More totally untrue myths:

Sexually Transmitted Infections

STIs are forever.

Only two STIs cause lifelong infections that can’t be cured (but can be treated): herpes and HIV. Herpes outbreaks can be painful, although they tend to decrease in intensity and frequency over time. HIV is a serious chronic illness that can develop into AIDS, which doesn’t have to be fatal, but can be. Most of the others—including chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis—are treated with antibiotics.

HPV, or human papilloma virus, is its own case, which pleases HPV, because it’s on this “I’m special and mysterious” head trip. Although it’s technically not curable, 90% of HPV cases are cleared by the body’s immune system within two years. You can treat the symptoms of HPV—genital warts and/or precancerous cells—by having them removed by your doctor. We’re still learning a lot about HPV, and the guidelines for testing and treatment are constantly shifting (you can read up about a lot of the myths related to it here), but your takeaway on this subject is this: GET VACCINATED AGAINST HPV. The vaccine is called Gardasil and is recommended for people of any gender between the ages of 9 and 26. It’s currently available in at least a quarter of the world’s countries. It doesn’t protect against every kind of HPV, but it covers the most prevalent ones. (If you’re a minor, you will likely need your parents’ permission to get this vaccine, but thankfully more parents are learning how important it is.)

You’ll know if you or someone you’re with has an STI.

STIs are tricky little bastards: the most common ones, including chlamydia and HPV, most often have no symptoms at all. Other STIs can masquerade as other infections—trichomoniasis causes vaginal itching, discomfort, and discharge, just like a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis. Early HIV infections sometimes appear as a flu, and then the symptoms often disappear for years. Herpes is visible only during an outbreak, which can be so mild that you don’t notice it, but it is always transmittable. (While we’re on the topic: a herpes outbreak usually looks like cuts or sores, not a single raised bump, so relax about that ingrown hair.) Check how every single STI on this list can hide out without showing signs or symptoms. Since you can’t know if someone else is STI-free just by looking, the only way you can be sure is to get tested and ask for your partner’s results (and this goes for everyone, no matter what kind of sex you’re having or whom you’re having it with). The only things (besides total abstinence) that will significantly reduce your chances of getting an STI are condoms for blow jobs, anal sex, and vaginal sex; or dental dams for oral sex on girls.

Also, pap smears do not test for STIs. They test for one thing only: changes in your cells caused by high-risk (cancer-causing) strains of HPV. It doesn’t test for the other type of HPV—the low-risk strains, which causes warts—or any other STIs. There is no one test for everything, and a lot of healthcare providers won’t automatically test for STIs, mainly because many of them won’t even bring up sexual behavior during a routine exam. Help them out. If you want to be tested, ask your healthcare provider at the beginning of the visit.

Pregnancy and Birth Control

Jumping jacks, hot tubs, and/or douching can prevent pregnancy.

OK, deep breath. Here are some of the things that can’t get you pregnant: feelings, toilet seats, sperm that’s been hiding from the sex you had two weeks ago (sperm can live for up to five days inside your body, but not on, like, your bedsheets). Conversely, the following things will not prevent pregnancy: having it be the first time you’ve had sex, having sex during your period, exercising, douching afterwards, doing it in a body of water. Short of abstinence, birth control is the only thing that prevents pregnancy. Groove over to my answer to this Just Wondering question for a rundown of options, but to reiterate: the most effective methods of birth control are the IUD and the implant, because they reduce the possibility of human error (you have to remember to take the pill every day and apply the patch every week, whereas the implant can last for three years and an IUD for five or more). Only condoms protect against both STIs and pregnancy, and using both condoms and another method of birth control (like the pill) is the surest way, if you’re having penis+vagina sex, to be safe in all regards.

Pulling out is an effective method of birth control.

Hot topic! This is a myth with a little bit of truthiness. Some studies estimate the failure rate of withdrawal to be 18%, which is only slightly higher than that of condoms. But! For teenagers, the failure rate is closer to 40% in the first two years of use, so while you can argue that it’s better than nothing, it’s not that much better. The biggest follow-up question here tends to be whether pre-come can get you pregnant. Various studies have found either no or low sperm counts in pre-come, which means the consensus is that it probably can’t, but there is no guarantee. And pulling out does not prevent you from getting or giving an STI.

If you haven’t gotten accidentally pregnant by the time you’re in your 20s, you are probably infertile.

This is a persistent myth, and a couple of Rookies reported having friends in their 30s who still believe it. Listen, just because it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it can’t happen, even if you’ve had unprotected sex on a number of occasions. If you have a working uterus and ovaries, you are probably fertile for three or four days of your cycle, around the time of ovulation (when your ovaries release an egg), and even though this usually happens midway through the cycle, it’s hard to predict. And because sperm can live in your body for up to five days, it’s even harder to estimate your window of non-impregnability. It’s possible that not ever getting pregnant was just dumb luck, and there’s no reason to assume that you don’t have to take precautions or fear that you won’t ever have children. Someone is considered infertile only after they’ve been actively trying to get pregnant for a year, because it can take totally fertile people that long even when they’re trying their very best. Getting a period every month is a pretty good sign that you are capable of getting pregnant.

Abortions are dangerous.

Abortion is a safe procedure when done in a medical setting by trained professionals. To put that in perspective, studies indicate that the mortality rate for a first-trimester abortion (the first 14 weeks of pregnancy) is 14 times lower than that for childbirth. When performed in the first trimester, an abortion is an outpatient procedure, which means you can go home the same day, and it takes about 15 minutes; in the second trimester, it is also an outpatient procedure, but it takes longer and requires more time for preparation (if you’re looking for more information about these procedures, check out the Planned Parenthood website). Having an abortion does not affect your ability to get pregnant, stay pregnant, or give birth in the future. None of your future partners will be able to tell that you were ever pregnant.

There are so many more myths out there, and I wish I could tackle them all. (I did not mention, for example, that oral sex does not refer to making out or having phone sex, as some Rookies once thought.) But seriously, if you have questions about anything, please email us at [email protected] and we will try our best to find answers for you.

OK, now go out there and enjoy your body parts. ♦