My junior year of college, I hooked up with a guy I’d had a few English classes with after we matched on Tinder and confessed to a mutual “English major mini-crush” on each other. It was fine for what it was: a few minutes of pretending to watch Netflix in my dorm room followed by a satisfying if not particularly memorable round of sexing in the ol’ Twin XL— altogether a very collegiate affair. Afterwards he put on his sweatpants, went back to his dorm and we resumed our regularly scheduled lives as casual English class acquaintances, except everything was just a little more awkward now.
A day or two later, however, I woke up to one of the more concerning things a person can wake up to after casual sex with a relative stranger: a burning vag. Cute Guy From English Class was the first dude I’d hooked up with since ending things with my boyfriend of a year, and it seemed my vagina was none too pleased with the new penis in town. A trip to the student health center confirmed my first post-breakup rebound had left me with a predictable case of BV—aka bacterial vaginosis, a common infection caused by an imbalance of the normal bacteria present in the vag. My personal diagnosis, as I later texted my best friend: “I guess my vagina just hates his dick.”
I was mostly joking. Like, do I maybe owe my vagina an apology for the many poor choices and questionable hookups I’ve put her through over the years? Probably! But I don’t think she’s really out here making judgment calls on the latest man in my life like we’re friends comparing notes over bottomless mimosas. Unless of course, she is?
As it turns out, some people really do use their body’s response to a new partner as a kind of physiological compatibility test. According to sex educator Jenelle Pierce, Executive Director of the STI Project, some partners find they can fluid bond—i.e. choose to forgo barrier methods like condoms and dental dams during sex—without disrupting the normal balance of natural genital flora, while unprotected sex with other partners might cause an imbalance that can result in vaginal infections. “[An infection] is sometimes viewed as a physiological indicator that the relationship is incompatible,” says Pierce.
So does this mean that if you get BV or a yeast infection after hooking up with a new partner your relationship is doomed? Short answer: No, obviously not. Vagina probs like BV, yeast infections, and other imbalances are super common, especially after sex, and especially after unprotected sex with a new partner. In fact, according to Krystal Thomas-White, PhD, Senior Scientist for Evvy, sex is one of the most common triggers for vaginal infections, regardless of who you have it with or whether you believe your genitals are physiologically destined for each other.
That said, if we look to the stars for their astrological take on a new crush’s romantic potential, why shouldn’t our vaginas get a say? If you’re interested in getting a second opinion on your latest fling from le vagine, here’s what you need to know before you start conducting any vag compatibility tests.
What is physiological compatibility (and is it even a real thing)?
“Physiological compatibility is when our body is compatible with someone else’s body on the cellular level,” says Pierce, adding that while it may sound like woo-woo pseudoscience, it is a real, if somewhat controversial, phenomenon that is still being studied by researchers.
Essentially, the whole concept of physiological compatibility starts with our DNA and something called the Major Histocompatibility Complex, or MHC. Our MHC genes are responsible for our adaptive immune systems, so we might think of our unique MHC as the thing that determines our body’s ability to fight off certain diseases.
According to Pierce, research suggests that people tend to be more attracted to those whose MHC genes are different from their own, meaning their immune systems are optimally distinct and thus a good match from a survival-of-the-species perspective. (You know, diverse gene pool = stronger immunity for potential offspring. Basically, opposites attract, but make it science.)
It’s thought that someone’s unique MHC genes may be part of what we’re picking up on when we respond to their pheromones, which are believed to play a role in attraction. According to Pierce, pheromones are secreted by our bodies during arousal and are detected via the olfactory system—something I like to call the sex sniff test. Those pheromones trigger the limbic system, which we might think of as our unconscious mind, and then finally work their way into the emotional part of the brain where we decide whether or not we’re into someone.
“Simply stated, when we detect smells that we like, our bodies relax and we feel safer,” says Pierce. “Scientists believe that these olfactory stimuli help us determine more compatible mates who also might improve the likelihood of our offspring’s survival.”
So yes, there is some evidence to suggest that our bodies know more than we do—or at least more than we think they do—when it comes to choosing who we hang out, hook up, and potentially reproduce with. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest that physiological attraction can predict other, less physical forms of compatibility, such as one 2014 study that found people with similar political ideologies tend to sniff each other out (literally) through olfactory cues.
Okay, but what does any of this have to do with my vagina?
Well, it’s complicated. If we buy the idea that some bodies might be physiologically drawn to each other, it makes sense that this compatibility (or lack thereof) would manifest in the ways our bodies physically respond when the time comes to get all up in each other’s business. But while some people may read their body’s response to sex with someone as a sign of underlying physiological compatibility (or lack thereof), there are ultimately too many different factors that can contribute to a post-sex vaginal infection to blame it all on mis-matched DNA.
In case you haven’t heard, the vagina is home to a beautiful (and occasionally v frustrating!) ecosystem of totally natural, totally normal bacteria and fungi. Unfortunately, as many of us know first hand, it can be all too easy to throw that delicate balance off, especially when foreign substances—like, say, someone else’s genitals—enter the chat.
“Penises and vaginas both have microbiomes, communities of bacteria and fungi unique to your own body,” says Thomas-White. “When you have unprotected sex, you mix microbes (both oral and genital) with the other person. This can introduce new pathogens into your vaginal microbiome, paving the way for a potential infection to develop.”
Essentially, any time you put something inside your body, it has the potential to throw your vag’s little ecosystem out of whack. “So naturally, if someone else’s genital fluids are coming into contact with yours, then it could cause an imbalance,” says Pierce. “Everyone has a unique balance of genital flora, and some people have a different pH or a higher number of specific bacteria that could exacerbate the risk of an imbalance.”
Is it possible that your partner’s unique balance of genital flora is uniquely ill-suited for your unique balance of genital flora and thus a tell-tale sign of underlying physiological incompatibility? Uh, I mean, maybe. But according to Thomas-White, there isn’t any clear research on the role any one particular partner and/or their DNA might happen to play in the development of an infection after sex.
Not to mention, while we know that sex—especially sex with a new partner—is a common trigger for vaginal infections, it’s not entirely clear what exactly causes these infections, in part because there are several potential factors that may be at play. While an infection-causing vaginal imbalance may result from your partner’s specific pH or genital microbiome, external bacteria from your or your partner’s hands, other body parts, or even sex toys might also be to blame.
“Bacteria live everywhere: on your skin, on your hands, in your mouth, and around your genitals. Introducing new bacteria from any of those locations could cause a disruption of your vaginal microbiome,” says Thomas-White, adding that even masturbation can increase your risk of infection, especially if you (like me, hi) tend to get a lil lazy about washing your sex toys. (Feel free to take this as your sign to go wash and charge your sex toys if you’re realizing you’ve been a little remiss in your post-masturbation cleaning duties. You’ll thank me later.)
In conclusion, does your vagina know best?
The short answer is no. “Whether or not you develop an infection after sex is no sign of physiological compatibility or incompatibility,” says Thomas-White. Vaginal infections are very common, totally normal, and can happen for a wide variety of reasons, none of which necessarily mean your relationship with an otherwise promising new partner is doomed on account of divinely mismatched DNA.
Mining the universe for signs of romantic destiny or doom is all part of the fun of falling for someone new. It’s why we memorize our trine signs and make our crushes call their moms in the middle of a second date to find out what time they were born. As Pierce notes, only you get to decide where you seek those signs and how you make sense of them. If you think your fate is written in your DNA instead of the stars, then far be it from me to stop you from outsourcing your romantic decision-making to your genitals. Personally, I don’t know that I’ve proven myself to be the most trustworthy executor of my own love life, so maybe it’s time to let the vagina take the wheel! After all, if trusting your gut is a thing, then why shouldn’t you trust your vag?
Still, when it comes to sussing out a new romantic prospect, you’ll probably have more fun comparing birth charts than genital microbiomes, just saying.
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