Are the Headlines Hijacking Your Sex Life?

Could sex make you depressed? Do STDs cause cancer? Not if you know the whole story behind the headlines. Here's the truth about the latest sex scares.

Are the Headlines Hijacking Your Sex Life?
(Image credit: E. May)


A rare and aggressive HIV strain is reported in New York.

—The New York Times, February 12, 2005

THE DETAILS: A man is diagnosed with a rare strain of multidrug-resistant HIV that progresses rapidly to AIDS; the announcement sparks panic about a "superbug" epidemic.

THE TRUTH: You shouldn't be any more alarmed about HIV now than you were before, says Howard Grossman, M.D., executive director of the American Academy of HIV Medicine. "'Superbug' implies that nothing is going to stop it," he says, but condoms do help protect you from this, as they do with other HIV strains. More reasons not to panic: Although the case was reported seven months ago, this new strain has been found in just one person to date. Officials sounded a similar "superbug" alarm in Vancouver in 2001, and doctors did find drugs to effectively treat those involved, says Dr. Grossman. But treating the disease doesn't mean erasing it, so don't let your guard down.


Sex addicts are more likely to be depressed.

—The Boston Herald, June 12, 2005

THE DETAILS: A new study suggests that people who have a dependence on sex are roughly four times as depressed as the rest of the population.

THE TRUTH: These findings were for people actually addicted to sex, not just frequent shaggers. Sex addicts, explains study author Douglas Weiss, Ph.D., use sex to self-medicate and can't be emotionally intimate during the act. Just liking sex a lot does not translate to depression — in fact, it does quite the opposite, says Dr. Weiss: "Great sex is great for you."

THE SCARE: Pharmacists across the country are turning away patients with prescriptions for "emergency contraception."

—Chicago Tribune, May 17, 2005

THE DETAILS: The latest battle over emergency contraception (EC) isn't a fight for over-the-counter availability; it's a fight for availability, period. A growing number of pharmacists are refusing to fill EC prescriptions.

THE TRUTH: Some states allow pharmacists to cite so-called conscience clauses and opt out of filling any prescription that violates their personal beliefs. This forces women to search — sometimes far and wide — for a pharmacy that will fill it. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: EC is most effective within 72 hours of a broken condom or unprotected sex. Pharmacist refusals have been documented in at least 12 states. Representative Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) introduced federal legislation last April, called the Access to Legal Pharmaceuticals Act, that would require pharmacies to fill all valid prescriptions in a timely manner. (Call or write your congresspeople to urge them to support this bill — find contact information at Until such a law is passed, avoid hassles at the pharmacy — find out if your doctor has a supply of EC in her office to dispense to patients, says ob/gyn Tina Raine, M.D., of the University of California San Francisco. Or, ask your doctor to recommend a pharmacy in your area that employs people who will dispense it.

THE SCARE: HPV, a sexually transmitted disease that 20 million Americans have, is identified as a cancer agent.

—The Washington Times, February 1, 2005

THE DETAILS: HPV (the human papillomavirus), a culprit in the majority of cervical-cancer cases, is added to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' known carcinogen list.

THE TRUTH: Although millions of women have HPV ("it's the common cold of sexually acquired infections," says ob/gyn Paula Hillard, M.D., of the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine), it doesn't always cause cancer. Any of 100 similar viruses can be considered HPV. Some cause genital warts, others cause cell growth that can lead to cancer, and others do nothing at all. How do you know which one you have? An HPV DNA test can tell you, but it's generally not recommended for women under 30 — the virus often vanishes on its own in younger women. After that, an HPV DNA test is optional. At any age, experts say that your best defense against cervical cancer is still a regular Pap test. If you're in your 20s, get a Pap every year — you can get one every two years if your doctor uses a liquid-based Pap test (they can tell you if they do). If you're in your 30s and you've had three normal Paps in a row, you can get screened every two or three years.