Currently, condoms are the only widely available, proven method for reducing transmission of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) during sex. Condoms work.
Your Safer Sex Toolbox
Being alive and engaging in the world around us involves risk, whether we drive a car, eat at a restaurant, or have contact with someone who might have a cold. There is not a way to avoid every risk. Even staying at home and locking our doors is not enough to eliminate all risks, and it’s not very much fun!
Engaging in our environment and building relationships carries so many benefits that most of us are willing to take risks each day but, consciously or unconsciously, we can weigh our risks and benefits to help us determine which risks we are willing to take and which we are not.
Being sexual with someone also carries risks—risk of rejection, of unintended pregnancy, of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or even a simple cold. Being sexual also can provide many physical, emotional and spiritual benefits, including physical fitness, emotional bonding, and a feeling of spiritual connection. Here we will examine some of the things you can do to assess your own risks and benefits so that you can enjoy the benefits important to you while decreasing your risk of contracting an STI, having an unintended pregnancy, or being coerced into sexual activity.
Decide on Your Boundaries
It’s not possible to make an accurate, generalized statement about the “ideal” number of partners or the “best” choices to make about condoms or other barriers. There are risks and benefits of any sexual choices, just as there are risks and benefits of almost any other choices we make, from driving a car to dining at a restaurant. There may be no “best” way for everyone, but there probably are some choices that will work better for you and your partner(s) than others.
When deciding on their boundaries, people may consider such things as religious beliefs, cultural standards, personal desires and comfort levels, the type of relationship in which one is involved, the level of trust, communication and commitment within a relationship, the physical, emotional, spiritual benefits of sexual choices, the physical, emotional and spiritual risks of particular sexual choices, and the emotional perceptions of actual physical risks.
A Few Questions to Consider
- What are your reasons for choosing to have sex? What are the “benefits” you are hoping to enjoy? (Physical health benefits? Pleasure? Emotional connection? Fun? Spiritual connection?)
- When and how often will you be tested for STIs?
- When and how often do you want your partners to be tested for STIs?
- Which sexual activities are you willing to try? Which are you unwilling to do? Which might you be willing to try in some situations and/or with some partners but not others?
- What barriers do you want to use? Under which circumstances?
- What barriers and other precautions do you want your partner(s) to use when being sexual with others, if you are in a sexually non-monogamous relationship?
- Are you willing to risk a possible pregnancy? If not, what method of birth control will you use?
- Do you have a plan of action that you intend to follow if, in spite of precautions, you are faced with an unintended pregnancy, or an STI?
Once you have decided on your own “safer sex” boundaries, you will need to gather the tools you will need to stick to your decisions. Some of the most common “tools” are included below.
- Accessible, the most common type of condom
- Available in a variety of colors, textures, thicknesses, and sizes
- Malleable and stretchy
- Can NOT be used with oils or oil-based lubes
- Will degrade in high heat (wallet, glove compartment)
- Outer ring covers a larger surface area, protects more of a woman’s mucous membrane
- Good for those with latex sensitivity
- Wearer can be in control
- Can insert up to eight hours before sex
- Some say the outer ring irritates the clitoris and vulva
- Difficult to find
- Slippage is common
- May be uncomfortable for the receiver of anal sex
In addition to lube reducing tears in the skin, condoms work better and are less likely to tear when you use lube. Lube can also make oral sex with a barrier more enjoyable for a person with a vagina receiving it.
Vaginas self-lubricate when a person with a vagina is turned on, but many factors may reduce lubrication: alcohol or other drugs (including hormonal birth control, stimulants, antihistamines, antidepressants, chemotherapy), monthly hormonal changes, peri-menopause, menopause, breastfeeding, a history of sexual assault, and other psychological and physical factors. Some people may want extra lubrication on the vulva and clitoris during sex, as lubrication from the vagina often does not reach these external areas.
The anus does not self-lubricate, and you always need to use a lubricant to prevent the very fragile skin of the anus from tearing during anal play or intercourse. Most people like an anal lubricant thicker than those used for vaginal sex.
NOTE: Avoid any lubricant with lidocaine or benzocaine, which dull the body’s natural defense (pain), which lets you know when something is wrong, including tearing of the skin.
Below are types of lubricants you might choose, with advantages and disadvantages of each.
- Not as slippery as others
- May spread infection if the saliva of an infected person is used as the lubricant
- Dries up more quickly than others
Barriers for Oral Sex
Sharing sex toys (like vibrators, for example) can be risky if they have vaginal fluids, blood, or feces on them. Sharing sex toys without cleaning them or using a condom can potentially expose a person to STIs.
The safest practice is not to share sex toys. If sex toys are shared, a condom should be used. With toys that can be inserted into the vagina or anus, a person may put a condom onto the toy. For shared toys in which the penis is inserted, a condom may be worn. It is important to change the condom before another person uses the toy so that any body fluids or infectious organisms on the sex toy are not passed on to the partner. It is also important to change the condom when moving from the anus to the vagina to prevent possible infection.
When cleaning sex toys, look to see what the manufacturer’s instructions recommend. Some may be best cleaned with soap and water, while certain types of may be made from materials, such as silicone, that are dishwasher safe.
More to Explore
Don’t be shy to talk with your partner about safer sex and condoms: For both of you, this is one of the most important conversations you can have. It’s also one of the smartest!
For those with insurance coverage, internal condoms can now be ordered for free online and shipped directly.
ASHA recognizes each February as National Condom Month! Time to learn more about condoms, lube, and safer sex.
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