We all know by now that sex isn’t safe — not completely, that is. That’s right, no method of contraception is 100 percent effective, and don’t even get me started on how difficult it is to completely protect yourself against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), some of which you can get without actually having sex (since they’re transmitted by skin-to-skin contact). Yet despite these realities, nearly everyone decides, at least a few times in their lives, to have an encounter with the body of another person that could be defined as “sexual”. And when they do, they have to decide what makes them personally feel safe enough to do it.
Of course, overall, there are lots of things you can do to reduce risk — we call this practicing safer sex. If you’re worried about pregnancy, this can look like getting an IUD (one of the most effective methods of contraception), or it can look like using the rhythm method (which has a lower efficacy rate but may work better with your lifestyle. If you’re focused on protecting yourself from STIs, you can minimize your risk by using condoms, which protect against most (but not all) STIs.
Where safer sex gets creative is that everyone thinks about it a bit differently. We asked 13 Bustle readers to share how they weigh the known and unknown risks of having sex with their own sexual desires so that they feel secure while they’re being sexual. This is what they had to say.
I can't remember ever having any kind of oral sex using a barrier prophylactic. [Otherwise], I use condoms with all sexual partners unless we're in a relationship where we are only sleeping with one another. When it's the latter, we'll have a conversation about switching to no-condom sex and both get tested. Once the results are in, it's game on.
My main practice for safer sex is communication. Before I engage in sexual intimacy (generally anything beyond kissing or anything involving or likely leading to genital contact) with someone, I have a safer sex conversation. The way that someone responds, how comfortable they are talking about their level of risk/sexual history, and how much they know about themselves and seem to take responsibility for their sexual health generally helps me decide if or how I want to be intimate with them.
Condoms for oral sex? Absolutely not! I like giving oral sex (a lot) and using a condom completely ruins the experience for me. [But for penetrative sex,] I always use a condom with a new partner. I will go without a condom with a guy I've confirmed has been tested recently (2-3 months) and is not having condomless sex with anyone else. With the exception of a few poor choices, I also only go without condoms if I've been having sex with the guy for more than 3 months. This seems like a long enough time to trust the other person and trust that they're being safe with other people.
In my lesbian career, I've had different approaches thus far. Always washing sex toys between uses is a given. Other than that, I used to only let certain people go down on me, depending on how into them I was, but I've become much more lax about that over the years. I'm way less/not at all discerning about hands. Get ‘em in there!
I do not ask my partners to get tested before I sleep with them. That would add a layer of formality to social interactions and kill much of the spontaneity I love about life. I use condoms for all non-oral sex penetrative acts, unless I'm with someone who I've spoken with about STI testing, birth control methods, and their feelings on safer sex. There's a huge element of trust in deciding to not use condoms, so that that tends to take a hot minute, so it doesn't happen very often.
I live an ethically non-monogamous life, which means I have multiple partners, all of whom know there are other people in my life (and bed). A little bit ago, I was diagnosed with both HPV and HSV-2, which realistically I couldn’t have protected myself from any more than I did (I guess other than just never having sex, which to me isn’t really an option, since I’m a super sexual person). I’ve cleared the HPV, but now I disclose my genital herpes to all new partners, which so far has gone over without a hitch, much to my surprise and delight (because honestly, popular culture makes you think you’re going to be run out of the village at spearpoint).
Through missteps and mistakes, I’ve learned that I need to be clear on my boundaries and expectations before going into a conversation with a partner. To ensure I say the right things, I usually have to practice the conversation in my head (or on paper) ahead of time. Often during the conversation, I acknowledge that I’m a little nervous or that it’s awkward, which helps to put us both at ease.
Normally, I use birth control and forgo the condoms with monogamy, but my boyfriend has HSV-2. We have unprotected oral sex (as in we perform oral and rimming without condoms or dental dams), but we have protected vaginal sex 100 percent of the time. He also takes antiviral medication every day.
It's the sexiest sex I've ever had because we both feel completely safe with the decisions we have made to protect ourselves, and each other. I might get the herpes virus one day, but I never think about it while we're doing it. If I did, it would mean I wasn't having the kind of safe sex that puts me at ease enough to get off.
As a non-monogamous, mostly-hetero woman, I'm always surprised and a little frustrated to find pushback among so many men about using condoms during sex. Far too often, I find that I'm the one who has to hold the hard line when it comes to using protection.
But the truth is that I find it really hard to stick to my own standards about this stuff. In a perfect world, I would never have unprotected intercourse with a man who wasn't my exclusive partner who I knew was clean. But it's not a perfect world, and in the moment, caught up in excitement or lust or drunkenness, I've definitely "slipped up," as they say. I have an IUD and I'm confident in its ability to protect me from pregnancy. I wonder sometimes if I would be more careful if I was worried about accidentally making a baby.
I use condoms. Always. And clear, transparent, loving, honest communication. I have a primary partner with whom I was monogamous for several years. After being tested and deciding to be monogamous, we did not use condoms. When we decided to open our relationship to see other people, we agreed that we would use condoms with our other partners and also with each other. I feel safe doing this because I trust my partner to use condoms and we also use condoms now. It's a bummer, but that's what we decided we had to do to be safe.
When I first started having sex, I was convinced I would never have sex without documentation of STD free status without a condom ... And I followed through with that … but I got HPV anyway. Nowadays, I tend to be monogamous mostly because I hate having sex with a condom (I don't care what anyone says, it is not the f*cking same).
But long term relationships can be trying, and sometimes a girl just needs to get laid and now that I'm older, it’s 100 percent condoms, 100 percent of the time for one night stand penis-in-vagina, no precautions (besides visual inspection) for oral sex, and I don't let anyone near my ass, so that's not really something I can comment on.
I grew up listening to TLC in a progressive community, so safe sex was a given to me long before I had ever had sex. The message was: only idiots don't use condoms, and if you don't use them, you probably will get herpes or AIDS and become a social pariah. I was worried that if I got an STI from a person I liked but wasn't the end-all-be-all, I would be unworthy of love and die alone. It took a long time for me to get over this type of thinking.
Where I am now, it’s important to me to ask my partners to disclose their statuses before we get too hot-and-heavy. If this is a conversation I feel too uncomfortable having, I probably shouldn't be banging them anyway, you know? I enjoy myself most when I feel safest. I have yet to encounter a partner who is positive of anything (to my knowledge), but if I did, and they were someone who was really important to me, I'd like to think I'd have the compassion and love to figure out a way to make things work. Which is all I'd want if the tables were turned.
I am non-monogamous, and that does mean that I take the needs and safety of all of my partners into account when I'm deciding what kind of sex acts I'm going to engage in with any new partner. Because of my responsibility to my other partners, I have chosen not to have sex with potential partners who disclosed a positive status. The main way that I ensure safer sex practices, besides using condoms for penetrative intercourse, is through communication. I check in with my partners all the time, and our sexual boundaries are included in those check ins.
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