It’s Time To Stop Believing These Sexual Health Myths

From periods to contraception to fertility, women’s sexual health is subject to its fair share of myths. In South Africa alone, these myths are not just rampant but serve as a barrier for women to access healthcare. Per one study, “In South Africa, about one in five (19%) women of reproductive age (15–49 years) have an unmet need for contraception, with even higher unmet need among adolescent girls aged 15–19 years at 31%, and 28% for young women aged 20–24 years.” Myths around contraception prevent women from accessing these services, leading to unwanted pregnancy and STIs.

We’ve dispelled some common myths with input from the experts to lay down some need-to-know facts. Here, the most common sexual health myths you can happily stop believing – and what to know instead.

Meet the experts: Dr Nico Lin is an Obstetric and Gynaecology registrar at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town. Dr Siyamak Saleh is a doctor, WHO consultant and sexual health influencer.

Sexual Health Myth #1: You can’t get pregnant during your period.

While menstruation does mean that your body is shedding its uterine wall, along with an unfertilised egg, this doesn’t mean pregnancy is impossible. “Although the likelihood is lower, it is possible to fall pregnant during your period,” says Dr Lin. “Sperm can survive in the female reproductive tract for up to 7 days. Some women have shorter menstrual cycles and can ovulate shortly after the period ends.”

What this means: when your period comes to an end, sperm might still be around, allowing you to fall pregnant once ovulation takes place. Always wear protection if you don’t want to become pregnant.

READ MORE: Here’s Exactly How Your Vagina Changes In Your 20s, 30s And 40s

Myth #2: The pull-out method works

Talk about risky business. Per Dr Lin, pre-ejaculation can occur during sex, which could lead to unwanted pregnancy. “The pull-out method or withdrawal method is an unreliable form of birth control because pre-ejaculate can contain sperm, leading to the risk of unintended pregnancy,” he says. Again, use contraception like condoms, the IUD or birth control pills if you want to remain child-free.

Myth #3: Certain sex positions will increase your chance of falling pregnant

Just like how you can’t intuit the sex of your unborn child, a special sex position won’t make it easier to fall pregnant. “There is no scientific evidence to support this idea,” says Dr Lin. “Timing of intercourse is more important than sexual position as the key factor in achieving pregnancy is the sperm’s ability to reach the egg during ovulation. Regular unprotected sexual intercourse around the time of ovulation is recommended if you are trying to conceive.”

Myth #4: Having a regular menstrual cycle means you are always fertile

“While having regular menstrual cycles is associated with regular ovulation, it does not guarantee fertility,” Dr Lin explains. “Other factors can affect fertility, such as structural abnormalities of the female reproductive tract and endometriosis.” If you are trying to conceive, see your doctor for a check-up to gauge your fertility.

READ MORE: 5 Simple Ways To Tell Exactly When You’re Ovulating

Myth #5: Using birth control for a long time makes you infertile

Simply not true, experts agree. “Long-term use of birth control methods such as pills, injections and intra-uterine devices typically do not impact fertility negatively,” says Dr Lin. “Fertility usually resumes once you stop using the contraceptive. However, responses may vary among individuals with a return to fertility ranging between 2-18 months. Duration of contraceptive use has also been proven to not affect long-term fertility.”

Also, it’s important to remember that age plays a factor in fertility. The more you age, the more fertility declines. “This means if someone uses birth control for many years, they might find it more challenging to conceive not because of the birth control itself, but because of age-related changes in fertility,” Dr Saleh explains.

Myth #6: Using contraception will make your partner infertile

First, let’s make it clear that this is completely untrue. Here’s how hormonal contraceptives work: “They prevent ovulation and thicken the mucus at the mouth of the womb, preventing sperm from entering the reproductive tract,” explains Dr Lin. “It can also work by thinning the lining of the womb, making it less likely for a fertilised egg to implant and grow.” The bottom line: since these methods work within the female reproductive system, they do not affect the partner’s fertility.

READ MORE: Here’s How To Have A Discussion With Your Doctor About Sex

Myth #7: The Morning After Pill Is Always Effective

Well… it’s a bit more complicated than this. “Many factors influence the effectiveness of the morning-after pill, a crucial form of emergency contraception,” says Dr Saleh. “It’s most effective when taken within 24 hours after unprotected sex. There are two primary types of emergency contraception pills: one that contains levonorgestrel (e.g., Plan B One-Step), which is most effective within 72 hours, and another, Ella (ulipristal acetate), which can be taken up to 5 days after unprotected sex. The key mechanism of the morning-after pill is to delay ovulation; therefore, if ovulation has already occurred, the pill will NOT be effective. Additionally, the efficacy of morning-after pills is affected by BMI; higher BMI levels may reduce their effectiveness.”

Myth #8: Steaming and douching are great for vaginal health

Leave these practices behind, experts say. “Steaming and douching can disrupt the natural balance of the vagina, leading to several potential risks,” explains Dr Saleh. “These practices can affect the vaginal pH, making the environment more susceptible to infections and irritation. Steaming, in particular, might introduce excessive heat to sensitive areas, potentially leading to burns or discomfort.

Both steaming and douching can upset the natural balance of healthy bacteria in the vagina, increasing the risk of bacterial vaginosis and yeast infections.” Plus, your vagina is a self-cleaning machine and is designed to maintain its balance without the need for internal cleansing like douching, Dr Saleh warns. Just use a mild soap and water and you’ll be fine.

READ MORE: Pop Quiz: Do You Actually Know What’s Going On With Your Vagina?

Myth #9: Vaginal discharge means infection

This sexual health myth couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s more the quality of the discharge that determines inflammation and infection. “Vaginal discharge is a natural and healthy part of the vagina’s self-cleansing mechanism. Not all discharge indicates an infection,” says Dr Saleh. If your discharge is white, that’s normal.

“Signs that discharge may be due to an infection include a change in colour, consistency, smell, or if it’s accompanied by other symptoms like itching, irritation or even lower abdominal pain. Discharge that is green, grey, or has a strong odour might signal an infection, such as bacterial vaginosis or an STI, and requires a consultation with a healthcare provider,” explains Dr Saleh.

Michelle is the features editor at WH. She’s immensely curious about the world, passionate about health and wellness and enjoys a good surf when the waves are good.

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