Everything else

Truth or Scare

Separating fact from fiction when it comes to sex and other stuff.

Illustration by Beth

A couple of weeks ago, my editors asked me if I would put my skills as a nurse practitioner/sex-haver to use by debunking some of the most prevailing myths about sex and our bodies and other stuff that seems to generally cause confusion. I went to the Rookie clubhouse (a mythical place that should exist) and asked my fellow staffers to tell me what they’d heard/learned/feared over the years, which led to a pretty amusing discussion wherein all sorts of urban legends were trotted out: one girl heard that masturbating too much causes the vagina to dry out (nope); another’s mom told her that douching with Coca-Cola after sex would kill sperm (no, and also: sticky). Misinformation and rumors spread for all sorts of reasons, ranging from the innocuous (imaginations, y’all) to the seriously effed (authority figures who want to discourage sexual exploration by any means necessary), and I couldn’t possibly tackle everything in one article, but I tried to identify some running themes and set the record straight, because the truth matters.

OK, now on to the lies, in various Important Categories:

Vaginas

They are dirty and they smell bad.

That wet spot in your drawers throughout the day is your vagina cleaning house. Vaginal fluid helps to maintain a relatively acidic pH situation in your vag, which prevents bacteria from causing infection. How much discharge is “normal” varies widely from vagina to vagina, so you should familiarize yourself with what’s typical for you—that way, you can pick up on any sudden changes in color or volume or smell, which could indicate an infection. (Here’s a cheat sheet to help with that.) A healthy vagina is not odorless, and it’s not supposed to smell like roses either, so you don’t need to use any specialty products like douches to “clean” it—just water is good, and just on the outside, because it can take care of itself. If you prefer to use soap, use an unscented one that’s less likely to cause irritation—again, only on the outside! The inside is self-cleaning. Amazing, right? Your vagina has got it covered.

They stretch like a sweater after a lot of uses.

No! The vag is not like a sweater. (But if it were, mine would be one of these.) You don’t have to worry about it stretching with wear. It’s a muscle, and like other muscles in your body, it can flex without losing its shape. Frequent penetration, whether we’re talking large penises or hands or vibrators or anything else one might use for pleasure, does not change this fact, and nothing short of having a baby will noticeably alter muscle tone. Even then, this is not the case for every person, and the change is not usually dramatic or irrevocable—like any muscle, the vagina can be exercised by contracting and relaxing it (aka Kegel exercises).


Periods and Tampons

A period is a geyser of fresh, red blood.

One Rookie said that she used to think her period would involve “beautiful red blood seeping sweetly out of [her] vag, and not sometimes incredibly dark to the point of looking poo-colored,” and another believed that once you started menstruating, the blood would “just keep gushing.” No. Here’s the deal: Most people get their period for about a week every month, or technically about every 21 to 40 days for about three to seven days at a time. But it usually takes three to five years after your first period for your cycle to become regular, and even then, it can be unpredictable if you’re not taking hormonal birth control. There’s also huge variation in the consistency of menstrual blood—your flow can change from light spots to clumps that resemble loogies, which usually form during the heavier part of your cycle. The blood can vary in color from bright red to almost black, and usually gets darker toward the end of your cycle, when it’s not being dispelled as quickly, so it’s not as fresh when it finally comes out. Despite apparently widespread fears of menstruation being like that scene from The Shining, you only lose about four to 12 teaspoons of blood during each round.

There are exceptions. If you’ve got a story like this one from Emma, where you’re changing your pad/tampon every hour because it’s soaked, or you’re experiencing a lot of pain, take her incredibly good advice and see a doctor. This could be the result of several issues—endometriosis, hormonal imbalances, cervical polyps—and treatments vary, so you want to relieve the discomfort and make sure that everything is OK.

Tampons will “take your virginity”…

As Jamie wrote here, only you can decide what constitutes “losing your virginity” (if you even want to define sexual experiences through that paradigm). Even going strictly by the “broken hymen = not a virgin” formula doesn’t work: not every person born with a vagina has a hymen, and if they do, it’s rare to have one that fully covers the vaginal entry. Hymens are different—most are ring-shaped, with openings that are large enough to accommodate a tampon without breaking. Actually, it’s rare for a hymen to “break” at all; it tends to stretch or experience minor ruptures from various activities, sexual and otherwise. The Swedish Association for Sexuality Education was so fed up with the myths surrounding the hymen that they campaigned to rename it the “vaginal corona,” and put out a great pamphlet on the topic.

…or kill you…

Toxic shock syndrome is a severe bacterial infection that isn’t caused by tampons themselves, but can be associated with tampon usage in less than half of cases, because tampons can rub against the walls of your vagina, which allows certain dastardly bacteria to enter your bloodstream. One Rookie wondered if TSS was related to bad hygiene, but it isn’t—even if you accidentally leave a tampon in for a week, you will probably not develop TSS (less than one in 100,000 menstruating women per year do). You’re probably more likely to meet someone in a band called Toxic Shock Syndrome than you are someone who’s actually suffered from it, but it is a medical emergency, so in the unlikely event that you develop any of the symptoms—a high fever, red rash, vomiting or diarrhea, or low blood pressure (whose symptoms might include dizziness or fainting)—take out your tampon and head to the nearest ER. If you’re really apprehensive about TSS, you might consider switching to low-absorbency tampons, which are thought to reduce the risks by creating less friction, or you could try the Diva Cup, which Krista highly recommended here.

…or else disappear, never to be heard from again.

At the deep end of your vagina is your cervix, the donut-shaped entrance to your uterus (click here for clear photos). If you’ve never had a baby, the hole of the donut is about three millimeters wide. I ransacked my apartment to find something that was comparable in size, but nothing was small enough. (Maybe a really tiny bead?) Point is, tampons can’t get into your uterus, let alone float around the rest of your abdomen. It is possible to forget that you put a tampon in, or for it to get lodged in an area of your vagina that you can’t seem to reach, because your cervix changes position throughout the menstrual cycle, making retrieval difficult. If this happens, wash your hands, sit on a toilet, and bear down like you’re pooping, then do a sweep of the inside of your vagina with two fingers (read these steps for getting a tampon out like a ninja). If you still can’t reach it, trust me, you won’t be the first person to visit a doctor or healthcare provider for a lost tampon.

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56 Comments

  • Domenic January 30th, 2013 11:32 PM

    Can but holes loose their tightness though?

    xx Domenic

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 12:57 AM

      The sphincter, just like the vaginal canal, is a muscle, and it too can be stretched and toned just like any other muscle. So, no, putting anything smaller than a human baby in there isn’t gonna permanently alter the relative laxity of your butthole!

      • Domenic January 31st, 2013 9:37 PM

        yay!

        xx

      • sophiethewitch February 1st, 2013 2:03 AM

        Sorry, I know I’m being immature, but

        Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew. Ew.

        Human babies in… no.

        Thanks for the mental image.

        • Anaheed February 1st, 2013 2:57 AM

          Ha, I didn’t even realize when I typed that what a horrifying image I was evoking! Sorry, everyone!

  • lizzyheinie January 31st, 2013 12:25 AM

    “You’re probably more likely to meet someone in a band called Toxic Shock Syndrome than you are someone who’s actually suffered from it”

    REASONS TO LOVE ROOKIE NUMBER #621

  • AnaRuiz January 31st, 2013 12:27 AM

    Does the size of clit affect the amount of pleasure?? My friends always joke around with this!

    anaruizwriting.blogspot.com

  • cherrycola27 January 31st, 2013 1:36 AM

    Thank you so much for this! I’m too old to believe some of this stuff, but I still do! This was really informative, and just what I needed to read right now. You’re awesome, Rookie (and Lola)!

  • spatergator January 31st, 2013 1:42 AM

    Good post. I wanted to add a few key things to know about herpes.

    - it’s as common as can be, and most carriers of the virus don’t even know they have it. Because..

    - not everyone who has herpes gets outbreaks. A lot of carriers of the virus are asymptomatic.

    - the virus can be transmitted even without an active herpes outbreak.

    - the virus can be transmitted from the briefest skin contact. Protection is always smart but it’s never 100%

    - Cold sores are caused by the herpes simplex virus. If you or a partner have a cold sore, don’t kiss, touch a part of the body with the mouth, share lip balm, towels etc.

    - IMPORTANT: The routine STI test DOES NOT test for herpes. If you haven’t had an outbreak, you must ask specifically to get blood tested for herpes in order to be certain because you could be asymptomatic.

    A few weeks ago a past partner informed me that he recently had an outbreak, and that I was the last he was with. I had been casual about my multiple sexual partners and would rarely use protection, so I automatically thought I had it. The whole experience was really difficult. It was especially saddening to think I had transmitted it to my current boyfriend. I must have dodged a bullet because the tests came back neg. I’m not sure how this all happened. When you’re having sex, this is the risk you take.

    I just want to caution everyone on how easy it is to transmit, and to routinely get tested for herpes *SPECIFICALLY.

  • FlaG January 31st, 2013 2:57 AM

    Someone get on creating that Toxic Shock Syndrome band, STAT.

  • marthaflatley January 31st, 2013 3:19 AM

    I recently read the book Take Charge of Your Fertility: The Definitive Guide to Natural Birth Control, Pregnancy Achievement, and Reproductive Health by Toni Wechsler. It is an amazing book that explains how your periods and getting pregnant/not getting pregnant works. 1 mind blowing thing I learned from it was–It explained that there is a pattern behind every kind of “discharge” you get throughout the months. There is a pattern behind it?! Crazy. The book is so good and I can’t believe I wasn’t taught this stuff when I first started getting my period–so thought I would share in case any other rookies are interested.

    • Lola January 31st, 2013 10:33 AM

      ahh I LOVE THAT BOOK! that book is actually what taught me about the cervix changing positions throughout the cycle–after a whole damn fancy medical education, my beach reading. my word.

  • resonance January 31st, 2013 3:40 AM

    another’s mom told her that douching with Coca-Cola after sex would kill sperm (no, and also: sticky)

    Also a good way to get a yeast infection…

  • freya2770 January 31st, 2013 4:01 AM

    One thing I’m not sure about– my doctor said that a period when you’re on the pill is different from a normal one, in that it’s actually withdrawal bleeding. Is getting this still a sign that you’re not pregnant, like a normal period is if you’re not on the pill?

  • elinorra January 31st, 2013 4:26 AM

    The surest way to prevent pregnancy whilst having sex is to use condoms!!! The pill is only 80% affective where as condoms are about 98% effective!!! ALWAYS USE A CONDOM!

    • Lola January 31st, 2013 10:32 AM

      hey elinorra, i hope you don’t mind me finishing that thought a little bit–you’re right that with perfect use the failure rate of condoms is 2%, which is awesome. the perfect failure rate of the pill is less than 1%.

      here’s where it gets tricky–the typical use failure rate–what people actually experience IRL using the method–is 9%. the same statistic for condoms is 18%.

      i think condoms are a ridiculously good idea all the time, esp. cos they’re the only birth control that protects you from STIs. double up if anything!!

      & here’s some more info on perfect vs. typical failure rates:

      http://www.arhp.org/Publications-and-Resources/Quick-Reference-Guide-for-Clinicians/choosing/failure-rates-table
      http://thewelltimedperiod.blogspot.com/2005/04/we-dont-live-in-perfect.html

      • helloimkate January 31st, 2013 11:35 AM

        hey, just pointing out that this comment reads like “double up on condoms!”
        sorry, just thought you might want to clarify, esp. since ‘double bagging’ is another wonderful sex myth :)
        SUCH a great article!

        • Lola January 31st, 2013 3:52 PM

          oh man, haha! great point. double up = 1 male or female condom, plus another method.

  • Andy WolfFace January 31st, 2013 4:33 AM

    The statistic on the failure rate of condoms (15 out of 100 women per year get pregnant) appears alarmingly high. And I was alarmed about this recently but then discovered that this 15% reflects “typical use” rather than perfect use. Typical use includes sometimes *not* even using condoms at all. Instead, the perfect use failure rate is 2%.

    While this number appears lower, it gave me a panic that somehow condoms might fail silently (say, on a microscopic level) but with a bit more Internetting, I found out that condoms are a barrier impenetrable to sperm. The 2% perfect use failure rate is literally due to other human errors (and also that they count people with intended pregnancies into this number).

    Some real info:
    http://goaskalice.columbia.edu/explanation-condom-failure-rates

    • Lola January 31st, 2013 10:24 AM

      andy wolfface, the first thing i want to tell you is that your name slays and i love it.

      second, i’m glad you brought up those numbers. i want to make clear to anyone reading that the 15% failure rate of condoms doesn’t have anything to do with the condom itself! you’re right about the difference between “perfect” rates and “typical” rates. i chose using the numbers for “typical” rates because “perfect” rates are just that–perfect 100% of the time, which is very difficult to achieve outside of a lab.

      the huge gap between typical vs. perfect IS user error–the easiest way to be “perfect” is to get a method that you don’t have to remember more than once, like the IUD or implant. check out this table that has more on the typical vs. perfect rates:

      http://www.arhp.org/Publications-and-Resources/Quick-Reference-Guide-for-Clinicians/choosing/failure-rates-table

      i hope this gives you some more good info!

  • Andy WolfFace January 31st, 2013 5:10 AM

    Also, are the side effects of hormonal birth control (specifically, even with very low amounts in an IUD) reversible? I am very scared of irreversible libido changes or worse. My doctor quite frequently gives me the “it depends on the individual” answer.

  • Sorcha M January 31st, 2013 7:32 AM

    Would you say the HPV vaccine is really important? Because they were doing them in schools a couple of years ago and I missed the first one, and then my mum read something somewhere about someone who died after having it and wouldn’t let me, and because it’s unlikely I’ll have sex in the next few years. But I’d really rather be safe than sorry. Should I take myself off to the doctor’s with sneaky permission from my dad?

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 8:24 AM

      Yes, I would say that it’s really important. Here’s a story explaining that those “HPV vaccine death” stories are invalid — there’s zero proof that those deaths were connected to the vaccine; those kinds of numbers can be trumped up in relation to any safe vaccine. You will probably have sex eventually, and it’s better to protect yourself now, before it’s too late. (Says an old lady whom you know only through the internet.)

      • Sorcha M January 31st, 2013 3:12 PM

        Thank you for the article!

  • EmilyJn January 31st, 2013 7:49 AM

    I lose SO much more than 4 – 12 teaspoons of blood with each cycle, i’ve been to the Dr and been prescribed a myriad of different medications each time including the pill but nothing works and my Dr never seems worried with WHY i lose this much!

    • Lola January 31st, 2013 10:14 AM

      hey emily! that sounds hell of unpleasant. did you check out that article emma wrote? rookiemag.com/2012/10/bad-blood/ this quote especially: “After a year of this, I finally went to a new doctor. What took me so long, I have no idea. I think I always assumed that this was just my cross to bear, that nothing could be done, that it wasn’t that bad. Never mind that I had never—never—met anyone with periods like mine. Because I’d always been healthy, it truly never occurred to me that there could be any actual problem.”

      • EmilyJn January 31st, 2013 2:56 PM

        Thank you Lola, that quote (and article) resonates so much! I will definitely find a new doctor.

    • Pashupati February 1st, 2013 2:57 AM

      I think it means 4-12 teaspoons of actual blood (as part of the menstrual fluid), rather than 4-12 teaspoons of menstrual fluid.
      It would makes sense because even without medical issues, I sure as hell lose more than 4-12 teaspoons of menstrual fluid every month!
      Hope your next doctor will be more understanding and competent.

  • exceptforbunnies January 31st, 2013 11:57 AM

    what about herpes 1 vs. herpes 2? i got tested for STIs and have herpes 1 (mouth herpes) but not the genital warts kind. but apparently i could GIVE someone genital herpes by going down on them while having a cold sore or something? HELP

    • Florencey January 31st, 2013 1:49 PM

      yes, unfortunately- we just covered this in one of my lectures and it was AWKWARD.
      basically the virus that causes coldsores and herpes isn’t identical, but it IS interchangeable, so it can be transferred if *ahem* the area with the coldsore gets in contact with the area susceptible to herpes.
      interesting stuff, but weird when your old man lecturer is talking about oral sex to a room full of 19 year olds :P

  • lanadelcat January 31st, 2013 12:34 PM

    Sooo I have a really embarrassing question: I am a 22-year-old virgin but I have finally met someone I am willing to have sex with. But I’m afraid because of my age I’ll be so tight that he won’t be able to fit. Is this fact or fiction?

    • Florencey January 31st, 2013 1:45 PM

      you don’t get any ‘tighter’ or ‘looser’ in life, unless you give birth. so, unless you have some sort of rare genetic disorder (which i doubt), then nope!
      good luck :)

    • Chrissie January 31st, 2013 2:18 PM

      Hey you’ll be tight no matter what! when I first started having sex it was painful and I really didn’t enjoy it for a long time. I think one of the big reasons why was because the foreplay with my first boyfriend was horrible and basically non existent (we were young and neither of us knew what we were doing.) my advice is to just relax, make him touch you and lick you and all that fancy stuff to get your *juices flowing* and it will be waaay better! if it isn’t “working” you probably just need some lube…even spit lube would work. The normal functioning vagina IS made to be penetrated after all…. get it girl just have some fun!!

      • jenaimarley January 31st, 2013 3:10 PM

        But definitely don’t shy away from lots of lubricant in addition!

  • soviet_kitsch January 31st, 2013 12:46 PM

    I love this article and I think it would be fantastic if you could do another one about sex with a disability/birth control with other medications or an illness/vaccinations with autoimmune diseases. There’s a great blog on tumblr called takebacksexuality that has resources for disabled people, if any of yez are looking for that.
    I really did love reading this and I learned from it, so thank u Lola <3

  • Madam S. January 31st, 2013 1:20 PM

    I cant give blow jobs because semen tastes so horrible to.me. It makes me gag and vomit. Is it true that eating pineapple makes your semen taste good? If not is there anything else that would help?

    • puffling January 31st, 2013 3:32 PM

      if you don’t like or want to give blow jobs, YOU DON’T HAVE TO.

      i ask my boyfriend to wash his penis before it goes anywhere near my mouth, which definitely improves the experience.

      and i stop before he comes because i find someone ejaculating my mouth to be very unpleasant – thankfully my partner doesn’t see the appeal either.

      if your partner is not willing to wash himself, and for you to stop when YOU want to (or for you not to perform oral sex on him at all), then he’s not worth your time or effort.

      anyone worth having sex with won’t pressure you into things you don’t enjoy.

  • Florencey January 31st, 2013 1:42 PM

    i got this book (http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Period-Book-Everything-dont/dp/0749917059/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1359657005&sr=8-1#reader_0749917059) from my sister as a hand me down, and i’d definitely reccomend it to anyone who’s constantly thinking ‘omg is this NORMAL?!’ (i.e. every teenager, ever, in the history of the universe). it’s got the cutest illustrations and that certain brand of reassuring humour you only get in really good puberty books.
    it’s such a good book that i didn’t even know these myths existed! did someone’s mum REALLY reccommend coca cola?! whuuut?? crazy times!!!
    love you rookie, always making me wish i had you around when i was going through this crap :’) xx

  • decemberbaby January 31st, 2013 2:44 PM

    I used to think that oral sex meant using sexual words to talk about someone, like if a boy wrote graffiti on the wall of the locker room saying “I want to touch Sarah’s boobs” it meant he was doing oral sex to Sarah. Good times

    • Krista February 5th, 2013 1:33 PM

      I just shot an iced almond-milk latte out my nose. HAHAHAHAHA CRYING THIS IS AWESOME.

  • Madam S. January 31st, 2013 3:41 PM

    Also- Condoms break alot on me even though my boyfriend and I keep them in a cool dry place as reccomended (I have an implant, also, fyi.). I always end up having to pick condom pieces outta my vag and it freaks me out. Can condom pieces get stuck up there and create an infection? Its scares the bageezes outta me. Help, please.

    • Andy WolfFace January 31st, 2013 6:12 PM

      If they are frequently breaking, it might be an issue with fit. Maybe try out another condom size?

  • kati January 31st, 2013 8:41 PM

    hi! great article! i have a question, is it bad for you to swallow semen and have anal sex too often?

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 10:14 PM

      Not unless you are having unprotected sex with someone with an STD or an STI, or if your anus is irritated (using lots of lube during anal, and only doing it when you’re relaxed and really want to, will help prevent this).

  • Bluebird January 31st, 2013 9:38 PM

    Silly question, but can you get STI’s or STD’s from using public toilets?

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 10:12 PM

      I don’t know if it’s theoretically possible, but there has never been a single case of this reported anywhere, so I think you’re safe!

  • yellowplaid January 31st, 2013 9:59 PM

    Recently been thinking…is there a link between genital cancer and oral sex with a smoker?

  • Chloe Elizabeth January 31st, 2013 11:20 PM

    This might be a silly question. Can people just HAVE sti’s? Like, born with them or something? I was a total virgin (in every possible sense of the word – even so far as kissing), and so was the guy I got with. So the chances of either of us having anything now is nil, right? I’m kinda paranoid.

    • Anaheed January 31st, 2013 11:38 PM

      STI stands for “sexually transmitted infection,” which means you have to catch it through some kind of contact—most often direct sexual contact—with someone who carries that infection. So, if two people have had ZERO sexual contact of ANY kind, odds are that neither of them has an STI.

      HOWEVER! Two things: (1) There are a few STIs that you can catch through nonsexual means: crabs and trichomoniasis can be passed via a damp bath towel; oral herpes is probably transmitted nonsexually more than it is sexually (lots of people get it when they’re kids); sharing needles (for drug use or tattoos or piercing) can transmit HIV and hepatitis; you can be born with HIV. So it’s important to talk to your partner about all this stuff even if you’re both virgins, and to get tested if there’s even a sliver of a doubt on either of your parts. (2) I am not accusing your specific boy of anything, but, you know, people lie about their sexual experience a lot. And even when they’re being truthful, how one person defines “sex” or “virgin” might be totally different from how another person does.

      So I guess I’m saying if neither of you has ever had any oral, anal, or vaginal sex of any kind, it’s very unlikely that either of you has an STI. But not totally-otally impossible. Sorry to muddy up the issue even more!

      • sophiethewitch February 2nd, 2013 1:15 AM

        If most STIs are only transmitted through sex, how did they start?

    • savedgirl09 February 1st, 2013 2:50 PM

      Yes, people can be born with STI’s, it can be transmitted from an infected parent to their child at birth.

      If a parent is known to have an STI the hospital automatically tests the child for it before they are released. My foster sister (soon to be adopted sister, woot woot!) had to be tested before leaving the hospital because her mother has an STD.

      I don’t know the stats, but not every baby with an infected parent catches their STI, my sister didn’t. Her test came back all negative.

      From what you said, it’s extremely unlikely that either of you have anything. The only way to be certain is to be tested.

  • inwiththegold February 1st, 2013 8:35 PM

    I wish I had this when I was 11/got my first period/completely freaked out… still interesting + amusing to read now though! x

  • superkat March 12th, 2013 12:23 AM

    Say I already have engaged in oral sex with my partner and previous to doing it, we both had no sexual experience. I only just realized that we had unprotected oral sex, we got so caught up in the moment and I can’t change the fact it happened. Should I just let it go? And what are some methods of protection that are easy? Thanks xx

    • Anaheed March 12th, 2013 12:34 AM

      I think you should let it go, if you can – if you both truly had zero experience going in, the odds of your having contracted anything are extremely low. But if you feel like you’re gonna keep worrying no matter what, is there a Planned Parenthood or a similar clinic near you where you could get tested to be sure? (And obviously get tested if anything starts to feel/look/smell/act out of the ordinary.)