April is STI Awareness Month, a major holiday in sex educator land. It's when we drop a lot of knowledge about sexually transmitted infections (also called STIs or STDs), and remind you to get tested. This is super important because lots of us are running around all misinformed and full o’ shame when it comes to sex and infections — but it doesn’t have to be this way! Here are six STI facts sex educators want you to know:
STIs can happen to anybody, and they’re SUPER common.
Friends, STIs are a little bit of a crapshoot. There are people who have tons of sexual partners and never get an STI (either because they always have safer sex, are lucky, or both). There are people who have sex only one time with only one person and get an STI. There are people who are born with STIs, or get them from non-sexual activities (like sharing needles). There are people who get STIs from a sexual assault. There are people who get STIs from a partner who cheated on them, or were dishonest about their STI status, or had an STI for years and didn’t know it.
People of all genders, sexual orientations, relationship statuses, races, religions, nationalities, economic classes, and ages get STIs. At any given time, 1 in 5 people has an STI, and most of us get one at some point in our life.
Having an STI doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
Unfortunately, STIs often come with a side dish of shame and embarrassment that other infections don’t, just because you can get them from sex (and our culture has some pretty unhealthy, negative attitudes about sex). But the reality is that STIs are a normal part of life, and people get all kinds of infections from all kinds of everyday human activities, like breathing, eating, drinking, touching things, and — yup — from sex too.
STIs don’t define you. Nobody “deserves” to get an STI. An STI isn’t a “punishment,” and having an STI doesn’t mean you’re “dirty”— it means you’re human. Think of them like any other infection, like colds or flus: do the best you can to protect yourself and avoid getting an STI, but know that they sometimes happen anyway and it doesn’t say anything about you as a person.
The stigma surrounding STIs is super harmful to everyone, whether or not you have an STI. Stigma doesn’t make people be more careful or responsible — in fact, it does the opposite. Stigma makes it harder to do the very things that can prevent STIs: getting tested, using protection, and talking openly with partners. Being more honest and less judgmental about STIs is one of the best ways we can help keep ourselves and the people we know healthy.
Most people don’t show symptoms.
Repeat after me: the most common STI symptom is NO SYMPTOMS AT ALL. (Sorry for all the caps, but this is some important tea.) Most people with STIs don’t even know they have them. You can’t tell if someone has an STI by looking at them or their genitals. The only way to tell for sure if you or a partner has an STI is to get tested. And the best way to avoid STIs is to use condoms every time you have sex.
This may be surprising for people who saw graphic, extreme STI pictures in health class that were supposed to shock the horniness right outta you. But these scare tactics don’t actually work — after all, most people end up having sex anyway — and they also spread inaccurate ideas about what most STIs really look like. And that’s dangerous! Let’s say we’re headed to Pound Town with a new partner, and their fun zone looks A-OK — not at all like the oozing, terrifying STI pictures our gym teacher showed us in high school. We may think,“YAHTZEE! Look at those beautiful, infection-free genitals! We definitely don’t need to use condoms.” But if your sex ed taught you the real facts instead of an exaggerated horror show, you know that a lack of symptoms doesn’t always mean someone’s STI-free, and that it’s important to use condoms no matter what the situation looks like down there.
Of course, some people with STIs will show symptoms, and some symptoms are more obvious than others (like sores). But it’s also common for people with STIs to not notice symptoms, or think symptoms are caused by something else.
Bottom line: you just can’t tell STI status by looking at someone, and you can’t take their word for it — they might not know they have one, or they might be lying. So if you’re sexually active, use protection and get tested at least once a year.
Some STIs are NBD.
People tend to freak out over STIs, and it’s understandable — nobody wants an infection. But most of them (like chlamydia, gonorrhea, syphilis, and trichomoniasis) are totally curable with basic medicines and don’t cause any permanent damage if you get treatment quickly. In other words, sometimes they’re not a big whoop. And for STIs that can’t be cured (like herpes and HIV), there are medicines that can help you live a healthy life and avoid spreading the infection to others.
Of course, we should all be as careful as possible when it comes to our health (sexual and otherwise). You don’t get to choose which STIs you are or aren’t exposed to. Like many other infections, some STIs can lead to serious health problems if you don’t get treated. But if you do end up with an STI, try not to panic. There are lots of ways to keep you and your partners healthy. And the sooner you find out about it and start treatment, the better — that’s why getting tested is SO important.
STIs are spread through lots of different types of sexual activity.
STIs, depending on the type, can be spread through semen, vaginal fluids, blood, breast milk, and skin-to-skin contact. This means any sexy stuff that exposes you and your partner to each other’s genital fluids and/or skin puts you at risk for STIs. This includes (but isn’t limited to): oral sex, vaginal sex, anal sex, sharing sex toys, touching your genitals after touching your partner’s genitals, and dry humping without undies.
To protect yourself, use condoms and water-based or silicone lube for vaginal and anal sex. Lube helps condoms feel better and helps keep them from breaking. It’s also an absolute MUST for anal sex because the anus doesn’t self-lubricate like a vagina. Without lube, anal sex can lead to irritation or tearing that can increase the chance of STI (including HIV) transmission. Condoms should go on when the penis is hard but before there’s any skin-to-skin genital touching, and stay on until sex is finished (even if the penis gets soft and you have to roll on a new condom at some point). And throwing rubbers on any sex toys you share can prevent exposure to each other’s sexy fluids and keep your playthings nice and clean.
Oral sex is less risky in terms of HIV, but can still spread other infections, like herpes, gonorrhea, and HPV. Condoms make oral sex safer (and flavored condoms make it tastier!). Dental dams for oral sex on a vulva or anus will also protect both partners. If you don’t have a dental dam, you can cut a condom up the side, and open it flat.
Testing is easy (I swear).
For most STI tests, all you need to do is pee in a cup. Even HIV testing is usually needle-free: with some HIV tests you simply rub the inside of your cheek with a cotton swab and get your results in minutes. (The doctor may recommend a follow-up blood test for HIV, and some clinics may use blood tests regularly, but at lots of places it’s just a cheek swab.)
Sometimes a nurse or doctor will do a visual exam, or screen discharge from your vagina, penis, or any sores on or around your genitals and/or mouth. Some STIs (like herpes and syphilis) can be detected with a blood test, but doctors usually just give a diagnosis by looking at or swabbing fluids from sores that these infections sometimes cause.
Quick note: Pap tests don’t test for STIs, and STI testing isn’t always included in your regular physical and/or pelvic (aka vaginal) exams. So if you want to be tested for STIs at your next check up, make sure to ask your nurse or doctor — they can usually do them in the same visit. You can also get free or low-cost STI testing at your local Planned Parenthood health center.