Safer Sex ("Safe Sex") at a Glance
- Reduces our risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD)
- Using condoms makes vaginal or anal intercourse safer sex
- Using condoms or other barriers makes oral sex safer sex
- Having sex play without intercourse can be even safer sex
- Safer sex can be very pleasurable and exciting
We all care about protecting ourselves and the ones we love. For sexually active people that means practicing safer sex. We can use it to reduce our risk of getting STDs. It lets us protect ourselves while we have sex. Safer sex is for responsible people who care about their and their partners' pleasure and health.
How Can I Lower My Risk Using Safer Sex?
One way to have safer sex is to only have one partner who has no sexually transmitted infections, and no other partners than you.
But this isn't always the safest kind of safer sex. That's because most people don't know when they have infections. So they can spread STDs without knowing it. And not everyone is honest about their STD status, either. This is why it’s a good idea to get tested for STDs regularly. It’s even better to go with your partner and get tested together, so you know each other’s status.
Some STDs have specific things you can do to lower your risk. For example, you can get the HPV vaccine to protect against the types of HPV that most commonly cause cancer. If you are at very high risk for HIV (like if your partner has HIV), you can talk with a doctor or nurse about using Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). This pill can lower your risk of getting HIV if you take it every day.
It's also important to find other ways to practice safer sex. There are kinds of sex that don’t spread STDs. And there are kinds of sex that have a very low risk of spreading STDs. You may want to think about avoiding vaginal and anal intercourse — which have the highest risk of passing STDs — and sticking to other, safer kinds of sex.
Sexual activities that do not spread STDs include:
Low-risk sexual activities include:
- fondling — manual stimulation of one another
- body-to-body rubbing, or "dry humping," or "outercourse"
- oral sex (safest with a condom, Sheer Glyde dam or other barrier)
- playing with sex toys with a partner
Highest risk sexual activities include:
- vaginal intercourse
- anal intercourse
You can use condoms during vaginal and anal intercourse to make it safer
How Different STDs Get Passed
Infections are passed in different ways. Here are the basics:
VAGINAL OR ANAL INTERCOURSE WITHOUT A CONDOM — HIGH RISK FOR PASSING
- cytomegalovirus (CMV)
- genital warts
- hepatitis B
- human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)
- human papilloma virus (HPV)
- pelvic inflammatory disease (PID)
- pubic lice
ORAL SEX WITHOUT A CONDOM — HIGH RISK FOR PASSING
- hepatitis B
SKIN-TO-SKIN SEXUAL CONTACT WITHOUT SEXUAL INTERCOURSE — RISKY FOR PASSING
- pubic lice
Is Oral Sex Safer Sex?
When it comes to HIV, oral sex is safer sex than vaginal or anal intercourse. But other infections, like herpes, syphilis, hepatitis B, gonorrhea, and HPV can be passed by oral sex. Use condoms or Sheer Glyde dams to make oral sex safer.
How Can I Use Sheer Glyde or Dental Dams to Make Oral Sex Safer?
Dental dams are small, thin, square pieces of latex used to protect the throat during certain kinds of dental work. They can also be placed on the vulva or the anus when the mouth, lips, or tongue are used to sexually arouse a partner. Like the condom, dams keep partners' body fluids out of each other's bodies. They also prevent skin-to-skin contact. A special kind of dam, the Sheer Glyde dam, has been approved by the FDA especially for safer sex. Like dental dams, Sheer Glyde dams are available online, in some drugstores, and at many Planned Parenthood health centers.
If Sheer Glyde dams or dental dams aren't handy, you can use plastic wrap or a cut-open condom.
How Can I Have Safer Sex with My Sex Toys?
Many people like sex toys — dildos, vibrators, strap-ons, butt plugs, and more. These toys need special care. Unless they're kept clean between uses, they can build up bacteria, which can cause an infection. And if they're shared between partners, they can pass along sexually transmitted infections.
The best way to keep sex toys clean and safe is to protect them with a condom. The condom should be changed whenever the toy is passed from partner to partner or from one body opening to another — mouth, anus, or vagina.
If you don't use condoms to keep a sex toy clean, it's important to clean it before and after every use. Sex toys are made of many different materials — silicone, rubber, vinyl, stainless steel, acrylic, etc. Some toys can be soaked in water — and some cannot. Read the instructions on the package carefully. Never use breakable household objects, like glass bottles, as sex toys.
Keeping your sex toys clean will help them last longer, and they'll give you pleasure instead of infections!
How Can I Use Lubricant for Safer Sex?
A good lubricant can go a long way in making sure that safer sex is pleasurable and fun. Lubricant is important in safer sex because it also makes condoms and dams slippery and less likely to break. Lubricants make safer sex feel better by cutting down on the dry kind of friction that a lot of people find irritating.
When buying lube, it's important to find the right kind — one that works for you and for your condom. Never use oil-based lube with a latex or non-latex rubber condom. Use only water or silicone-based lube with latex and non-latex rubber condoms. Read the package insert if you have any questions about what you can use.
What About Safer Sex and Drugs and Alcohol?
Alcohol and other drugs can make you forget you promised yourself to have safer sex. The use of too much alcohol or any amount of drugs often leads to high-risk sex.
How Does Safer Sex Make Sex Feel Better?
Worrying about sexually transmitted infections can make sex less satisfying. Safer sex can reduce that worry. Practicing safer sex can also help you and your partner
- add variety to sexual pleasure
- make sex play last longer by postponing orgasms
- increase intimacy and trust
- strengthen relationships
- improve communication — verbal and nonverbal
The bottom line is that safer sex can be fun. It is a great way to explore who we are sexually, express our feelings, bond with others, and have a good time. Practicing safer sex can enhance our pleasure — and who doesn't want more pleasure?
Am I Ready for Safer Sex?
Which of the following statements are true for you?
|I am ready to let my partner know where and how I like to be touched.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to buy condoms, even if it's embarrassing.||[ ]||[ ]|
|If I decide I want to use sex toys, I'm ready to keep them clean.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to let my partner know my limits when it comes to taking risks.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to say no to sex when I don't want to have it.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to have regular physical exams and tests for sexually transmitted infections.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to talk with my health care provider about my sex life.||[ ]||[ ]|
|I am ready to enjoy sex without having to get high.||[ ]||[ ]|
If you answered "True" to more than half of these questions, you are well on your way to being ready for safer sex. Congratulations!
How Do Condoms Make Sex Safer?
Condoms work by forming a barrier between the penis and anus, vagina, or mouth. The barrier keeps one partner's fluids from getting into or on the other. And condoms reduce the amount of skin-to-skin contact. There are two main kinds of condoms — those that go on the penis, and those that go into the vagina or anus.
Latex condoms are great safer sex tools for anal, vaginal, or oral sex. They’re easy to get at a pharmacy, grocery store, or at a Planned Parenthood health center. They’re cheap. And they come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and textures. You can learn how to put on a condom by watching this brief video.
People with latex allergies can use condoms made of polyurethane or polyisoprene.
FC2 Female condoms reduce your risk of infection during vaginal or anal sex. They’re inserted into the vagina or anus, and should not be used along with a condom on the penis because it can cause friction and make them break. These condoms aren't quite as easy to find, but they’re available in some drugstores and many Planned Parenthood health centers. You can also order them online.
Find Dr. Cullins' Answers to Common Sexual Health Questions
Q&A with Dr. Cullins