Ask the Doctors: Safer Sex

I broke up with my long-term boyfriend of three years about 6 months ago. I’m just starting to be interested in other men, but being out on the dating scene and having multiple sexual partners is making me sort of nervous. I don’t want to remain celibate until I find my next serious boyfriend, but I’m curious what I need to do to make sure I’m being safe. Obviously condoms are a good start, but is there anything else I need to know?

There’s quite a bit to know about safer sex, so let’s start with the basics.

First, I need to acknowledge that the only way to be 100% safe is to never have sex. But that’s like saying that the only way to 100% avoid getting into a car accident is to never get into a car. Since that’s not something that most of us are willing to do, we take steps to make it safer. Cars have anti-lock brakes, air bags, seat belts, and other safety mechanisms that make it much safer to be in the car. Similarly, safer sex practices can’t offer guarantee but they definitely improve your chances. So you’ll hear sex educators talk about “safer sex instead of “safe sex.

Second, while some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be life-threatening, many others are generally treated quite easily, as long as you get tested. It’s worth getting tested on a regular basis, such as every 6 or 12 months. I recommend going to an anonymous clinic in order to ensure your privacy.

Quite often, people have many more negative feelings about STIs than they have about, say, measles, swine flu, or whooping cough. A lot of that can be attributed to our cultural sex-negativity. For centuries, STIs were seen as divine punishment for sin, which makes about as much sense as saying that food poisoning is divine punishment for improper food handling and preparation. But the fact that it doesn’t make sense doesn’t change the impact these beliefs continue to have. That’s especially true for women, who are often considered tainted by STIs in ways that men generally aren’t.

I mention this because I think it’s an important piece of the puzzle. Our beliefs about STIs influence our safer sex strategies and in my experience, these sex-negative and sexist attitudes usually make it harder to make good decisions.

Third, a lot of people find that it’s really useful to be able to talk with a potential sexual partner about their sexual history and STI testing history. Other people prefer to assume that a partner has an STI and act accordingly. Given that a lot of people lie about their STI history and a lot of people (especially men) have an STI and don’t know it because they’ve never had any symptoms, it’s certainly worth considering. Whatever route you choose, think about it in advance. Most people tend to let their boundaries slip when they’re turned on, which can lead to choices you later regret. If you make a decision in advance, it’s much easier to stick to it once your libido kicks in.

OK, so having gotten that out of the way, let’s talk about what you can do.

First, you’re right that condoms are a good idea. But condoms take a bit more practice to use correctly than you might think. Condoms work more effectively when you know how to use them. For example:

  • Are those condoms you’ve had in the back of your dresser for a while expired? Check the expiration date. All condoms sold in the US have a 5-year expiration date printed on every wrapper. As latex ages, it becomes brittle and more likely to break.
  • Keep condoms away from heat and direct sunlight. Heat makes latex more fragile. Don’t keep condoms in the glove compartment of your car. It’s okay to put a condom in your pocket when going on a date, but don’t keep one in your wallet.
  • Using condoms is only an interruption if you let it be. Keep them close and find ways to incorporate them in your play. Try putting it on your partner with your mouth.
  • Put a few drops of a latex-compatible lubricant in the head of the condom before putting it on. Not only will this reduce air bubbles and the chance of breakage, but it also increases sensation for the wearer. Thinner water-based or silicone lubes generally work better than gels. Never use oils with latex or polyisoprene condoms! They will break in less than a minute.
  • Roll the condom all the way down and check to make sure that it’s still there during sex. Sometimes, condoms can slip off, especially if they’re not rolled completely down.
  • After ejaculation, hold the base of the condom. It is important to pull out before you get too soft. As the penis softens, the condom is more likely to come off.
  • Wrap them in tissue if you want, but be sure to throw used condoms in the trash. Flushing them down the toilet can clog pipes.

Condoms have a bit more friction than skin, so a latex-compatible lubricant can make them feel better, too. Since there are a lot of choices, here’s a good overview of the different types. Condoms also vary from brand to brand, so here’s some useful info on finding the right one for you.

While condoms are very effective at preventing certain STIs, they don’t necessarily protect against all of them. For example, if someone has herpes on their penis or inside the vagina, a condom can cover it during intercourse. But if they have it on their scrotum or labia, the condom won’t prevent transmission if the person is shedding the virus. That’s why it’s important to talk with a potential partner and to know about different STIs. Scarleteen has a lot of excellent info here.

Another way to practice safer sex is to use gloves for any kind of finger penetration. Some people also use them even when there’s no penetration if they have concerns about herpes, HPV or other skin-borne STIs. Some people are hesitant to use gloves because they think they feel too medical. But after you’ve had a couple of hot and steamy sexual experiences with them, you may find that the sound of a glove getting pulled out of the box turns you on. Gloves are also great for anal play and they make clean-up fast. Just pick everything up in your hand, take the glove off inside-out and toss in the trash.

One useful trick for making gloves feel better for the wearer is to put them on and then add a dollop of lubricant inside the glove. Squeeze it all the way down into the fingertips and you’ll find that it feels almost like you’re not wearing a glove at all! Some people prefer finger cots if they only want to cover one or two fingers.

Dental dams are rectangles of latex or plastic that can be used during cunnilingus (oral contact with female genitals) and analingus (oral/anal contact) to prevent STI transmission. Put a little lube on the side that will be against the receiving partner and give it a try. You can also use plastic wrap, if you want.

When you’re developing your safer sex strategies, it’s worth remembering that different activities have different levels of risk. For example, anal penetration is higher risk for many STIs than vaginal penetration. Contact with blood (including menstrual blood) or semen increases the possibility of transmission, especially if you have an open cut or sore. And oral sex on a woman is very low risk for both people for most STIs. So you might choose what you’ll do with a particular partner based on your assessment of your STI risk. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Planned Parenthood has a lot of great info here, as does San Francisco City Clinic.

Having said all of that, I really hope that I didn’t scare you. I know that fear of STIs is often used to try to keep people from having sex. But making safer sex part of your routine is pretty easy, once you get over the learning curve. With a little practice, you won’t even notice it anymore.

Have fun!


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Dr. Charlie Glickman

Charlie Glickman is the Education Program Manager at Good Vibrations. He also writes, blogs, teaches workshops and university courses, presents at conferences, and trains sexuality educators. He’s certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists, and loves geeking out about sex, relationships, sex-positivity, love and shame, communities of erotic affiliation, and sexual practices and techniques of all varieties. Follow him online, on Twitter at @charlieglickman, or on Facebook.

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