Risk is part of everyday life. Being informed about possible outcomes should help in making comfortable decisions. Correct and consistent use of condoms and/or dental dams or gloves are highly effective ways to reduce the risk of STI transmission for the body parts that are covered. It is important to know how STIs are transmitted, how likely transmission is for different types of sex, what possible symptoms we should be on the look out for, and where we can get tested and, when needed, where we can get treated.
Having accurate information is one part of what having safer sex is all about. The other part is including STI testing in our regular health routine. This is especially important because two of the most common STIs among young people (chlamydia and gonorrhea) are often asymptomatic (which means many of us have an STI and we don’t know about it). An asymptomatic STI can be unintentionally passed onto our partner(s) and in certain cases, leaving an STI untreated can lead to complications. Most STIs can be cured altogether, others can be effectively managed using treatment. In all cases, it’s always better to know!
Although oral sex is considered a lower risk activity for many STIs, it is possible to get or pass along Herpes, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and hepatitis B via oral sex. To protect yourself and your partner, you can choose to use a condom for mouth to penis contact. Dental dams may be used for mouth to anus or vulva contact. Dental dams are a square piece of latex that can be placed over a partner’s anus or vulva before oral sex.
- Do not use the same dam for both the anus and vulva.
- Do not use the same dam for more than one person, doing so can spread infections.
- If you cannot find dams in your community or you don’t have one with you when you need it, you can make one by cutting a non-lubricated condom or using plastic food wrap.
- For enhanced sensation, you can drop some water-based lubricant on the genitals before putting the dam.
Vaginal or anal sex with a penis or a toy
Have condoms on hand for vaginal or anal sex. Using them is a highly effective way to reduce the risk of getting or passing on an STI. Condoms are often available free-of-charge at sexual health and family planning clinics, or can be easily purchased at pharmacies, corner stores, and sometimes in vending machines.
If you are sharing sex toys, use a different condom on the toy for each partner. Use a new condom if you switch from anal sex to vaginal sex.
Use water-based lubrication. A few drops inside and generous amounts outside will enhance sexual enjoyment and protect the condom from tearing. If you or your sexual partner(s) are allergic to latex, condoms made of polyurethane are also available.
- Always check the expiration date on your condoms and store them in a cool location.
- Do not use oil-based lubricants like massage oil or hand lotion. The oil breaks down the latex and can result in the condom tearing or breaking.
- Do not double up on condoms. The friction can break both.
- Make sure to leave some room near the head of the penis for ejaculate/cum. Pinch the air out of the tip of the condom so it doesn’t rip during sex.
Do I need to use a condom?
Sex without a condom is a high-risk for STI and HIV transmission but there are ways to reduce risk if you choose to have unprotected sex:
- You can choose to use condoms with some people and not with others. Perhaps you can decide that you are comfortable not using them with regular partners you trust (if your partner agrees) and use condoms with others that you may not know as well or if you don’t know when they were last tested for STIs.
- If you choose to not use condoms, getting tested for STIs regularly is a way to stay healthy and get treated if you have an STI. Avoid unprotected sex until everyone has been tested and/or treated. Having an STI like chlamydia can make you more vulnerable to other STIs like HIV. Getting tested and treated is key.
- Using lots of lube is important to prevent friction and small tears in the skin that make it easier for infections to get passed on. When in doubt, use more lube.
- You can ejaculate/cum or have your partner cum outside of the vagina or anus. While it doesn’t take ejaculation to pass on all infections, for some STIs like HIV, getting cum on the mucus membranes (the inside of the vagina or rectum) increases exposure to more body fluid with the virus and a higher chance of transmission.
- Do not douche right before or right after sex. It irritates the fragile tissue in the vagina and/or rectum.
- If you are HIV-positive and your partner is HIV-negative, you can choose to be the receptive partner. If you are HIV-negative, you can choose to be the insertive partner.
- Do not use poppers before unprotected anal sex. They dilate blood vessels in the rectum and make STI transmission easier.
- If you are having vaginal or anal sex without a condom, you can refrain from rougher sex to prevent tears.
- If you are HIV-positive, stick to your medication to have an undetectable viral load (undetectable means being unable to transmit the virus sexually). Click here to learn more about how Undetectable = Untransmittable (important note: not everyone, even if they are adhering to treatment, can achieve an undetectable viral load).
- Drink lots of water for healthy mucosal membranes inside of the vagina and rectum.
- Smoking interferes with our immune system's ability to do its job. The tar and other chemicals in cigarettes make it difficult for the immune system to fight off other infections. If possible, make a plan to quit smoking.
- Most importantly, know your risks, as well as what level of risk you’re comfortable with. Information is power.