Chief among the upsides to being a virgin is that it’s a lot harder to catch sexually transmitted diseases if you’re not having sex. Hard — but not impossible, scientists publishing in the Journal of Infectious Diseases reported this week, to the dismay of the un-sexed among us. In the paper, published Wednesday, the researchers showed that male virgins can still catch the highly infectious and potentially very harmful human papilloma virus.
As far as STDs go, HPV is pretty ubiquitous. About 79 million Americans are already infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and an additional 14 million are added to the list each year, making it the most common STD in the United States. Still, scientists long thought that only sex — vaginal, oral, and anal — could spread HPV, so virgins and those trying out sex-adjacent practices for the first time were thought to be safe.
But the new study, carried out by researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health, suggests that assumption is wrong.
Between 2005 and 2009, the researchers tracked the sexual habits and STD status of 87 male virgins across Brazil, Mexico, and the U.S. These guys were between the ages of 18 and 70 and were interviewed by the researchers up to ten times during the study period.
By the end of the study, some of those participants had lost their virginity, and, as expected, some of those people had acquired HPV. What was more surprising was the finding that some of the people who didn’t lose their virginity during the study period also acquired HPV.
The researchers explain this puzzling observation by suggesting that even relatively chaste sexual acts, like hand-to-genital contact or non-penetrative genital-to-genital contact, can pass on the virus.
Most cases of HPV are generally benign, but certain strains of the virus can cause more serious problems, like genital warts and certain types of cancers. There’s a widely available vaccine in the U.S. that protects people from diseases caused by the virus, like cancer, if people get them at the right age — it’s maximally effective when you receive two doses when you’re 11 or 12 years old, but it is still protective for people who get it in early adulthood. In addition to getting the vaccine, people should use latex condoms — whether or not they’re having penetrative sex — in order to reduce the risk of transmission.