Thanks to your high school health class, that awkward birds-and-the-bees talk with your parents, certain sex-obsessed magazines and, of course, plenty of discussions with your friends, chances are, you know that many myths about safe sex aren’t necessarily true. For instance, wearing two condoms is not twice as effective as wearing one, hot tubs don’t stop the sperm from “swimming upstream,” and the “pull-out” method is a far-from-foolproof way of avoiding pregnancy.
However, there’s always more to learn, and unlike many of the electives you’ve probably taken in college, sex ed is super important and relevant for the rest of your life. That said, I’m here to help you start separating sex fact from fiction. Here are seven commonly-believed myths about safe sex, and what an OB/GYN wants you to know instead.
Myth 1: It’s impossible to get pregnant while you’re on your period
In case you need a quick recap, the possibility of pregnancy is highest during ovulation, which occurs during the menstrual cycle when one of the ovaries releases an egg. The egg enters the fallopian tube and is available to be fertilized by sperm, if any sperm are present. If it’s not fertilized, you shed your uterine lining and get your period. Getting pregnant while on your period might be pretty rare, but that’s no reason to skip using a condom and/or another form of birth control.
All people ovulate at different times, so if your period overlaps with the beginning of ovulation, then you might be in Fertile Crescent territory. Additionally, since sperm can stay alive for up to five days in your reproductive tract, having sex near the end of your period can lead to egg fertilization after your period is over.
Jennifer Acton Robinson, MD, MPH, PhD, an OB/GYN and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine, tells Her Campus that it’s important to remember that everyone’s body and cycle are different — therefore, risk of pregnancy will also depend on your body. “Not every person’s periods are particularly regular, so if they have irregular bleeding, they may not be ovulating and bleeding in a consistent pattern,” she says. “It’s possible that they may be bleeding even if they’ve recently ovulated, in which case they are still at risk for getting pregnant.”
Myth 2: You’ve only slept with virgins, so there’s no way you have an STD
There are many problems with this commonly-believed sex myth. First, virginity is a social construct and having sex can mean something different for every person. Second, many people consider themselves “virgins” when they haven’t had vaginal intercourse, but they may have had oral and/or anal sex before. Both oral and anal sex can put you at risk for sexually transmitted diseases, and it’s important to remember that STD risk relies on a variety of other factors, too.
“One example of an STD that can be transmitted through oral or anal sex is HSV, or herpes,” Dr. Robinson tells Her Campus. “Herpes is a very common viral infection that can even be passed among families just through kissing or sharing cups, so it’s possible someone could have oral herpes without ever having been sexually active.” There are also other ways of contracting an STD without having sex, and unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for people to lie about their sexual histories.
The bottom line? If you’re having sex with someone, it doesn’t matter whether or not that person is a “virgin” — you should both get tested for STDs.
Myth 3: You should get your first Pap smear when you turn 18
In the past, your 18th birthday came with the freedom to enlist, vote, and buy lottery tickets — and based on a general recommendation from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, that you get a Pap smear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a Pap smear looks in your cervix (the lower part of your womb) for cancers or cells that might become cancerous if not treated correctly. Getting a Pap smear may not always feel super comfy, but it is the best way of preventing cervical cancer — woohoo!
“It’s really important that people get Pap smears routinely, because the type of changes that can eventually turn into cancer are very slow-growing,” Dr. Robinson tells Her Campus. “It’s possible to pick up on very early changes and treat them before the cancer becomes full-blown.”
However, despite the common belief that you should get a Pap smear right when you turn 18, Dr. Robinson says most doctors recommend you get your first one at age 21. “Even if a young and healthy [teenage] person already has changes in the cervix, the vast majority are resolved by their immune system and are not a problem,” she tells Her Campus. “Plus, some of the treatments for abnormal Pap smears can potentially have an effect on future fertility, so that’s [why] we like to avoid treating Pap smears preemptively when people are young before they’ve had a chance to have the families they’d want.”
After you’re 21, it’s recommended by the CDC that you get a Pap smear once every three years and visit your gynecologist every year.
Myth 4: Birth control pills make you gain weight
Who hasn’t heard about this side effect before? While weight fluctuation can certainly be a side effect of going on the pill — and just about any medication, for that matter — don’t let it be the deciding factor in whether or not you go on birth control to practice safe sex. In fact, a 2011 study published in Contraception tracked around 500 15- to 19-year-old girls over several years, and found that while all of the teenagers gained some weight, the ones who used birth control pills gained less weight than those who didn’t.
“The doses of both estrogen and progestin in birth control pills have been steadily decreasing since the pills were invented in the ‘50s,” Dr. Robinson tells Her Campus. “So they’re much, much lower doses now than what they used to be.” Sixty-some years ago, the hormone doses could undoubtedly have been strong enough to cause increased appetite and fluid retention. Remember, if there’s anything you will gain from taking birth control pills, it’s a decreased risk of pregnancy.
Myth 5: Douching helps you clean your vagina
Unlike our dorm rooms, our vaginas are self-cleansing, so washing or cleaning out the vagina with a water-fluid mixture (i.e., douching) is unnecessary — in fact, it’s not recommended! According to Dr. Robinson, the vagina is home, sweet home to lots of natural bacteria, which help it maintain a healthy, balanced environment. If you douche, you end up forcing change on that environment, which can cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria, leading to a yeast infection or bacterial vaginosis.
Douching doesn’t protect you against STDs or pregnancies — actually, Dr. Robinson says it can push semen farther up into the vagina and cervix, thus increasing your chances of pregnancy. “When cervical mucous is thin and watery, it’s much easier for sperm to swim through it,” she tells Her Campus. “When it’s thick and sticky, it’s much harder. Douches tend to wash away some of that mucous and make it easier for sperm to swim through to the uterus.”
That said, Dr. Robinson does not recommend using douching as a method of increasing your chances of getting pregnant, since depending on the type of douching material, the process can also kill off your sperm. If douching is starting to sound like a precarious thing to mess with…it is. (If you want to wash the outside of your nether regions, Dr. Robinson suggests using warm water and unscented soap).
Myth 6: The morning-after pill aborts an existing pregnancy
Let’s just get this out there: If you’re already pregnant when you take Plan B, ella, or another form of emergency contraception, the pill will have no effect. That’s because it delays or stops ovulation (remember, when the egg is released?), so if your egg has already come down the pipeline (err, the fallopian tube), entered the uterus and been fertilized by sperm, then Plan B won’t change that.
“If you were about to ovulate, it would push back the date of ovulation for a couple of days so the presence of sperm and the presence of egg were mistimed,” Dr. Robinson tells Her Campus. “The definition of an abortion is disrupting an established pregnancy that has implanted in the uterus — neither Plan B One-Step or ella will cause that.”
Myth 7: If you get the HPV shot, you’re safe from cervical cancer
Human papillomavirus, or HPV, is so common that almost every sexually active person gets it during their lifetime. According to the CDC, it’s the most common sexually-transmitted infection in the United States, and you can contract it by having oral, vaginal or anal sex with someone who has the virus. In most cases, HPV goes away on its own, but if it doesn’t, it can lead to genital warts or cervical cancer.
Fortunately, there are two vaccines that can help protect against most of the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer: Gardasil and Cervarix. (Gardasil also does cool stuff like prevent the HPV types responsible for most genital warts as well as some cancers of the vagina, anus and vulva.)
However, receiving either of the two vaccines doesn’t mean you’re HPV-proof. They don’t protect against all cervical cancers, so that Pap smear you make an appointment for every three years? Keep getting it! Also, Gardasil and Cervarix don’t prevent you from getting other sexually transmitted infections, so that condom? Keep using it!
When it comes to safe sex, what you don’t know can hurt you. There are a number of commonly-believed myths out there, but luckily, we’ve got your back. Have fun, ask questions, stay learning, and, not to go all “mom” on you, but stay safe, too!
Jennifer Acton Robinson, MD, MPH, PhD
Beksinska, M. E., Smit, J. A., Kleinschmidt, I., Milford, C., & Farley, T. M. (2010). Prospective study of weight change in new adolescent users of DMPA, NET-EN, COCs, nonusers and discontinuers of hormonal contraception. Contraception, 81(1), 30-34.
Cervical Cancer: What Should I Know About Screening? (2021). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/screening.htm.