Warning: This story contains strong sexual content
We've all become more aware of germs and hygiene over the last few weeks. Long after the current hysteria is over, our culture will fundamentally change in terms of the way we think about touching each other.
With health-consciousness on everybody's minds, let's take some time to debunk some of the common STI myths that pervade our society. If we're going to have a healthier future as a society, sexually transmitted infections can't be omitted from this newfound diligence.
Myth: Only the promiscuous have STIs
This logic is slut shaming at its finest. You could be a virgin and then have sex just once in your life, still get an STI, and never get treated for it.
Promiscuity (a sex-negative phrase I don't like using) means you have lots of sexual partners. Yet if you have lots of sexual partners, you're probably more likely to get regular STI check-ups, always know your status, and be vigilant with any necessary treatment.
Myth: You can tell someone has an STI by looking at them
Another falsehood from the slut-shamers. You don't have to have poor hygiene to get an STI – infections have nothing to do with how much soap you use. Similarly, not all STIs have physical symptoms, so a covert "genital inspection" of a new sexual partner does not necessarily mean you can't get anything from them.
Many STIs are asymptomatic or take months or years for symptoms to appear. Often, symptoms also look like something you wouldn't normally worry about (e.g. an HPV sore can easily be confused with a pimple or ingrown hair). The only way to stay safe is to ask your partners about their testing regimen, and keep the lines of communication open.
Myth: You can't get STIs from oral sex or mutual masturbation
You can get ALL STIs from oral sex. Chlamydia, gonorrhoea, HPV and herpes, genital warts, molluscum contagiosum, syphilis, hepatitis, scabies … the list goes on. All they need to skin-to-skin contact, not penetration. Here, mutual masturbation and frottage also present some small risks.
As far as kissing goes, your only risks are herpes simplex virus (cold sores) and another mild viral illness from the same family called cytomegalovirus.
Myth: HIV and Hepatitis C infection require penetration
There is little or no risk of contracting HIV through oral sex – vaginal or anal sex are the generally-accepted transmission routes because only they allow for the virus to directly enter the bloodstream. There is no risk of HIV through mutual masturbation without the exchange of bodily fluids.
However, the tiny possibility of HIV contraction via oral sex exists if a person has open sores or wounds in their mouth. If they are bleeding and come into contact with infected seminal fluid or another's blood, an HIV risk is presented. Similarly, Hepatitis C requires blood-to-blood transmission, which in a non-penetrative sexual context could include sharing of sex toys.
Myth: An STI check-up gives you the "all clear"
There are two things you need to ask the medical professional or counsellor performing your regular STI check-ups. "What STIs are you screening for?", and "what are the window periods of each of them?".
When you walk into a clinic for a check-up, you will be questioned about your recent sexual behaviour. This determines which tests you need, and which you probably do not (meaning funding isn't wasted on unnecessary testing).
There are some tests (e.g. Hepatitis C) that are excluded from general screenings because they are expensive, and you need warranted cause (i.e. an exposure of concern) to get one. Other tests like HPV and herpes require blood samples or scaping of an active lesion and are not part of the "full screening" you think you're getting.
What's more, any negative result only clears you outside of the window period – the time in which any infection takes to show up on tests after transmission. For many STIs there is a two week window, meaning no sex you've had in the prior 14 days factor into your results. Depending on the type of test, HIV screenings can have up to 12 week window periods.
Myth: If you have an uncurable STI, your sex life is over
The likes of HIV and HPV will be with you forever, and can only be managed – not cured – like other STIs. A positive diagnosis will change your sex life, but won't have to signal its dearth.
Medication can and will make viruses like these undetectable and un-transmittable. While you need to tell any sexual partners of your status, you will not have to live with the fear of infecting them. People can, and do, have normal, functional sex lives whilst living with sexually transmitted infections.