and Your Partner
Just what is safe sex? According to the National Institutes of Health, safe sex is sexual contact that doesn’t involve the exchange of body fluids between partners. It means taking steps before and during sex to help prevent you from getting a sexually transmitted disease (STD) or giving one to your partner. For many, it also means protecting against an unplanned pregnancy.
Think of safe sex as a way of showing you care about your partner. Unsafe sex puts you or your partner at risk of STDs and an unplanned pregnancy. Keep in mind that STDs are through sexual contact, and not just intercourse.
There are approximately 30 STDs that have been identified throughout the world, the organization Beforeplay.org states. Among the infections most prevalent in the US are:
- Genital herpes
- Genital warts
While these infections are most often spread by direct contact with body fluids—semen, vaginal fluids or blood— a sore on the genitals or mouth can also provide an entryway for the germs. For some, transmission can result simply from skin-to-skin contact.
When HIV/AIDS was in the headlines in the ’80s and ’90s, safe sex practices were top of mind. But success in treating HIV has led many people to become complacent about taking the steps that slowed its spread. The reality is that we haven’t eradicated HIV or any of the other sexually transmitted diseases known around the world. While some of these infections can be treated and cured, others can only be controlled, and each threatens your health in different ways. Guarding against them is important.
The only completely foolproof method for avoiding an STD is abstinence, and that’s not a viable or long-term choice for many people. Monogamy in which both partners have been fully tested and found to be free of any STD is extremely safe if the tests were done after any incubation period has passed. Short of these options, know the steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner, in case you have an STD.
Some steps for safer sex happen well before you get intimate. Once both you and your partner feel you’re ready to be intimate, do all you can to be sure you’re STD-free or take measures to prevent transmission. These ideas can help:
- Be open and discuss your sexual histories.
- Before having sex with a new partner, each of you should get screened for STDs and share the test results with each other. If one or both of you have an STD, get treatment before having sex. For a curable infection, avoid sexual contact until your healthcare provider determines that you’re no longer infectious.
- If you have an incurable STD, like herpes, tell your sexual partner about it before you have sex and allow him or her to decide what to do without any pressure. If you both agree to have sexual contact, use latex or polyurethane condoms.
- Communicate with your sexual partner about what you want and enjoy sexually. Safe sex is consensual sex.
- Don’t have sexual contact with anyone but your partner to avoid exposure to an STD that, in turn, you could spread to your partner.
- Be aware that drugs and alcohol may affect your ability to make good decisions and lead to sex that you might regret or were pressured into because you weren’t thinking properly. You might not choose your partner as carefully. You may also forget to use condoms or use them incorrectly.
What Makes Sex Unsafe?
Any type of sexual contact without protection is potentially unsafe if it’s possible that one partner is infected with an STD that can be passed to the other.
To be safe, unless test results show otherwise, take the same precautions you would if you thought a sex partner was infected. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if someone is infected by how he or she looks. A new sex partner might lie to you about having an STD.
Even someone who tested negative in the past might be infected now—he or she might have been infected after being tested or might have gotten the test too soon after an exposure for it to show up, such as in the case of HIV.
Most concern about STDs centers on the transmission of HIV. The greatest risk is when blood or sexual fluid touches the mucous membranes inside the rectum, vagina, mouth or tip of the penis. These delicate tissues are prone to slight tears, which are like a superhighway for HIV virus to get into the body. Know that HIV can be in the pre-ejaculate fluid that comes out of the penis before orgasm as well as in semen.
Cuts, sores or bleeding gums—all of these are breaks in your body’s protective barrier that increase the risk of spreading HIV and other STDs. Rough physical activity also increases the risk.
What Makes Sex Safer?
To reduce the risk of getting any STD, make it more difficult for blood or sexual fluid to get into your body by using a barrier. The most common barrier is the standard condom. There are also one-size-fits-all female condoms that protect the vagina or rectum during intercourse. They look like regular condoms made of polyurethane, but are designed to fit inside the vagina and are typically pre-lubricated.
Oral sex has a lower risk of transmitting STDs, but it’s still possible if body fluids get into your mouth, especially if you have bleeding gums or sores. Most any STD can spread from the genital area to the mouth and vice versa. According to the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, though your risk of contracting an infection through oral sex is lower than through vaginal or anal sex, it still exists. You can get a bacterial infection of chlamydia, syphilis or gonorrhea in your mouth and/or throat and could develop genital warts in the mouth. Herpes is commonly passed between the genitals and the mouth, and HIV can be passed through cuts in the mouth or small abrasions. Pieces of latex or plastic wrap over the vagina or condoms over the penis can be used as barriers during oral sex. For more on using protection during oral sex, there’s great advice on the Palo Alto website at http://www.pamf.org/teen/sex/std/oral/
Condoms offer the best available protection against STDs by acting as a physical barrier to prevent the exchange of semen, vaginal fluids or blood between partners. Safe sex is often called safer sex because condoms and other barrier methods aren’t 100 percent effective in preventing STDs. Some infections can be spread by contact with surrounding skin if it’s not covered—pubic lice, scabies, genital warts and herpes, for instance, are spread by close skin-to-skin contact. Still, condoms do offer the best available protection when used correctly.
Practice Protection Smarts
- Use condoms for all vaginal, anal and oral intercourse.
- The condom should be in place from the beginning to the end of the sexual activity.
- Use a fresh condom every time you have sex. Check the use-by date and open the packet carefully so that you don’t tear the condom with a fingernail, jewelry or teeth.
- Use a water-based lubricant to help reduce the chance that a condom will break yet not break down the material the way an oil-based lubricant or petroleum jelly can.
- Condoms made from polyurethane are available for people allergic to latex. They’re also less prone to breaking than latex. Regardless of the material, choose the appropriate size for the right coverage.
- Avoid condoms with the spermicide nonoxynol-9, once thought to help prevent HIV transmission. Research has shown that it irritates vaginal tissue and can create small tears.
- Use appropriate barriers for intimacy other than intercourse, such as condoms on dildos and other penetrative sex toys, latex gloves for digital penetration and a sheet of latex called a dental dam that’s placed over a woman’s genitals during oral sex.
What To Do If Your Condom Breaks
First, don’t panic. Calmly consider taking the following steps, adapted from recommendations of the UK health service, Open Doors:
If you’re a woman having vaginal sex: Pee immediately to flush away any sperm that may be near your urethra. While on the toilet, squeeze with your vaginal muscles to remove excess sperm. Do not douche or wash inside the vagina because this can push any sperm and bacteria high into your vagina, which is more likely to result in a pregnancy or STD. Wash the outside of your genitals while still on the toilet by splashing with water or pouring a bottle of lukewarm water over them. You may need to get emergency contraception within the first 72 hours after a condom breaks if you are not using any other form. Have a sexual health checkup within two weeks after the condom breaks or sooner if you have any symptoms or concerns.
If you were receiving anal sex: Sit on the toilet and bear down to remove as much sperm as possible. Do not douche or wash inside your anus because this can create tears and increase the likelihood of STD transmission. Have a sexual health checkup within two weeks after the condom breaks or sooner if you have any symptoms or concerns.
If you were giving oral sex: Spit out any semen quickly or swallow it immediately—do not let it stay in your mouth. Rinse and spit using water. Do not brush or floss your teeth for at least one hour. Have a sexual health checkup including throat swabs within two weeks after the condom breaks or sooner if you have any symptoms or concerns.
Leslie Kantor, MPH, the national director of education initiatives at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, published this list of 10 little-known facts about condoms:
1. When it comes to HIV, using a condom makes sex 10,000 times safer than not using a condom.
2. There is no medical reason why someone can’t use a condom.
3. Condoms have been around a long, long time. The earliest known illustration of a man using a condom is a 12,000–15,000-year-old painting on the wall of a cave in France.
4. One in four acts of vaginal intercourse is condom-protected in the US. It is one in three among single people.
5. People who use condoms feel their experiences are just as pleasurable as people who don’t.
6. Ninety-three percent of sexually active American women aged 15–44 have had a partner that used a male condom.
7. Condom availability in places of need around the world is increasing significantly, with 25.8 million female condoms provided through international and nongovernmental funding sources in 2009.
8. The condom is one of the most accessible and inexpensive forms of birth control available.
9. The vast majority of American teens use a condom the first time they have sex.
10. Only 39 percent of American high school students are taught how to correctly use a condom in their health classes. Programs that teach young people about abstinence as well as contraception, including condom use, help teens to delay first sex and use condoms and other forms of contraception when they do have sex.
For tips on how to use condoms click here.
© 2005 Opening illustration, Bascove. All rights reserved
Illustrations may not be reproduced in any form without the express consent of Self chec, Inc.
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