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Are There Really Traces of Your Exes Lingering on Your Junk?

What you learned in sex ed about 'sleeping with your partner's partners' is bullshit — scientifically speaking

Mel B, formerly Scary Spice, got her vagina scraped to rid herself of the remnants of her ex-husband. And now everyone who read that story is grappling with two extremely confusing concepts: Do you really carry traces of an old fuck inside you (or on you), and two, if you do, can you scrape it all off like an exfoliating scrub?

Many of us were taught in high school sex ed and pop culture that we don’t just fuck the people we fuck, we sleep with everyone they’ve ever slept with, and everyone they’ve ever slept with, too. In one recent algorithm devised to put this into concrete terms, if you’ve slept with nine people in your life without protection, you’ve made indirect sexual contact with some 3 million people. Frankly, go out and celebrate if you’ve bagged 3 million people without catching anything.

Such data is meant to do one thing, and one thing only: to scare the shit out of you into using a condom so your genitals aren’t haunted for life by the residual traces of lovers past. But we never really drill down to what it actually means to say you’ve slept with everyone your partner has slept with, all the way to infinity. And in light of Mel B’s insistence that there’s a procedure to essentially Eternal Sunshine your ex out of your body, it implies that, barring picking up a nasty STI, other evidence of old hookups stays jacked up in your system for life.

Also, can you get your penis scraped, too?

So let’s talk about these “residual traces.” Your blood, of course, could carry proof of an STI for a spell or a lifetime, but we’re operating on the non-STI remnants of a past lover. So outside of picking up chlamydia or gonorrhea, HPV or herpes, or even the way men and women can swap bacterial vaginosis with each other… how long do we carry traces of an ex in our system?

The answer should relieve us all: not long enough to need them scraped out. Wildly popular gynecologist Jen Gunter told Refinery29 that the scraping business is nonsense. Not only is it medically risky, she said, it could “spread HPV locally and would increase a woman’s vulnerability to infection.”

But it’s also something the vagina will do for itself. “Your vaginal epithelium completely regenerates itself every 96 hours,” Gunter explained. “The surface cells are shed every four hours. If you want to remove physical residue of some horrible man’s penis, your vagina has you covered.”

The penis, on the other hand, is not a self-cleaning oven. You do have to wash it, particularly if you have a foreskin. Otherwise it’s a bacterial party in there. Bacteria that collects there does put men at greater risk for certain STIs or HIV, but it’s not a skin record of your past exploits.

It’s not that no DNA of any sort, or residual traces of sexual contact, linger at all on or in our bodies. It’s just that they don’t stick around long. Grimly, we know this from how rape-kit DNA is collected as evidence in assault. Off your physical body excepting your clothing, DNA is pulled from saliva, semen, hair, blood and fecal matter where it remains for varying times. But it’s advised to get a kit done within 72 hours before it’s gone, and by most accounts, the longest this stuff hangs around is around 12 hours up to a week. Cells that women shed during a sexual encounter are still obtainable by a penis swab up to 24 hours post-coitus in some cases.

But with less grim, clearly consensual sexual encounters, there are a few other instances where DNA or residual stuff sticks around for a little bit, but you have to keep hanging around the person to get it. Sperm cells survive in the reproductive tract for five to seven days after ejaculation to help ensure implantation.

DNA from kissing hangs around for an hour after the deed is done, and you don’t have to kiss more than a few minutes to do so. On the bacterial level, swapping spit for just 10 seconds transfers 80 million bacteria to your partner, where it takes up residence in your saliva and even on your tongue, and in couples, it even starts to remain the same. But the good news is, if you moved onto someone else, you’d pick up their bacteria eventually, too, which is why we all pair off in the first place, no?

For people you actually date or move in with, you share more and more evidence of the other person on your physical body. We know that couples who live together start to share the same skin bacteria, including in places we wouldn’t expect, like the bottom of your feet, in your gut and even on your eyelids. But even that isn’t buried in your genitals like some scarlet DNA of promiscuity or a past love.

That’s kind of the thing about this idea that you’re tainted with everyone you’ve ever been with, forever. Scientifically speaking, it’s not true. Rather, you’re “contaminated” roughly for as long as you’re together.

Of course, none of this is to suggest any judgment of Mel B’s decision to perform her own cleansing ritual of her vagina, even though it’s been warned against by medical experts. Her interview with the Guardian makes clear that a history of violence and abuse with her ex was enough to seal the deal for her in getting the procedure.

And who doesn’t understand the desire to shake off a shitty past like a bad case of fleas? We’ve all been haunted by a relationship or sexual encounter either for being so good or so bad that we wish we could erase it. It’d be great if we could simply spray it off with a pressure washer or firehose.

But that’s not a physical problem; it’s a psychological one. If merely touching something left a stain upon your junk, you’d never be able to try on used clothes or borrow a pair of shorts or shoes again. So next time you shudder thinking about someone you used to fuck, don’t sweat it, because nothing will out you but you. And if even that’s too great a burden to bear, try shaking a little burning sage near your genitals to cleanse the area, just as you would a room with bad vibes. Just don’t get too close. You could burn yourself, and that smell will definitely linger.