Thanks to our high school health class, that awkward birds-and-bees talk with our parents, certain sex-obsessed magazines and, of course, plenty of discussions with our friends, we definitely know the basics of safe intercourse. Such as: Wearing two condoms is not twice as effective as wearing one; hot tubs don’t stop the sperm from “swimming upstream,” so to speak; and the pull-out method is a far-from-foolproof method of avoiding pregnancy.
However, collegiettes, we’re the first to admit that there’s always more to learn. And unlike some of the more esoteric college courses we’ve taken—“Punctuation of the Middle Ages,” anyone?—everything we discover about this domain is pretty relevant to life. So let’s start separating sex fact from fiction.
Myth #1: It’s impossible to get pregnant while you’re on your period
Just because it’s Shark Week doesn’t mean the chance of creating some guppies doesn’t exist. It’s a smaller chance than usual, yes, but that’s no reason to skip the condom and/or birth control.
“Not every woman’s periods are particularly regular, so if she has irregular bleeding, she may not be ovulating and bleeding in a consistent pattern,” says Dr. Jennifer Robinson, an OB/GYN and assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Medicine. “It’s possible that she may be bleeding even if she’s recently ovulated, in which case she is still at risk for getting pregnant.”
Quick recap: Ovulation 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. The possibility of pregnancy is highest during ovulation.
All women ovulate at different times, so if your period overlaps with the beginning of ovulation, then you’re in Fertile Crescent territory. In addition, 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.
Myth #2: You’ve only slept with virgins, so there’s no way you have an STD
Here’s the problem. Many people consider themselves virgins until they’ve had vaginal intercourse, even if they have participated in oral and/or anal sex… but oral and anal sex can both put you at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.
“One example of an STD that can be transmitted through oral or anal sex is HSV, or herpes,” Dr. Robinson says. “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, like injecting oneself with a shared IV (hugs, not drugs, please). 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 he or she 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 a recommendation from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that you get a Pap smear. Pap smears look in your cervix (the lower part of your womb) for cancers or cells that might become cancerous if not treated correctly. They’re the best way of preventing cervical cancer—woohoo!
“It’s really important that women get Pap smears routinely, because the type of changes that can eventually turn into cancer are very slow-growing, so it’s possible to pick up on very early changes and treat them before the cancer becomes full-blown,” Dr. Robinson says.
However, Dr. Robinson says most doctors recommend you get your first one at age 21.
“Even if a young and healthy [teenage] woman already has changes in the cervix, the vast majority are resolved by her immune system and are not a problem,” she says. “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 pre-emptively when women are young before they’ve had a chance to have the families they’d want.”
After you’re 21, you should 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 this one? Please, collegiettes, don’t let it be the deciding factor in whether or not you go on birth control. In 2013, researchers from the Cochrane Fertility Regulation Group did a study of 52 birth control methods and didn’t find any indication that BC leads to weight gain.
In fact, a 2011 study 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, so they’re much, much lower doses now than what they used to be,” Dr. Robinson says. Sixty-some years ago, the hormone doses could undoubtedly have been strong enough to cause increased appetite and fluid retention.
What do you undoubtedly gain when you use birth control? A decreased risk of pregnancy.
Myth #5: Douching helps you clean your vagina
Ladies, let’s trust our va-jay-jays. 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’re 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.
“Also, when cervical mucous is thin and watery, it’s much easier for sperm to swim through it,” she says. “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.”
However, Dr. Robinson wouldn’t recommend using douching as a method of increasing your chances of getting pregnant, since depending on the type of douching material, it can also kill off your sperm. If douching sounds like a precarious thing to mess with, well, it is!
So let’s put a ban on douches of the male and drugstore variety. 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 says. “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.”
However, there is a type of emergency contraception you can use for up to five days after sex that can prevent sperm from fertilizing an egg or a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus. It’s called a Copper T IUD. IUDs, or intrauterine devices, are 99 percent effective in reducing the risk of pregnancy, whereas emergency contraceptive pills are about 88 percent effective. Many women use IUDs as their regular birth control method (you can keep it in for up to 12 years!).
“If someone came to me and said, ‘I had unprotected sex yesterday, I really don’t want to be pregnant and I want really quick birth control going forward,’ I’d offer them a Copper-T IUD,” Dr. Robinson says.
Check out this article on IUDs to learn more.
There is also an “abortion pill,” or medicine you take that terminates an existing pregnancy. It’s also known as mifepristone or RU-486 and can be taken up to nine weeks after the first day of a woman’s last period. This medication is 97 percent effective, can be taken at home, costs $300 to $800 and is available at select Planned Parenthood centers, clinics and private health care providers.
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 his or her lifetime. You 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, we have two vaccines that protect against most of the types of HPV that cause cervical cancer: Gardasil (tell us you didn’t just mentally shout, “I wanna be… one less!”) 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.)
But receiving either of the two vaccines doesn’t mean you’re HPV-proof. They don’t protect against around 30 percent of cervical cancers, so that every-three-years Pap smear? 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. Luckily, we’ve got your back. Have fun, and, not to go all Mom on you, but stay safe, collegiettes!