The growing number of sexual health awareness campaigns across the world and popular shows like Netflix’s Sex Education, among others, are debunking several sexual health myths. However, there still is a lot of misinformation around this space because, in numbers, 2021 saw the highest rate for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in the U.S. of all time and that too for the sixth consecutive year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported over 2.8 million cases of the most common STDs such as syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, and a higher prevalence rate for women.
Let’s talk about how STDs affect men and women differently.
Greater risk of infection
Women, by their anatomy, are more susceptible to contract sexually transmitted diseases from their male partner than the other way around. This is due to numerous biological reasons that include:
- The membrane lining the vagina and vulva is thinner and more sensitive than the skin lining a penis, making transmission of most common STDs like chlamydia and gonorrhea easier.
- The female reproductive surface area is much larger than a male’s, making a vagina more vulnerable to bacteria or viruses during intercourse.
- The amount of male ejaculate that enters a vagina during sex is significantly greater than any vaginal or cervical discharges a penis may come in contact with, thereby increasing the chances of males escaping transmission of most common STDs despite engaging in sexual activity.
- If causative microorganisms successfully reach a vagina, their growth is stimulated by the favorable environment present there. Given the multiple types of secretions, vaginas are warm and moist, equipped with rich blood and nutrient supply.
Therefore, women will most likely develop a disease after intercourse with an infected individual while a man won’t.
Even though men are notorious for a lack of hygiene and self-care, they have a better likelihood of diagnosing an STD before it is too late. According to the CDC, most women with gonorrhea, one of the most common bacterial STD, do not experience any symptoms.
If and when they do exhibit some of them, they may fade without eradicating the infection but on the off chance they do stick, it is almost impossible to identify it as an STD.
Symptoms of most common STDs like herpes and chlamydia for women include:
- Vaginal or cervical discharges
- Pain during urination and other discharges
- Pelvic or abdominal pain
- Spotting (blood discharge) between periods and after sex
While unexplained spotting almost always means an inflamed cervix due to an STD, it can often be passed off as irregular menstruation. Similarly, the symptoms mentioned above are characteristic of non-sexual diseases like yeast infection, a urinary tract infection, or vaginosis. They could also be caused by external reasons such as wearing tight underwear, eating spicy foods, or spending way too much time on an exercise cycle.
Similar to the higher risk of infection, their anatomy puts women in an unfavorable situation. Given the location of a vagina, as opposed to an externally visible penis, it is physically impossible to notice any lesions, swellings, or sores caused by most common STDs like herpes or syphilis if they are situated inside. The folds of a vagina and vulva make that task even harder.
It’s easier for women to overlook these symptoms – partly because of lack of awareness they don’t know what to look for — instead of getting tested for the most common STDs. This delay in diagnosis exacerbates the situation, as a disease that could have very easily been treated by antibiotics is given the time to develop into something much more serious, putting women at disproportionate risk.
Moreover, men do not visit a doctor for routine screenings as regularly as women do, which allows their asymptomatic diseases to go unchecked. While a woman may untimely notice something and alert her sexual partner, it is unlikely for a man to do the same.
On the other hand, urethral discharges in a man can only really mean one thing; a sexually transmitted disease. This prompts them to visit their primary care physician and get prescribed routine antibiotics for this minor issue.
The consequences on women’s physical health are more serious
As mentioned above, a late diagnosis can often worsen a situation. While the most common STDs like Syphilis could be life-threatening in men, if left untreated, it is mostly women who contract more serious problems. For example, the herpes virus causes painful blisters in a woman than it does in men. Similarly, there are other repercussions in women, all of which are accompanied by chronic pain.
Pelvic inflammatory disease
Around 10 to 15% of cases of chlamydia, one of the most common bacterial STD, develop into pelvic inflammatory disease (PID). Characterized by excessive scar tissue in a woman’s fallopian tubes, it can cause long-lasting detriments like infertility. CDC reports that around twenty-thousand women are infertile due to chlamydia or gonorrhea.
PID also enhances the risk of ectopic pregnancies, where an embryo is implanted in the fallopian tubes instead of the uterus. The number of these embryos that see birth is very low. If a baby somehow survives until birth, be it normal or ectopic, in a woman with PID, the child has a very high affinity to premature birth, brain disease, blindness, low birth weight, and/or deafness.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STD, may be prevented by vaccination or treated with medication if caught early. However, failure to diagnose it in time could allow it to progress into warts or cancer, which further means excruciating cancer treatments.
In women, it causes life-threatening cervical cancer, the 8th most common type of cancer but in men, it rests at 1% for penile cancer. HPV may also culminate in anal, vaginal, or throat cancer but besides throat, these too show higher occurrence in women.
The social stigma is much worse
Although it is men who give women the STD in the first place, society somehow portrays them as the sole culprit for it which, on top of the above-mentioned inequalities, takes a toll on their mental health. Of course, this is not as widespread anymore, due to the increasing awareness of female sexuality and sex in general, but it is still prevalent enough to make a difference. While it is seen as a minor inconvenience in the life of a man, women are often labeled promiscuous for having contracted an STD.
Despite the CDC recommendations for women to get tested for chlamydia once a year, the taboo nature of such a conversation doesn’t let a lot of OB-GYNs bring this up with their patients, especially in rural areas. This lowered ability to obtain information and healthcare further puts women at risk of the most common STDs.
See Also: How To Get Tested For STDs?
What should women do?
While this unequal risk to most common STDs may be scary, all of this is preventable if you take the right precautions. For starters, get regularly tested and consult your gynecologist or primary care physician if you notice anything irregular, such as spotting, a genital sore, pelvic pain, a new discharge, odor, or a change in the consistency of some regular discharge.
Moreover, urge your sexual partners to get tested before you have sex for the first time. If not, make your partner wear a condom. While intrauterine devices may prevent pregnancy, they do not work against the most common STDs.