peoples bodies embracing, focus is on their limbs entwining
Image Credit: Cottonbro Studio

Myth: Only men who have sex with men (MSM) can get HIV

Fact: Anyone can contract HIV

While its true that MSM have higher rates of HIV than other demographics, according to the CDC 22% of new HIV infections in 2021 were in people who had had heterosexual sex. So it’s important to protect yourself regardless of your sexuality or the sexuality of your partners. Condoms and PrEP (pre-exposure prophylactic medication) significantly reduce the likelihood of contracting HIV.

Myth: If you catch and treat an STI, you have ‘immunity’ to it and can’t catch it again

Fact: Treatment is not the same as vaccination, and you can catch the same STI multiple times

Whether it's a viral infection like HPV or a bacterial one like chlamydia, it's very possible to get reinfected if you are exposed to it again. We don't have a vaccine for most STIs (except some strains of HPV), so you should never assume you have immunity to them.

Myth: You can tell if someone has an STI by looking

Fact: Many STIs have no visible symptoms, or no symptoms at all

If only it were this easy. Many STIs can be symptomless, at least for a while. For example, chlamydia is often completely symptomless in people with penises, but can cause pelvic pain and infertility for those with uteruses. Regular STI testing is the only way to know if you are carrying an STI.

Myth: Anal sex is a ‘safe’ alternative to vaginal sex

Fact: It’s only less risky when it comes to pregnancy

While anal sex is very unlikely to result in pregnancy, it’s actually the most risky form of sex when it comes to STI transmission. This is because the rectum is actually pretty delicate, and it's very easy for it to develop tiny rips or tears during anal sex. These tears allow bacteria and viruses to enter your bloodstream and infect you. Condoms can reduce the risk of STI transmission substantially during anal sex.

Myth: You can’t get STIs from oral (or hand stuff)

Fact: You can get STIs from any kind of sexual contact

There are many STIs that can be spread through oral sex and even hand stuff like hand jobs and fingering - basically, anytime one person’s bodily fluids or skin comes into contact with yours, there is a risk of transmission. Did you know that STIs can live not just on your genitals, but also in your anus, rectum, mouth, or throat? To reduce the risk of transmission you can use barriers such as dental dams for oral or nitrile gloves for hand stuff, as well as condoms for vaginal or anal sex.

Myth: I had an STI test so I’m ‘clean’

Fact: An STI test may not give you the complete picture

First, let’s not use the word ‘clean’ to mean STI-free, because that implies that someone who has an STI is ‘dirty’. If you’re getting screened for STIs, that’s great! But you should ask your doctor what exactly they are testing for - different health providers will test for different STIs by default. Your health provider should be able to advise you on which STIs you’ll want to test for based on your sexual and health history. And if you have oral or anal sex, you’ll want to ask for samples to be taken from those areas as well as your genitals as many STIs can live on these body parts.

You should also know that some STIs can take several weeks after infection to show up on a test - so it’s a great idea to test regularly (for example, every few months or each time you have a new partner) and to communicate with your partners about exactly which STIs you have each been tested for, and when. 

Myth: Catching an STI means you are dirty/slutty/your life is ruined forever

Fact: Most STIs are curable or treatable and you can still have a fulfulling sex life if you contract an STI

So many people are terrified of getting a STI and it's common to feel dirty, corrupted or 'ruined' if you do get a positive diagnosis. But the reality is that STIs are just like any other infection. You wouldn't feel like your life or body had been ruined forever if you caught a cold, would you? In fact, most sexually active people will contract an STI at least once during their lifetime (seriously, the CDC says that 'nearly everyone will get HPV at least once').

Most STIs can be cured or at least treated. For incurable STIs like HSV and HIV there are effective antiviral treatments that can both keep symptoms at bay and significantly reduce the chance of passing on the infection to others. This means that it is totally possible to have a fulfilling sex life after an STI diagnosis (but please follow medical advice around when it's safe to engage in sexual activity again). The biggest hurdle many people face is not the medical consequences of infection but the social stigma around having an STI at all - and that's something we can change by choosing to be better informed.

For more information on specific STIs, how they are spread and how they are treated, check out Planned Parenthood's STI resource page.

Stay tuned for part 3 of our Mythbusting Sex series where we'll be talking about arousal, performance, kink, butt stuff, toys and more!

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