Sex ed today focuses on the nasties of sex, all the cooties and diseases and infections you’ll surely get if you sleep with someone. The thing is, you probably will come in contact with some sort of sexually transmitted infection. But, really, it’s not that bad, at least for most of the STIs out there or the ones you’re most likely to come across. Let me explain before the sex columnist refs start throwing down their red cards.

For many of the more common STIs, the shame of getting one is far worse than its symptoms, its treatment, or its manifestation on your body. We’re made to believe that dirty people have STIs, sluts have them, people who are gross and who you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. But some STIs are so prevalent that you don’t even have to have “sex” with someone to get them.

Let’s look at HPV, for example. Half the time HPV pops up as genital warts, and the other half of the time women don’t know they have it until a Pap smear comes back abnormal. Men don’t usually know when they have it (when they don’t have warts), as there’s no FDA-approved test for them. It’s been said that 45% of women between 21 and 24 years old have HPV. And what does it do? It sits there for a year or so and usually goes away, unless it goes unchecked and starts developing into cervical cancer. Condoms reduce the chance of sharing the virus, but it can spread through skin-to-skin contact as well.

Molluscum contagiosum is not solely transmitted through sexual contact–it shows up a lot in young children as well. It is, however, a fairly common infection and can make you freak out as you desperately Google what those strange pink bumps are all over your genitals. They’re relatively harmless and look worse than they actually are. The bumps will clear up on their own, but a doctor can prescribe treatments that will help them go away faster. Molluscum can spread just by sharing a towel with an infected person, so once again, condoms are not going to protect you 100%.

Herpes is a much maligned virus as well. Ever have a cold sore? That’s herpes (usually HSV-1), my friend, and can be sexually transmitted. Many people don’t know they have herpes–in the U.S., 20% have the virus and of that percentage only 14% know it. It can sit there and not break out or the symptoms go unnoticed. The virus can be transmitted even when someone is not showing symptoms, and according to The Guide to Getting It On, 70% of the time in new cases this is exactly what happens. Not to get you all paranoid, but as is the case with a few other STIs, no symptoms does not equal a clean bill of health. The only way to know for sure is to request a full STI panel, including a culture/blood/swab test for herpes. Anitviral meds like Valtrex usually work fairly well to alleviate sore outbreaks, but the virus never really goes away. It lives in the skin, and that’s why even condoms won’t fully protect you…again.

But don’t throw away those condoms! They protect you from diseases spread through fluids, like chlamydia, hepatitis B and C, HIV, and syphilis. And though they don’t cover all genital skin area, they do help with cooties passed from skin-to-skin. All I’m saying is that you can’t trust condoms to keep you 100% safe. That’s why it’s so important to get tested regularly and to disclose that information to your partners before you sleep with them.

So let’s boink like bunnies and not give a flying fart if we get infected? Well, don’t think it’s like Pokemon or Pogs either (or, if you grew up outside the ’90s, perhaps bingo would be the most appropriate analogy). You don’t want to collect them all. You just don’t have to panic and think it’s the end of the world (i.e. your sex life) if you contract one or even a few of them. Often, you feel so dirty and ashamed that you’re afraid to discuss it with your friends or even your partners.

The best way to get over the shame of an STI is to get educated and educate others. You’ll know what you’re dealing with and how to explain it to others without making it sound all scary and gross. Talking about it helps, too. Say you’re a young woman recently diagnosed with HPV. Chances are you have a least one girl friend who’s going through or has already gone through the same ordeal. It helps to realize that you’re not alone, and no, you’re not a horrible person for having this infection. Yes, someone will still love you even if you have XYZ, and yes, someone will still sleep with you. The most important thing is that you learn to accept yourself (sometimes literally) warts and all.

Image from assbach.

The Sexual Manifesto is Christine Borden’s weekly column on sex in the city, sex and culture, and, well, sex. Got a tip for Christine (and it’s not in your pants)? Email her at

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  • anna pulley

    Pogs! Now there’s something I wish would come back with a vengence, unlike say, HPV.
    Thanks for the heads up (down?) on STIs. There is such a stigma, especially about uncurables like herpes, and it’s nice to get a NOT FREAKED OUT article about them.

  • generic

    At our heath clinic, we don’t even offer herpes testing as normal part of our panel, it’s so common.

  • bunny

    This isn’t wrong per se, but is misleading. HSV-1 is a form of the herpes simplex virus. It usually is oral, but it can be transmitted to the genital area, usually through oral sex. What’s misleading is that it actually is present in 50-70% of the population (depending on whose estimate you believe), not 20%. In other words, most people have it, even though they have no idea. And they can transmit it, even with no symptoms. The ones who catch it genitally are almost always the minority who didn’t already have it.

    HSV-2 is the one that only 20% of the population has. This is the one that is usually genital.

  • Nazzy

    Almost no doctors check for herpes — and even though “it’s so common” you can spread a lot of misery in the clueless period before you know you have it. When getting the STD battery, insist on a herpes test. The better ones cost a bit and doctors don’t like to order them.

    Having herpes isn’t the end of your sex life but it’ll sure feel like it. As for hep C, there is a good resource out there, — it keeps up with the research. Unlike with herpes, there is a reasonable chance of HCV being curable in the near future.