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Sexual health: myths vs truths

When it comes to sexual health, there are a lot of myths out there. Whether you heard about it from a friend or read it on a dodgy website, believing a furphy about sexual health can come with some serious consequences.

We’ve busted some of the common myths about sexual health and sexually transmissible infections (STIs), so you can get out there and be safe, knowing you’ve got the facts in your corner.

Myth: I’m on the pill, or my partner is, so I can’t get an STI

The contraceptive pill, when taken correctly, can prevent pregnancy, however, it does not protect against STIs.

Truth: From gonorrhoea to chlamydia, syphilis and HIV, if you want to protect yourself from STIs while also preventing pregnancy, the most effective way is to also use a condom each time you have oral, anal or vaginal sex.

Myth: Pulling out protects from pregnancy and STIs

‘Pulling out’ or the ‘withdrawal method’, means withdrawing the penis before ejaculation happens. Pulling out doesn’t protect you from unintended pregnancy or from STIs.

When aroused, the penis can release pre-cum, which contains sperm, before climaxing. That means that while having penetrative sex, sperm can still be released from the penis well before ejaculation occurs.

STIs are either passed between people through intimate skin-to-skin contact or through the exchange of bodily fluids like semen or blood. This means that it doesn’t matter if you or your partner pull out; if you’ve been in, you’ll have had plenty of the type of contact that it takes to pass on or get an STI.

Truth: Pulling out doesn’t protect you from unintended pregnancies or STIs.  The most effective way of protecting yourself and your partner is to use condoms together with water-based lube.

Myth: Double the condom, double the protection

If you’re really scared about accidentally getting pregnant or catching an STI, you might have thought about using two condoms at once to get extra protection. But using two condoms can actually cause them to break more easily, because they rub against each other and create extra friction.

If used properly, condoms are very effective at preventing unintended pregnancies and protecting you from STIs.

Truth: You only need to use one condom at a time. They are most effective (and pleasurable!) when used with water-based lube.  Check out how to put on a condom here.

Myth: You can’t get STIs if you don’t have penetrative sex

STIs can spread from skin-to-skin contact and in bodily fluids. This means you can catch STIs from having any type of sex, including penetrative vaginal sex, but also from anal sex, oral sex, using your hands, intimate skin contact and sharing sex toys.

Truth: STIs can be passed on through many types of sexual contact, so you need to use protection, like a condom, and change it to a new one if you switch up your activity (say from vaginal sex to oral sex). If you’ve been getting sexy with someone else, you should have regular sexual health checks, at least once a year or more often if you’ve had unprotected sex, and each time you change sexual partner.

Myth: I don’t have sex with a lot of people, so I don’t need a sexual health check

Even if you only have one sexual partner, you still need to have a regular sexual health check. Some STIs don’t cause any symptoms, so it wouldn’t be possible for you or your partner to know if either of you had an STI unless you both have been tested.

Truth: If you’re sexually active, you should have a sexual health check regularly, at least once a year or more often if you’ve had unprotected sex, and each time you change sexual partner. Check out this clip to see how easy it is to acquire an STI, regardless of how many sexual partners you’ve had.

Myth: You can’t get an STI from kissing

It’s less common, but you can catch certain STIs just from kissing someone on the mouth.

Truth: The herpes simplex virus is transmitted through direct contact, which for oral herpes (HSV1) can include kissing and for genital herpes (HSV2) vaginal, oral, or anal sex; or other skin-to-skin contact through small cuts in the body. Avoid sex, sexual touching, kissing and oral sex if you feel an episode coming on or if you have lesions present on the mouth, lips, genital or anal areas. Wait until a week after the sores have healed up before you have sex again.

Myth: Only gay men can get HIV

HIV can affect anyone regardless of gender or sexual orientation. If you’re having sex without a condom, not taking Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) medication and the person you’re having sex with has HIV, there’s a chance you could acquire HIV too. ‘Undetectable equals untransmissible’, or U=U, refers to the fact that people living with HIV who take antiretroviral therapy for HIV daily as prescribed, and who achieve and maintain an undetectable viral load, cannot sexually transmit the virus to another person. HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva, sweat, tears, mucous, vomit, urine or faeces and you cannot catch HIV from kissing, hugging, sharing eating utensils, shaking hands or any other everyday social contact. There is no need to be scared of a person living with HIV.

Truth: Anyone can get HIV. Use protection, like a condom, PrEP or U=U, to prevent HIV infection. Remember that PrEP or U=U will not protect you against other STIs like chlamydia, gonorrhoea or syphilis.

Myth: You can get chlamydia from a toilet seat

Chlamydia cannot be passed on through casual contact such as kissing and hugging, or from sharing baths, towels, pools, toilet seats or cutlery.

Truth: Chlamydia is only transmitted via infected fluids (semenor genital secretions).  These fluids can’t live outside the human body for long periods without breaking down.

Myth: The only way to get chlamydia is by having sex

Chlamydia can be passed on when you have vaginal, anal or oral sex with someone who has an infection. It’s possible, but less likely, that chlamydia can be passed on during mutual masturbation or genital to genital rubbing when involving a lot of genital fluids.

Truth: The best way to protect yourself is to use  a condom and water based lubricant during vaginal, oral and anal sex. Before having unprotected sex, you and your sexual partner should get tested for chlamydia.

Myth: Men can’t get HPV (Human Papilloma Virus)

HPV is a very common virus that can cause genital warts in men and women, but it won’t always cause symptoms. Up to 80% of males and females who have had any kind of sexual activity involving genital contact will be infected with at least one type of genital HPV at some time. In men, the virus can live in the anus, penis and sometimes the mouth or throat. There are many strains of the HPV virus, some of which can lead to cancers of the penis, anus, mouth or throat in men.

Truth: You can catch HPV even when there are no warts around. Although condoms don’t cover all the bodily areas where genital warts can be found they still help reduce the transmission of HPV. Some types of HPV infection can be prevented by the HPV vaccine. For men the HPV vaccine helps protect against genital warts and some anal, penile and throat cancers.  Vaccination is recommended for adolescents aged 9 to 18 years; people with weakened immune systems and men who have sex with men. The National HPV Vaccination Program provides free vaccination for male and female students in the first year of high school.  Alternatively, the vaccine is available to men and women on private prescription from a GP. You can still be vaccinated if you have been infected with a type of HPV in the past.

Myth: Your body gets rid of chlamydia on its own

It is very unlikely that your immune system will be able to cure chlamydia on its own.

Truth: If it’s detected early enough, chlamydia can be treated with antibiotics. Without treatment, chlamydia can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) in women –which can cause fever, pain in the lower abdomen, difficulty in becoming pregnant, and higher risk of ectopic pregnancy – and swollen and sore testes in men too.

Myth: I’m not sleeping around so I won’t get an STI

People in monogamous relationships can still get STIs.

Truth: STIs such as chlamydia are very common. You only have to have sex with one person with chlamydia to contract it. It’s not always possible to know the sexual history of your sexual partners, and they may not know they have an STI. Many STIs are symptomless so the only way to know you have one is through regular testing.

Myth: Masturbating during STI treatment is dangerous

It’s safe to self-masturbate while being treated for bacterial STIs such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea. You’ll need to wait several days for the antibiotics to work before mutual masturbation. Alternatively, use a condom or dental dam until then.    

Truth: Most STIs are effectively treated with antibiotics and are spread by infected fluids and not by casual skin to skin contact.  It’s important to avoid sexual contact until you and your partner(s) have finished treatment. The treating clinician will give you more information on this.


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