Ten Common STD Myths About Sexual Risk

I frequently get e-mails asking if something, or someone, the writer has just done might have exposed them to an STD. Interestingly, these letters invariably include a lot of back story that illustrates multiple misconceptions about STD risk. For example, when there is a person who is furious because their partner has been diagnosed with genital herpes but casually mentions performing oral sex on them with active cold sores. Or, it might be someone who has just been diagnosed with chlamydia 10 years into a marriage and assumes their partner cheated... even though neither of them had been tested. Either way, there is a lack of accurate information at work.

I'd know if my partner had an STD.

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People often think that you can tell if someone has an STD just by looking at them, smelling them, or judging their character. You can't. Many STDs are asymptomatic -- meaning they have no symptoms . In addition, STDs can affect anyone. They're diseases, not moral judgments.

The only way for you to know if you have an STD is to get tested. The only way for you to know if your partner has an STD is to ask when they were last tested and what their results were. Getting tested before you start a relationship is a great way to avoid unfounded accusations of cheating later on.

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If I trust the person I'm dating, we don't need STD tests.

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People often talk about waiting until they know and trust their partner to have sex, or stop having safe sex. However, trust has little to do with a realistic assessment of STD risk. I suppose the theory is that when you trust someone, they'll let you know if anything is wrong with their health. Unfortunately, when it comes to STDs, that thinking ignores two simple facts. First, your partner may not know that they are infected. Second, the stigma of STD infection is so strong they may be afraid to talk about a diagnosis, or their sexual history, for fear of losing your love.

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I go to the doctor regularly. She'd tell me if I had an STD.

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STD testing isn't part of most individuals' annual exams - either at a primary care physician's office or at the OB/GYN. If you want to be screened for STDs, you usually have to ask for it. Many doctors are reluctant to test patients automatically. That's why asking for a test is the only way to be certain of your status. Otherwise, you could be making false assumptions about your safety.

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Oral sex isn't risky, so I don't have to worry about it.

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Although you may be unlikely to get HIV from oral sex, that doesn't mean it's safe. You can quite easily get herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, and even HPV during oral sex. In fact, oral sex is thought to be a risk factor for sexually transmitted throat cancer. That's why it's a good idea to consider using a condom or a dental dam as appropriate.

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Women don't need to carry condoms. That's the man's job.

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Although men may have condom brands they prefer, that doesn't mean they always have them on hand. There's nothing as frustrating as deciding that you're ready to have sex with someone only to discover that neither of you has a condom handy. That's why if you're thinking about becoming intimate with a partner, it's always a good idea to carry your own condoms. It's better to be safe than running around looking for an open drug store at two in the morning.

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I'm over 50. STDs aren't an issue for me.

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Many individuals who came of age before the AIDS era are unaccustomed to thinking about sex as an activity that needs to be performed safely. That's one of the reasons why older individuals have some of the fastest growing rates of HIV. Older women are also at increased risk of cervical cancer. This is both because they may have been infected with HPV for long periods of time and because they may have stop getting screened when they no longer needed contraception. When it comes to sexual health, older does not necessarily mean wiser.

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I can't get herpes from someone with no symptoms.

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Many people think that only individuals with an active herpes outbreak can transmit the virus. That isn't the case. Individuals with an active outbreak ARE most infectious. However, people can transmit herpes even in the absence of symptoms. That is why suppressive therapy is sometimes recommended as a way to reduce partner risk. Consistent condom use helps too.

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If I'm honest about my herpes, I will never date again.

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Being diagnosed with genital herpes can be incredibly depressing. That's true even for people who have lived with cold sores (oral herpes) their entire life. One of the biggest concerns is often that if someone is honest with their future partners, they will never be able to date again.

Fortunately, that doesn't seem to be true. There are some people who are too paranoid to look past a herpes diagnosis. Still, most individuals are willing to take an informed risk for someone they care about. That's particularly true when the person is willing to discuss their herpes infection in an upfront and matter-of-fact way.

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Consistent condom use is unrealistic.

Why I think that "I don't have an STD!" identity cards are a bad idea.. (c) 2008 Elizabeth R. Boskey licensed to About.com, Inc.

Many people seem to think that condoms are something you just use until you know your partner well enough. There's no reason, however, for that to be the case. Many individuals use condoms as a normal part of their sex life -- for contraception. They don't find regular use to be unrealistic at all. Condoms are as much a part of sex for them as taking off their clothing. They're an assumption, rather than a negotiation. It's all in how you think about things.

That having been said, if latex condoms cause you physical discomfort, it may be worth exploring alternative protection options to see if you may have a spermicide sensitivity or latex allergy. Choosing the right condom can make a big difference in how "realistic" and enjoyable they are.

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Lesbians don't need to have safe sex or go to the gynecologist.

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Many women think that if they don't have sex with men, they aren't at risk of any STDs. That, however, isn't the case. Women can spread numerous STDs to one each other during oral sex, manual sex, and even frottage. Lesbian sex is generally lower risk than heterosexual or gay sex. That isn't the same as saying it carries no risk. Safe sex and STD screening are just as useful for women who only have sex with women as they are for everyone else. So are gynecologist visits. That's true even for women who don't need contraception.

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