First off, great job being here and getting educated on how to have safe sex! (or at least safer sex, which we’ll get to). Sexy time is one of the best parts of life and … safety first, know what I’m sayin’?
What is safe sex?
Fun fact: According to Johns Hopkins, “many healthcare professionals believe there really is no such thing as safe sex. They believe the only way to be truly safe is not to have sex because all forms of sexual contact carry some risk.”
You may be thinking, “Wait, what? I thought there was such a thing as safe sex. Well, as they go on, “For example, kissing is thought to be a safe activity, but herpes, and other diseases can be spread this way. Condoms are commonly thought to protect against STIs. However, while it is true that condoms are useful in preventing certain diseases, such as herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea, they may not fully protect against other diseases, such as genital warts, syphilis, or HIV.”
Yep, according to experts at some of the premiere healthcare organizations in the world, including Johns Hopkins, Planned Parenthood, and even the Centers for Disease Control, it’s actually more accurate to talk about safer sex than safe sex.
Fortunately, there are lots of ways to have safer sex! As a Planned Parenthood expert outlines, “‘Safer sex” refers to anything we do to lower our risk — and our partners’ risk — of sexually transmitted infections. Some people call it ‘safe sex,’ but this isn’t accurate — no type of sex with a partner can be guaranteed to be 100 percent safe. Many people with sexually transmitted infections experience no symptoms, so people are not always aware that they have them. And unintended pregnancy can happen — although rarely — with the best use of birth control.”
Now, when it comes to safer sex, “[t]he most important way to reduce the risk of infection is for partners to avoid exchanging body fluids. The fluids to be most careful about are blood, ejaculate, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids, and the discharge from sores caused by sexually transmitted infections. It’s also important to avoid touching sores or growths that are caused by sexually transmitted infections.”
In other words, the fewer fluids you exchange, the safer you are! And we’ll soon learn how to do that and have it feel really good.
What about pregnancy?
People can also mean a few different things regarding safer sex. Some people are referring primarily to staying safe from sexually transmitted infections (STIs, also known as STDs).
Others also mean the ability to not get pregnant. There are a few considerations here and several ways to not get pregnant. But similar to not contracting STIs, the only 100% effective way to not get pregnant is to not have sex.
What’s the difference between contraception and emergency contraception?
Speaking of getting pregnant, contraception is a method you use to not get pregnant. Examples include the birth control pill, the patch, the ring, an IUD, male and female condoms, and spermicide. It’s worth noting that many forms of contraception are more effective when combined. For example, spermicide by itself is only ~70% effective in preventing pregnancy, but if you combine it with a condom, you get a 95-99% efficacy rate! (That’s an A+, in case you’re tracking). In addition to preventing pregnancy, this combination will protect you from STIs, including chlamydia, gonorrhea, genital herpes, and HIV.
So that’s an example of contraception -- what you use before and during sex. According to the WHO, “Emergency contraception refers to methods of contraception that can be used to prevent pregnancy after sexual intercourse. These are recommended for use within 5 days but are more effective the sooner they are used after the act of intercourse.” (our emphasis)
So emergency contraception is something you can use to avoid getting pregnant after sex. One example of this you may have heard of is the Plan B pill. According to the FDA, “Plan B One-Step is an emergency contraceptive, a backup method of birth control. Emergency contraception is used to reduce the chance of pregnancy after unprotected sex (if other birth control failed or was not used). It is not for routine contraceptive use. Plan B One-Step is available as a nonprescription (over-the-counter or OTC) drug.”
How to talk with your partner about safe sex
Listen, talking about sex can be awkward or even anxiety-producing. Many people report it being one of the hardest things to talk about, especially those from a religious background or those who’ve experienced sexual trauma, like child sexual abuse or sexual assault.
The truth is: sex is a big part of our lives, and it’s an important part. And talking about sex openly with a partner is part of good sexual health.
On a practical level, it’s also super important to have “the talk” with sex partners. Because as the Women’s Aid Center puts it, “The ugly truth is that STIs do not discriminate. They are blind to your personal and sexual habits, and often, they lay dormant. People often like to claim, ‘I think I would know if I had something.’”
But as they go on, “Unfortunately, this is a fallacy. Many STIs lay dormant for months after they are contracted. Men especially can carry STIs that are harmless in the male body but can manifest in females. Just because you aren’t itchy and have no visible bumps doesn’t mean you are marked safe from STIs. It is important to remember that STIs usually remain undetected for the first few months that they are contracted, in some cases longer. There is no face of STIs – anyone and everyone who is sexually active is at risk of contraction. Neutralize your risk, and your partners, by opening the conversation.”
An easy way to bring the subject up is to state your intention, and share your own experience. For example, “Hey, I’m super excited to be sexual with you! And I want to make sure we both feel really safe and good about the whole thing. I’d love to share a bit about where I’m at with birth control, the last time I was tested and how many partners I’ve had since then, and hear more about where you’re at around this. How does that sound?”
Then you can both discuss whether you want to get tested before things progress, and what options you may want to explore when it comes to birth control, if that’s relevant for you.
6 best safe sex practices
Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty! Here are a few examples of safer sex practices:
1. Get tested regularly
If you’re having regular sex, then get thee to that local sexual health clinic on a regular basis! Healthcare providers can test you for everything from herpes, gonorrhea, human papillomavirus (HPV), HIV, and syphilis to hepatitis C. You’re doing your part to contribute to public health by getting tested on the reg. Preventing things like HIV transmission is a critical part of our overall health, and it takes all of us to do so.
You do not need to be symptomatic to go get tested. It should just be part of your sexual health routine. And if you’ve got a vagina, it’s also important to see health professionals regularly to get your pap smears. These help you track things like whether you’ve got certain strains of HPV, which are connected to cervical cancer.
Some good news on that front: According to the NIH, “People who have cervical cancer screening at regular intervals are rarely found to have cancer. Most people who receive abnormal cervical cancer screening results either have human papillomavirus (HPV) infections or have early cell changes that can be monitored (since they often go away on their own) or treated early (to prevent the development of cervical cancer).” In other words, if you get checked regularly, you can far more easily avoid something getting serious. So get your pap smears, ladies.
2. Engage in outercourse!
You’ve heard of intercourse, of course, but outercourse may be a new concept. A very sexy new concept. Yes, we’re talking about everything that goes on outside of skin-to-skin contact of genitals.
When you avoid skin-to-skin contact, you reduce the risk of fluid exchange, which remember is the riskiest part of sex.
Outercourse includes doing things with your sexual partner like kissing/making out, mutual masturbation (with or without sex toys), using fun toys like nipple suckers on your partner (that don’t involve any fluid exchange), and of course, that old standby, dry-humping!
As long as there’s no skin-to-skin contact involved, you’re a lot safer as far as safe sex is concerned. And there’s tons of sexual pleasure to be had here!
3. Go down instead of in
Oral sex is considered safer sex, as compared to vaginal or anal intercourse. If you’re playing with a cock, the very safest kind of oral sex is when the penis is covered with a latex condom; if you’re playing with a vulva/vagina, it’s when you use an oral dam (aka a dental dam). What’s a dental dam, you want to know? Glad you asked!
A dental dam is a sheet made of latex or polyurethane designed to go between a mouth and a vajayjay (or anus) during oral. So basically, they’re kinda like fancy, body-safe Saran wrap that you can use to protect your mouth and your partner’s sexy parts from coming into direct contact. This keeps both of you significantly safer in terms of transmission, and you can get dental dams online or in most sex toy shops.
4. Use sex toys!
According to Johns Hopkins, if you want to have safer sex you should “[c]onsider sexual activities other than vaginal, oral, or anal sex. These are techniques that do not involve the exchange of body fluids or contact between mucous membranes.”
Know what’s great for avoiding contact between mucous membranes? Using a sex toy on yourself or your partner! As long as each toy stays with each person (no switching back and forth) then no fluids will be exchanged, and you’re much safer. You can also use some sex toys over clothes (did somebody say bullet vibe?), which can also open up other avenues of exploration.
Explore our collection of sex toys for couples and get excited about new sensations in the bedroom.
5. If you’re going to have penetrative sex, use internal or external condoms.
So you wanna go all the way? Whether you’re having anal or vaginal sex, you will make it significantly safer if you use a condom. You’ve probably already heard of external condoms (aka male condoms); those go over the penis.
You may be less familiar with internal condoms, which are also known as female condoms, though they can be used by any sex. Internal condoms go over the vagina, and have to be put on before any skin-to-skin contact happens. According to Planned Parenthood, “If you use them perfectly every single time you have sex, internal condom effectiveness is 95%. But people aren’t perfect, so in real life they’re about 79% effective.”
Guide to safe BDSM sex
A widely-held belief is that BDSM sex is more risky than “regular” sex. Yet according to somatic psychologist and certified sex therapist Dr. Holly Richmond, PhD, BDSM play is actually some of the safest sex you can have!
The author of Reclaiming Pleasure: A Sex-Positive Guide for Moving Past Sexual Trauma and Living a Passionate Life, Richmond says this is because it relies “on a judgment-free zone where communication about your desires and boundaries come first.”
Everything already stated applies to BDSM sex, and then there are also a few other considerations. One is that BDSM sex can come with increased emotional risks. It’s vital to establish safe words or phrases beforehand, and be sure to get enthusiastic consent all along the way. The traffic light system can be quite helpful here (where the person in the dominant role can say, “traffic check” and the person in the submissive role can say “green” if things are going well; “yellow” if something is approaching an edge or needs to be adjusted; or “red” if something needs to stop. The sub can also just say those words at any time during a scene).
Engaging in aftercare is vital, especially after an intense BDSM scene. You never really know what's going to come up for you or your partner, and being soothed is a huge part of both emotional and mental health. Aftercare involves soothing activities after a scene to care for your partner (and yourself).
Ultimately, safer sex is a collaboration between you and your partner(s). Like good sex, you know you’re doing it right if you both feel relaxed, comfortable and excited about what’s going on. Always remember: safety is sexy!
Amy @ Planned Parenthood, "What’s the difference between “safe sex” and “safer sex”?", Planned Parenthood. Published on Oct. 14, 2010. Accessed on April 9, 2023. https://www.plannedparenthood.org/blog/what-is-the-difference-between-safe-sex-and-safer-sex
Aryelle Siclait, Korin Miller, Naydeline Mejia & Sabrina Talbert, "A Beginner's Guide To BDSM, With Tips From Sex Therapists", Women's Health. Published Jan 24, 2023. Accessed on April 9, 2023. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/sex-and-love/a19957328/bdsm-beginners-guide/
Division of Adolescent and School Health, National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, "Sexual Risk Behaviors" Centers for Disease Control. Last reviewed (published on) March 16, 2023. Accessed on April 9, 2023. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm
Johns Hopkins staff, "Safer Sex Guidelines", Johns Hopkins Medicine. Published on Oct 25, 2020. Accessed on April 9, 2023. https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/safer-sex-guidelines