Safe sex goes beyond condoms! We’re often taught that condoms are the be-all-end-all to safe sex, but there is so much more to the topic than just a bunch of lubricated latex.
Below is a very brief, non exhaustive list of different ways to keep sex safe. References are at the bottom of the post.
1. Type of Condom
Surprise — there isn’t just one type of condom! There are three main categories of materials: latex, synthetic and natural membranes. Always check the expiry date and never use condoms more than 5 years after the manufacturing date.
- Latex is the most widely available type of material and is highly effective in preventing pregnancy and transmission of STIs. If you’re adding lubricant, you should stick to water-based lubes because any oils might weaken the latex material.
- Synthetic condoms (often polyurethane) are also highly effective in preventing pregnancy and transmissions of STIs. You are able to use water-based, silicone-based or hybrid lubricants. Just make sure that the material isn’t blended with latex. The popular brands of “female condoms” are made from synthetic materials like nitrate polymers. This has the same efficacy and lube compatibilities as synthetic condoms mentioned above.
- Natural membrane condoms (lambskin) are highly effective in preventing pregnancy but actually allow certain STIs to pass through the pores. They are a good option of you are fluid bonded but want to reduce the risk of pregnancy.
2. Oral Sex
We need to protect ourselves whenever there is an exchange of bodily fluids. This means that we should be partaking in protected oral sex (genital-oral and anal-oral contact). Luckily, there are protective barriers made for this purpose! If a penis is involved, you can use a standard condom or a flavoured one. If a vulva or anus is involved, then you can use a dental dam. Adding flavoured lube can be a great trick too!
3. Finger Play
Even though there isn’t necessarily an exchange of fluids between two partners, there are still certain risks with finger play. There are latex or nitrile gloves on the market that are used to prevent transfer of bodily fluids. Here are some reasons to wear gloves:
- Risk of blood: If there is a cut on the hand, if the receiver is menstruating or if there is a risk of bleeding (ex: first time being fisted).
- Anal play: You should never go from anal play to vaginal or oral play because the bacteria in your bum should only stay in your bum. If you’re planning on transitioning between different orifices, then wearing a glove can help prevent any bacteria transfer. Simply remove the glove or replace it with a new one.
- Multiple people: If you are playing with multiple people (or with a partner and then with yourself), there is a risk of fluid exchange. Removing and replacing with a new glove will avoid any unwanted fluid exchanges.
- Other: People might use them if they have long or sharp nails, if someone enjoys the smooth texture of the gloves, particular fetishes, etc. As a note, HSV transmission is spread through skin-to-skin contact during active outbreaks so gloves can reduce transmission risk.
4. STI Testing
There are two main reasons you should get tested for STIs: If you are symptomatic or if you are asymptomatic and meet certain criteria. This criteria includes: engaging in sexual activities with a new partner or multiple new partners, any forced sexual activity, or a follow up of previous STI treatment. There are many asymptomatic STIs that can still be transmitted to partners. Untreated STIs can become pretty serious as they can lead to complications like infertility, chronic pelvic pain and facilitation of HIV transmission. If you’ve had unprotected sexual contact but you aren’t sure about your STI status, the safest choice is to get tested. If you aren’t sure, you should talk to your doctor. If you’re concerned about cost, search for free services in your area.
5. Birth Control
We’ll save the discussion about different types of birth control for another post. However, we must include this in the topic of safe sex. If one of you is capable of getting pregnant while the other person produces semen, then this is a major part of safe sex. If you do not want to get pregnant, then you need to protect yourself and your partner by considering preventative options. Latex and synthetic condoms are the only method that reduced the risk of pregnancy and STIs.
6. Sex Toys
There are two things to consider when safely using sex toys: Safe materials and toy sharing.
There are safe sex toy materials that are made of non-porous and non-toxic materials (silicone, metal, glass, ABS plastic and properly treated wood) and unsafe sex toys made of porous materials (TPE, TPR, jelly and PVC) and toxic materials (added phthalates). Porous toys harbour bacteria and fluids (often causing mould). Toxic materials leach chemicals into your body. For obvious reasons, you should stay away from porous or toxic toys. If you’re not sure if something is safe, you should search for sex toy bloggers to clarify or ask us!
Any toy that is used — regardless of material (although porous materials should never, ever be shared) — need to be sterilized before sharing amongst different people or different orifices. Toys should never go from anal to oral, or anal to vaginal due to bum bacteria that should stay in the bum. Toys should also never be used on multiple people without being sterilized (not just cleaned, but sterilized). If your toy is made from a safe material, you can cover it with a condom in order to reduce bacteria and make it easier to clean and put on a new condom between partners. If your toy is made of a non-safe material, then a condom cannot guarantee protection as the toy’s non-safe material will often degrade latex. If a company recommends sticking a condom on a toxic toy… don’t trust them.
Communication is ESSENTIAL to safe sex! This includes both logistical and emotional communication.
Logistical is when you’re talking about safe sex practices: barrier methods, STI concerns, birth control methods, etc — all the things mentioned above.
Emotional communication is when you’re talking about consent and boundaries. Everyone involved needs to have enthusiastic consent for all sexual activities. Any concerns or limits need to be discussed, respected, and adhered to throughout each session.
Long-term relationships still need to re-confirm consent, but couples can choose to do this in different ways instead of doing it prior to every sexual encounter. Everyone should feel like they have been heard so they can be comfortable engaging in sexual activities.
There are other components of safe sex that were not discussed. Please make sure you read verified sites and talk to your doctor and your partner(s) if you have any safe sex concerns.
Other topics include:
- PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis)
- Pre-exposure vaccinations for HPV and Hepatitis
- Yeast infection and UTI precautions
There are so many different components to safe sex and this article was just the beginning! Sex should make you feel good, and safe sex is part of that!
If you have any questions, let us know and we will do our best to answer them or direct you to someone more educated about these topics.
Kimberly A. Workowski, MD and Gail A. Bolan MD, “Sexually Transmitted Diseases Treatment Guidelines, 2015,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, June 5, 2015, http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/rr6403a1.htm
Cynthia L Gay, MD, MPH and Myron S Cohen, MD, “Prevention of sexually transmitted infections,” Up To Date, November 5, 2015, http://www.uptodate.com/contents/prevention-of-sexually-transmitted-infections?source=search_result&search=safe+sex&selectedTitle=1~150
Khalil G Ghanem, MD, PhD and Susan Tuddenham, MD, MPH, “Screening for sexually transmitted infections,” Up to Date, September 15, 2015, http://www.uptodate.com/contents/screening-for-sexually-transmitted-infections?source=see_link
“Birth control options: Things to Consider,” Mayo Clinic, February 17, 2015, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/birth-control/in-depth/birth-control-options/art-20045571
“STD testing: What’s right for you?,” Mayo Clinic, September 23, 2014, http://www.mayoclinic.org/std-testing/art-20046019
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