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Thursday, May 23, 2024

SPECS Panther Column #2 – 5 sexual-health myths to debunk

Throughout one’s experience at college, there are many opportunities to choose to engage — or not to engage — in sexual relationships. Different students across campus have widely varying backgrounds in sexual health education, and misinformation might be encountered along the way. SPECS strives to promote accessible and inclusive sex-positive education, and our column in The Campus is one of these outlets we have across campus. Here are five common myths about sex and sexual health that SPECS believes are important to clarify:

“Jokes are just jokes”

There may be times when you hear so-called humorous comments that make light of STIs, sexual assault or rape, unexpected pregnancies or other sexual-health-related issues. These kinds of jokes might not be intended to cause harm, but they can be difficult to respond to because they further stigmatize common challenges faced by college-aged students. The issue with joking about these topics is that the person cracking the joke often has no idea about the personal experiences of the people they intend to make laugh. Even one’s closest friends could be living with an STI or could have a traumatic background of sexual assault that they choose not to share. We cannot assume that everyone will positively receive these types of references because they often carry a lot of weight –– especially when the subject is relevant to someone’s life. Being mindful of your own word choice and leading by example to shut down potentially harmful language are the best ways to avoid contributing to a culture of shame and silence around sexual health.

“Two condoms are better than one”

You might have heard the phrase “two is better than one” in regard to birth control, but this does not mean that you should use two condoms at once. In fact, wearing multiple condoms (i.e. layering two external condoms or using both an internal and external condom) increases the risk of the materials tearing. The phrase “two is better than one” actually refers to combining two types of birth control methods: barrier and non-barrier. Barrier methods include condoms, diaphragms and cervical caps. Non-barrier methods include IUDs, birth control pills, patches, rings, implants or shots. Hormonal birth control typically refers to medications or implants that provide continuous protection against pregnancy, while non-hormonal methods are usually physical barriers that prevent a sperm from reaching an egg. However, one exception is the highly effective copper IUD, which is a non-hormonal non-barrier birth control method. Using two different forms of birth control is a good safety net to avoid pregnancy, though condoms are the only form of birth control that also protect against STIs. Talk to your medical provider and any sexual partners about the best option for you. 

“If she’s wet, she wants it”

It may seem intuitive to associate someone’s physiological responses with their mental state. However, bodily activity can often be quite detached from a person’s true feelings. The discrepancy between one’s emotional desires and their physical reactions is known as arousal non-concordance. Physiological arousal can be triggered by any environmental stimuli, whether directly sexual like touch or indirectly sexual such as the temperature of the room. These stimuli are relevant to someone's feelings of pleasure, leading to involuntary bodily responses such as lubrication or an increase in genital blood flow. However, these reactions are not indicative of one’s subjective sexual arousal, which refers to their mental experience during sex. This is particularly important to remember within the context of consent. If someone’s body is aroused during a non-consensual sexual encounter, that doesn’t mean they are enjoying it. In a similar vein, if your partner couldn’t experience physical arousal during sex, that doesn’t mean they’re not attracted to you. There are many stimuli at play in sexual contexts to which your body may not always react the way you hope it will. Clear communication and consent are key ingredients when it comes to making sure every party feels safe, cared for and gratified.

“The goal of sex is to orgasm” 

Many people define sex as “done” when one or more of the involved parties have an orgasm. Orgasming, commonly referred to as “cumming” or “climaxing,” can be an exciting and pleasurable part of sex, but it does not need to be the sole purpose or end goal of engaging in a sexual act. If orgasm is something desired by one or more partners, conversations should be had about what that would entail. However, there should be no expectation that it must happen for it to be viewed as a pleasurable experience. Sex is a multifaceted, emotionally and physically intimate experience that should be enjoyable at all phases — from initiation of the activity to whenever those involved decide to stop. The capacity to experience pleasure isn’t “over” as soon as orgasm has occurred. Sometimes sex can involve multiple orgasms for some partners, or it can involve none. Sometimes one partner orgasms and another doesn’t. There is no right or wrong way to do it, as long as all partners are satisfied with the experience and all standards of consent are followed.  

“I’ll know if I have an STI” 

One of the common misconceptions about STIs is that they manifest the way a common cold would — you wake up one morning with recognizable symptoms and immediately know that something’s up. In reality, many STIs (especially those most common on college campuses) often occur asymptomatically. More than half of people who contract chlamydia, for instance, experience no symptoms. Gonorrhea, herpes, trichomoniasis, HPV, Hepatitis B and even HIV can also occur without recognizable symptoms, leaving many people in the dark about their health status, which could lead to worse long-term health outcomes. While this may feel scary, STI contraction can easily be avoided with the proper methods of protection. Internal and external condoms, as well as dental dams, are all very effective in preventing STI transmission. With or without protection, however, we at SPECS recommend getting tested for STIs at least once a year or between new partners to ensure safety for yourself and potential partners. Middlebury Health Services offers confidential STI testing that is free or billable depending on your insurance. Other options are available at Porter Medical Center or at the Planned Parenthood locations in Rutland and Burlington. Regular STI testing is a great way to take control of your sex life when things feel uncertain.

Ultimately, college can be a time for some to sexually explore and become more attuned with their bodies. Staying vigilant about the accuracy of sexual-health information you receive is critical to prioritizing you and your partner(s)’ safety and comfortability. SPECS is here to answer any questions!