Safe sex

What is safe sex?

The truth is all sexual activity is not without some harm. The only safe sex is never to have sex at all. Safe sex means reducing the chance of partners’ fluids (blood, semen, vaginal fluids) entering your body and vice versa, and covering parts of the body that may be infectious when having sex. Practicing safe sex can help you and your partners stay healthy and make sex better with the peace of mind that you have prevented pregnancy and contracting STIs.

Safe sex means:

  • It’s safer sex with a condom than without one.
  • It’s safer to know your and your partner’s status than not.
  • It’s safer to limit sex partners.
  • It’s safer to avoid being under the influence of alcohol of drugs.
  • It’s safer to use a birth control method in combination with a condom to prevent pregnancy and STIs.
  • It’s safer to have regular STI checks.

Preventing pregnancy

If you are a vagina owner, there are many contraceptive options available for you to choose from. When deciding on a method of contraception that suits you, you need to be considering the pros and cons of each contraception. You may find yourself asking:

  • Which method will be best for me and my lifestyle?
  • How effective will it be in preventing pregnancy?
  • Can I get it now?
  • Can I set and forget about it?
  • How convenient is it?
  • Any possible side-effects?
  • Is it cost-effective?

Consult a health professional on your contraceptive choices.

Remember, if you have unprotected sex, you can get the emergency contraceptive pill up to 5 days after sexual intercourse.

It is important to remember that most options only function as birth control methods and require combined use of condom for protection from STIs (see below).

Protecting yourself and your sex partner from STIs

There are a lot of ways you can make sex safer for you and your sex partners. One of the best ways is by using a barrier method, like the external condom, internal condom, and/or dental dams every time you have oral, anal, or vaginal sex. These barrier methods can cover parts of genitals, protecting you and your partner from body fluids (blood, semen, vaginal) and some skin-to-skin contact.

Getting regular STI testing is really important to safer sex. Most STI symptoms are not visible so many people don’t know they’re infected and can easily pass an infection to their partners. Testing before have sex with a new partner, after sex with a new partner, and routine testing is the only way to know for sure whether or not you or someone else has a STI.

Being incapacitated by alcohol and/or drugs can make you forget about having safer sex and you may accidentally make decisions that increase your chances of getting STIs. It’s also harder to use a condom and/or dental dam correctly.

Another way to make sex safer is sticking to sexual activities that don’t spread STIs – such as outercourse or mutual masturbation. But if you’re taking off clothes and touching each other, sharing sex toys or having any kind of sex, using barriers is the safer way to go.

Sexplanations: Is sex safe?

Are some kinds of sex acts safer than others?

Yes! There are even some kinds that are risk-free ways of getting sexual pleasure and being intimate with another person, like masturbating and dry humping with clothes on.

Low risk activities include: kissing, touching your partner’s genitals by hands, using sex toys, and dry humping without clothes. Contracting STIs from these activities is still possible so use condoms and dental dams to prevent skin-to-skin contact and fluid transfer to stay healthy.

High risk activities such as unprotected vaginal or anal sex exposes all sexual partners to all STIs. The best way to protect yourself and your partners is to always use a condom each time you have penetrative sex. It is highly recommended to also use lube with the condom, especially during anal sex. Unprotected intercourse is also a high risk to unwanted pregnancy.

Another high risk activity is oral sex. Although getting HIV is less likely by oral sex than vaginal and anal sex, having oral sex is still risky to other STIs such as herpes, syphilis, hep B, gonorrhea, and HPV.

If you have unprotected penis-in-vagina sex without a condom and you’re not using another type of contraceptive, you may be at risk of pregnancy. If you are not planning for a pregnancy, emergency contraceptive pill is available at pharmacies without prescription and can prevent pregnancy up to 5 days after sex, but it works better the sooner you take it – so act quick.

For more information see CATIE: Understanding risk by sex act.

Safe sex with a STI?

If you find out you have a STI, it’s important to know how to avoid passing it on. Remember to let your partners know so they can also get tested. Always tell your sexual partners that you have a STI before you have sex so you can together make safe sex decisions and prevent it from spreading.

Luckily, many STIs are curable with timely medication, so once you finish treatment, then you don’t have to worry about passing on the STI to anyone.

Some STIs are incurable, but there are ways to manage the symptoms and prevent passing it on to your sexual partners. Depending on what STI you have, here are some things you can do to protect your partners:

  • Always use a barrier – condoms and dental dams during oral, anal, and vaginal sex – whether or not you have an STI.
  • Don’t have sex at all if you have STI symptoms such as sores or warts around your genitals and mouth, abnormal discharge from your penis, vagina or anus or irritation/pain/itch/swelling in your penis, vagina, vulva or anus.
  • Go see a doctor or nurse to start treatment immediately.
  • Comply to the full medication course as advised by your doctor, even if your symptoms disappear sooner than expected. Infections can stay in your body without being visible. Your partner(s) should also be treated at the same time. Don’t have sex until you all have finished treatment, and your doctor or nurse says you’re in the clear.
  • If you have an incurable STI such as HIV or herpes, visit your doctor to find out about medications that can help manage and lower chances of passing on to a sexual partner.

Talk to your partner

Safe sex is better sex without the worry about unplanned pregnancy and STIs. Talking about STIs may be difficult, but any person partaking in a sexual activity with you has the right to know about your status and vice versa.

Discuss about STIs when you’re feeling relaxed and confident, not just right before having sex. You’ll feel better once it’s over and done with. Your partner(s) will appreciate your honesty and that you don’t want to pass on the infection to them. Getting tested with your sexual partners is really important and one of the best ways to preventing STIs and strengthen your relationship.

You also have the right to know if your partner(s) is infected with a STI. Most people with STIs don’t even know they have had it for years, because most STIs are asymptomatic. You can say that you want to get tested because you care about your health AND their health.

If your results are positive for a STI, it’s important to tell your sexual partner(s). It’s not fun but it’s the right thing to do, so they can get tested too and seek treatment if required. Find out more at Let them know.

Planned Parenthood: How to talk about having safer sex

Adapted from Planned Parenthood: Safer sex.

For more information

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Further resources

Play Safe All you need to know about sexual health logo
relationship things logo
The Mix logo

Safer Sex Guide cover

CATIE: Safer sex guide

This guide will help you take charge of your sexual health by giving you tips to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and explaining how you can make sex safer. There are many types of STIs, and this guide explores some common ones.