What Is Safe Sex?
Safe sex, also known as safer sex, is when you have sex with the lowest risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) such as HIV, herpes, and syphilis. It can make your sex life better by improving communication and trust among you and your partners.
Even though it’s called safe sex, it still carries some risk. But it’s much healthier than sex with no protection at all.
Safe sex is protected sex during every sexual encounter. It includes:
- Oral sex with a condom, a dental dam, or plastic wrap
- Vaginal sex with a male or female condom
- Anal sex with a male or female condom
How Do You Get STDs?
STDs, also known as sexually transmitted infections (STIs), spread during vaginal, oral, or anal sex or close intimate contact. Many of these infections are carried in bodily fluids like semen, blood, or vaginal fluids. Others are on your skin.
Safe sex means not letting your partner's semen or vaginal fluids get inside your vagina, anus, penis, or mouth. It also means avoiding genital skin-to-skin contact, because some STDs spread by touch alone. Safe sex also means being careful if you have cuts, sores, or bleeding gums; these can raise the risk of spreading disease.
Anyone can get an STD. Young people who have more than one sexual partner, gay men, and bisexual men are at the highest risk.
You might not notice any symptoms. They can differ depending on the disease. The only way to know for sure whether you do or don’t have an STD is to get tested.
What Is the Safest Sex?
The only definite way to prevent HIV or STDs is to not have sex at all. The next safest thing is sex between two people who don’t have STDs (including HIV), who have sex only with each other, and who don't use injectable drugs. If your partner has HIV or another STD, or if you don't know their sexual history, the safest sexual activities involve things like:
- Fantasizing or having phone sex
- Touching yourself (masturbation) while having your partner touch themselves (mutual masturbation)
- Caressing your partner with nonsexual massage
- Rubbing against your partner's body with clothes on
How to Have Safe Sex With STDs
Some STDs never go away, even if you get treatment and don’t have symptoms. If you have one, safe sex can help keep you from giving it to your partner.
Be open with new partners. Talk about past partners, history of STDs, and any drug use.
Don’t have sex while you’re drunk or on drugs. You might forget to use a condom or take part in riskier activities than you usually would.
Having Safe Sex if You and Your Partner Have HIV
You might think you don't need to practice safe sex if both you and your partner have HIV. But safe sex will help protect you from other STDs and other strains of HIV, which might not respond well to medication.
Barriers for Safe Sex
Barriers block many infectious things, including viruses and bacteria. Most people use male condoms made of latex. If your partner won’t use a male condom, try a female condom, which fits inside your vagina. These cost more than male condoms and take a little more practice to learn how to use.
Follow these steps when using condoms and other barriers:
- Use a new barrier every time you have sex.
- Use only latex condoms that are designed to prevent disease. You can buy these without a prescription. If you’re allergic to latex, use a polyurethane condom with an oil-based or water-based lubricant.
- Use only water-based lubricants, such as K-Y Jelly, with latex condoms. Don't use oil- or petroleum-based lubricants such as Vaseline or hand lotion; they can cause the rubber to break.
- Keep condoms in a cool, dry place away from direct sunlight. Don't keep a condom in your wallet for more than a few hours at a time.
- Never use a condom that’s brittle, sticky, discolored, or in a damaged package.
- During oral sex, cover the entire genital or anal area with a barrier. You can use a "dental dam" (latex squares that you can buy at medical supply stores or adult shops), a large piece of plastic wrap, or an unused condom cut lengthwise.
- If you and your partner have HIV, use latex surgical gloves when exploring each other sexually. Small cuts on your hands could get infected with or spread HIV.
Ask your doctor about medications called pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). The FDA has approved emtricitabine/tenofovir alafenamide (Descovy) and emtricitabine/tenofovir disoproxil fumarate (Truvada) to prevent HIV infection in people who are at high risk. They can cut your risk of catching HIV through sex by more than 90% and through needles by more than 70%.
Use PrEP along with safe sex methods to lower your HIV risk even more and to keep from getting other STDs.
PrEP has some side effects, like nausea, but they usually go away over time.