April is STD Awareness Month—so there’s no better time to remind you that not only does having unprotected sex put you at risk of catching something funky, but it puts every other woman at risk, too. (As much as we’d like to think our current partners have never bumped uglies with another girl, that’s probably not the case.)
We partnered with Planned Parenthood to poll 3,385 readers on safe sex, sexually transmitted diseases, and much-needed talks with bed buddies. We learned some terrifying facts—like that the majority of women surveyed (58 percent of them, in fact) rarely or never use condoms, and 95 percent of the women surveyed rarely or never use protection during oral sex. That’s even more concerning when you consider that a third of women have never been tested for any STDs and 37 percent say they've never talked to a partner about STD prevention.
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for smart, educated, otherwise safe-playing women to forgo all caution when it comes to STD prevention, says Vanessa Cullins, M.D., vice president for external medical affairs atPlanned Parenthood Federation of America.
Many women just don’t recognize the benefits of condom usage, and carry the mentality that STDs won’t happen to them. And yet, nearly 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections occur every year in the U.S., according to a 2014 report by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than 54,000 new cases each day—so your chances of getting one are actually pretty high.
Apart from not having sex (that doesn’t sound like too much fun, does it?), condoms are the surest way to prevent contracting something, says Cullins. Plus, while we know it’s not the sexiest thing in the world, you do need to use protection during oral sex, too, she adds. “People don’t think that they are going to get an STI through oral sex, but it is indeed possible,” says Cullins. Herpes, oral cancer-causing HPV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia can all travel between nether regions and mouths. Male condoms, female condoms, and dental dams can all provide protection during oral sex.
But even if you are wrapping everything up, you still need to get tested. Cullins recommends women get tested at least once a year—and definitely before having sex with anyone new. Genital warts and herpes, for instance, can be spread through skin-to-skin contact, so they can spread even without penetration or exchange of bodily fluids. Even if you don’t have any down-there symptoms, you could still have an STD—and HIV may take up to three months to show up on any screenings, she says.
If you don’t have any symptoms, your doctor will likely test for gonorrhea, chlamydia, and HIV. Meanwhile, if you do have symptoms, such as unusual vaginal discharge, pain, or itching, your doc may run some other tests, like a vaginal swab, urine sample, or possibly a blood test, says Cullins.
Also—and this is non-negotiable, ladies—you need to start having the safe-sex talk with your partners. (Hey, if you aren’t comfortable enough speaking to someone about sex, should you two even be having it in the first place?) Bring it up long before you hop into bed together. “After you kiss, you need to start talking,” says Cullin. “One thing leads to another.”Follow this advice for talking to your partner about STDs and making sure you and your guy are on the same page about protection.