Myth-busting about sexual health
When it comes to sexual health, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Whether we’re talking about contraception, sex, sexually transmitted infections, abortion, or pregnancy (to name a few) myths and rumours abound, and it can be difficult to figure out which sources of information are accurate, and who to believe. I’ve collected some widely believed myths that could use a little debunking or further explanation to set the record straight. See if any responses surprise you!
- Virginity is a real thing
False: The myth that virginity is a real, provable, biological fact is pervasive, damaging, and simply wrong. Virginity is a human invention that was designed to control and regulate women’s bodies and sexual lives, and continues to do so today. Virginity is defined by exclusion, as having not done something, specifically sexual interaction of some type. But what counts as sexual interaction? Can the same definition really apply to all people? And how can the complicated and confusing introduction to the world of sex be summed up in just one word? Many would argue that what characterizes the loss of virginity is the breaking of the hymen. This is problematic in a number of ways, including the fact that not every woman has a hymen, and each hymen is different; not every hymen is broken (or more accurately, stretched) during first (or second, or third) penetrative intercourse. Furthermore, the concept of virginity rarely includes other forms of sexual intercourse, like oral sex; as the traditional definition usually only encompasses heterosexual intercourse; and, in so doing, this definition deems virginity as something only a woman can have. Not every person with a vagina has a hymen, not every hymen is “broken” during intercourse, and there is often no biological difference between someone who has and hasn’t had sex.
- Hormonal birth control is bad for you
False: Somehow, in the recent fad of moving away from all things “chemical” or “unnatural” (I use both of those terms very loosely), hormones commonly found in contraceptive methods like the pill have been thrown into the mix as well. The hormones found in contraceptives are either progesterone or estrogen (or both) – both of which are hormones produced by the body. Their safety is well-documented. Having said that, everyone’s body is different and different people certainly have different responses to drugs and medications. Some people experience unpleasant side effects with the pill or other hormonal methods, like spotting, decreased sex drive, changes in mood, or breast tenderness. However, others experience positive side effects that they really like, like reduced acne, lighter and shorter periods, or no period at all. If you are experiencing unwanted side effects, you should talk to your doctor and consider switching to a different method – a different hormonal method may have a dosage that works better for you. However, know that even negative side effects do not mean that hormones are dangerous, just that everybody reacts differently to them. Most side effects are within a safe realm and can be eliminated by switching to a different method with a different dose.
- Birth control is less effective for me than other people
False, and potentially true: No method of contraception is absolutely 100% effective at preventing pregnancy (although methods like the IUD and sterilization are as close as it gets). Each method has a failure rate, from less than 1%, to 2-3%, assuming the method is used perfectly. However, some people believe that they are more likely to be the 2-3% for whom it fails to work – maybe they have become pregnant while using contraception before, or they just feel particularly unlucky. On the other hand, some people underestimate their likelihood of getting pregnant, perhaps because they have had unprotected sex before and never become pregnant. Are we just bad at interpreting statistics? Possibly. But it’s important to know that if you are using your contraceptive method correctly, your odds of contraceptive failure (your birth control not working) are slim, especially with more effective methods like the IUD. Failure rates are hard to calculate, but you can safely assume that you are no more likely to be the small percentage for whom it fails than anyone else, even if a method has failed you before.
Having said that, recent research has shown that drugs like emergency contraceptive pills (often known as Plan B) are less effective for people over a certain weight, approximately 75 kilograms (or 165 pounds), and may become ineffective for people over 176 pounds. This really sucks. Fortunately, the other most common method of emergency contraception, the copper IUD, works regardless of weight. Currently, there is no research suggesting that oral contraceptive pills become less effective when used by people over a certain weight. If you’re concerned about whether a method could be less effective for you because of your weight, talk to your doctor about your best options.
- Women who have an abortion aren’t using contraception or are irresponsible
False: So false. The reality is that no method of contraception works perfectly, and no person is perfect. Accidents and mistakes happen to all of us. Some studies show that more than half of women obtaining an abortion were using a method of contraception when they became pregnant. And things change, relationships change, and people change. Deciding to have an abortion is not an easy decision, especially with all of the stigma surrounding the procedure. For many people, choosing to terminate a pregnancy is the more responsible decision for them.
- You can’t get an STI from oral sex
False: I know, I know – no one wants to use a condom or dental dam for oral sex. And besides is it even possible to get an STI from oral sex anyways? Unfortunately, it is possible to contract STIs like HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea and herpes through oral sex. This handy chart breaks down the chance of getting STIs from different types of oral sex. And note – an STI contracted through oral sex can show symptoms like a sore throat, or itching or burning in the genital area. The best way to stay safe (in addition to using condoms and dental dams) is to get regularly tested for STIs, and to ensure your partner(s) are as well.
- You would know if you had an STI
False: Depending on the type of sexually transmitted infection (STI), you may not exhibit symptoms for days, weeks or months. Women especially may not show any symptoms at all. Symptoms may also be mild and easy to ignore or confuse with something else, like a yeast infection. However, just because you aren’t experiencing symptoms (like the common itching or burning), doesn’t mean you don’t have an STI. You can still pass an infection along to a partner if you aren’t showing symptoms (although this is uncommon for STIs like herpes). And untreated STIs can be dangerous, potentially damaging your future fertility (like chlamydia or gonorrhea) or being potentially fatal (like late-stage syphilis). If you think you may be at risk (like you’ve had unprotected sex and not known your partner’s STI status) then the only way to know for sure is to get tested. Many STIs can be easily treated with a simple course of antibiotics. The peace of mind will be worth the minimal hassle of getting tested! Not sure where to get a test? Ask your family doctor for one, or check out your nearest sexual health clinic. Here is a great overview of tests for different types of infections.
- You can’t get pregnant while you have your period
False: One question that always raises confusion when we talk about periods is whether or not you can get pregnant when you have your period. There’s good news and bad news there. The bad news: yes, you certainly can become pregnant when you have your period. The good news: your odds of getting pregnant on your period are pretty slim, especially if you have a regular cycle. The reason you can get pregnant on your period is because sperm can live inside the vaginal canal for up to five days after sex, meaning that if you have an irregular cycle and ovulate shortly after your period finishes (rather than one or two weeks after, which is characteristic of those with a regular cycle), you could become pregnant. However, if you’re using a hormonal contraceptive, like the pill, you’re still covered during that week. If you’re at all concerned, use additional contraception this week for peace of mind.
Hopefully this has helped clear up some common misunderstandings! Remember, always speak to your doctor for medical advice about your health.