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Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-To

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If we want to best reduce the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs/STDs), the most effective thing we could do would be to never have sex with anyone, ever. But I bet you knew that part already. You probably also already know that when it comes to how serious STIs are, they range from being pretty darn harmless -- so long as they're diagnosed and treated quickly -- to potentially fatal, or having the capacity to really impact our health and quality of life for our whole lives. What you probably also know is that while getting most STIs really isn't usually the end of the world, most folks want to avoid them if they can, just like most folks want to avoid getting a cold, a flu or a cancer.

If we have sexual contact with others where we're exposed to, or exposing others to, our body fluids (namely: semen, pre-ejaculate, vaginal fluids or blood), or with intimate skin-to-skin contact, primarily mucous membranes like our mouths and genitals, then we're at risk of STIs. All of us are at those risks: whatever our relationship or marital status, our gender or orientation, our age, race or economics. If we want to be sexual with partners, we can reduce the risk of STIs by around 70% (for infections like HPV and herpes) to over 90% (for fluid-transmitted infections like chlamydia or HIV) depending on the infection and the measures we use to reduce our risks. We can also limit risks by only having the kinds of sex which pose little to no STI risks in the first place.

What has been proven over time by medical study to reduce STIs risks for the kinds of sex where STIs are most often transmitted -- oral, vaginal and/or anal sex -- are safer sex practices: use of barriers (like condoms), regular testing for STIs and treatment for any STIs, and some general lifestyle choices, like taking good care of our health, avoiding sex if we’re drunk, having healthy relationships and limiting or reducing our number of sexual partners. We call them safer for a reason: they make things safer, not safe. They make our risks smaller: they don't make risks go completely away.

Historically, we didn't always know how to best protect ourselves. We do now, so some people can and do use safer sex practices from the start of their sexual lives, which is fantastic, but not everyone started their sex lives knowing how to protect themselves well, or understanding that they needed to. Perhaps you or a partner just didn't realize you were at risk because you had misinformation or no information, but you're ready to change that. Or perhaps in any given relationship, you and your partner started taking risks somewhere along the line, and now you're having trouble getting back into healthier habits like you'd like to. Some people may think that being responsible when it comes to reducing risks of disease -- or asking a partner to -- is somehow insulting, distrustful or rude, and it's mighty hard to be assertive about sexual safety with those attitudes in the mix.

No matter the scenario, it can sometimes feel awkward and difficult to establish and sustain healthy practices without coming off like the Sex Decency Brigade. But it doesn't have to be that way. Because of the way sexuality works, the more invested we are in the health and well-being of ourselves and our partners, the more safe and protected we tend to be and feel, and the easier it usually then becomes to be and stay aroused and to enjoy sex. Worry and fear about disease, infection and pregnancy can inhibit our brains from firing off all the pistons that make and keep us aroused and sexually excited: so can being with partners who clearly don't care about us or our health. That fear or anxiety can result in some things that can make sex a bummer besides infections: premature ejaculation, trouble with erection (with a penis or a clitoris), less sensitivity, a lack of vaginal lubrication, vaginal tightness, vaginal or anal pain or discomfort and other inhibitors to orgasm and pleasure. If we can't talk about things like sexual health and safety with partners, we probably can't talk about things more loaded but which we need to for a mutually enjoyable sex life, like consent and what we do and don't like doing. People who practice safer sex and set boundaries about safety and health tend to have a much easier time being sexually assertive and self-confident in other ways. And once we get in the habit of practicing safer sex -- rather than only doing it now and then -- it becomes no big whoop really quickly.

Love and trust don’t reduce the risk of STIs by themselves. We can trust someone as much as they want, or they us, but if one or both of us has an STI, that won’t change anything: we can still give one another the infection. Being monogamous or married doesn’t reduce the risk of STIs all by itself (unless both people are and always stay monogamous, and both came to the relationship without any STIs), nor does someone having only one sexual partner at a time. “Technical virginity" -- abstaining from vaginal intercourse but doing everything else under the sun -- doesn't reduce STI risks, either. Going without safer sex also doesn't make any of those things happen, either: taking big health risks doesn't create love or trust, monogamy or make someone who has had sex into someone who hasn't.

What does best reduce STI risks?

Not having any kind of sex with other people. This is the ONLY situation in which we can say there is NO risk of sexually acquiring an STI. (However, it's important to note that if we have been sexually abused or assaulted, that choice has been taken from us, so even though we did not choose for someone else to have sexual contact with us, we may still have been at risk.)

OR, if you want to have sex with others, these three things combined:

1. To use barriers correctly and consistently for any and all oral, vaginal or anal sex for at least the first six months of any sexual relationship.
2. For all partners to get at least one new, full round of STI testing 3-6 months into a relationship if it continues for that long, then keep testing once a year.
3. For all partners to do their best to follow some or all of the lifestyle guidelines listed below in this article.


Who's really been tested? Take our poll then take a look at the reality of being tested when it comes to your partners and peers. Want to see how Scarleteen users have handled partners refusing to use safer sex? Check out this poll.

Will everyone always use barriers for all kinds of sex? No, they (or you) may not. Everyone may not get tested as often as they should either, or lack healthcare access to do so, and everyone may not always be in great health or limit their partners. The steps above are what's ideal. We're giving you this information so you can know how to reduce your risks as best as you can and make your choices informed ones. Some people will feel more comfortable taking risks, some people will want more protection. It's up to each of us what we do based on what we want, need, have access to, can handle and feel most comfortable with.

Step One: Barriers

If we're going to have sex with other people, the most important and effective prevention of STIs are barriers (latex or polyurethane condoms, dental dams or gloves) used correctly and consistently for all and any vaginal, anal and/or oral sex, with any or all of your partners. The other parts of safer sex don’t really prevent STIs or don’t prevent STIs as well as barriers. Think of barriers like seatbelts when you’re driving, or pads or helmets for some kinds of sports: those things help prevent injuries if you're going to drive or play, like barriers help prevent illness if you're going to be sexual with partners. It's ideal to utilize all the parts of safer sex practices, but when it comes to prevention for people who are sexually active, barriers are the most important.

When to Use What

Ideally, here's what you should be using to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections when you're sexually active. This list is ordered with the highest risk activities first, ending with activities with the lowest risks.

  • Anal intercourse or penis-in-vagina intercourse: Condom and lubricant, a few drops on the inside, plenty on the outside, added as needed (ALWAYS use a new condom if switching between vaginal and anal intercourse OR a female condom can be used for each orifice)
  • Analingus (rimming): Dental dam or saran wrap barrier, lubricant
  • Fellatio (giving head/blow job): Flavored condom or unlubricated condom.
  • Cunnilingus (going down/eating out): Dental dam or saran wrap barrier, lubricant (on the inside)
  • Manual sex (fingering/hand job): Latex gloves or freshly-washed hands), lubricant

Want to know which infections each of those activities can put you at risk of? Click here.

Need to know how to use a condom properly? Proper use makes a major difference in how effective condoms are. Not wearing a condom from start to finish, not using lube or not holding the base as the partner withdraws, for instance, are all ways to goof up condom use. For more on proper use, click here. Want some help shopping for the condoms for you and/or your partners? We can help you there, too. Do you or a partner need coaching on why condoms are smart to use and can wind up being something a person can love using? Lookie here. How about unpacking some gender disparities with condom responsibility? Check it.


Tools of the Trade: The Safer Sex Kit

For under 40 bucks, you can put together a handy safer sex kit with everything you need to help protect against disease and infection. Having all this stuff in one place means you or partners can get at it easily, which means it doesn't have to be a big interruption in the sex you're having. Rummaging around for lube, or having an argument about who was supposed to bring the condoms: that's the kind of thing that can make safer sex bummersex. You can get the things listed here at your local pharmacy, drugstore, grocery store, clinic, online, or (if you're old enough) at your local sex shop. What can you fill it with on that budget?

  • Condoms: Preferably NOT spermicidal or flavored (unless you want flavored ones for oral sex), and in whatever styles or sizes you or partners like or want to try. In case of latex sensitivities or allergies, you can include a couple condoms made of nitrile, polyurethane or polyisoprene. Female condoms are also latex-free. Never use animal-based condoms for safer sex: they do not block microorganisms. In a budget crunch? Many family planning, sexual health and teen clinics provide condoms for free, and let you take as many as you want, even if you're not a patient there.
  • Latex or nitrile gloves: Most pharmacies or medical supply stores sell them. You can also ask your sexual healthcare provider if they’d give you some from their own supply.
  • Dental dams. Dental dams are thin squares of latex used by holding in place over a vulva or anus. You can also make a dam with a condom – latex or nonlatex – and a pair of scissors: just cut across the condom from base to tip and voila! If you take a latex glove and cut the fingers off, then cut across the back (non-thumb) edge, that's another way to make a dam: you can put a tongue in the thumb hole if that works best.
  • Lubricant. One bottle of latex-safe, water-based lube. You can also get lubricant in single-use tubes or packets and have a variety of lubes, including flavors. We don't advise warming or numbing lubricants or use of flavored lubes vaginally.
  • A little tube of 100% aloe vera. Sometimes, our skin reacts to sex, certain lubricants or condoms. When it does, a little aloe can soothe your skin and stop swelling that can make the transmission of disease more likely. Or, you could get a little nail scissors that come with a protected carrying case to keep for adapting gloves or condoms into dams.

Remember: safer sex tools can only work well if you use them every single time from start to finish and use them correctly. A condom used after ten minutes of intercourse or a dam used only halfway into cunnilingus can't do the job right.


Lube is your pal! Lubricant not only helps keep latex barriers like condoms from breaking, it helps protect genitals from scrapes or microtears which can make picking up infections a lot more likely, especially bloodborne infections like HIV. While many condoms are lubricated, there's only a smidge of lube on one side which tends to wear away quickly. Extra lube helps keep you safer and usually makes sex with barriers feel better for everyone. Lubricant used with barriers must be latex-safe. The following are NOT safe for use with latex barriers: spermicidal jelly or suppositories, Vaseline, baby oil, massage oils, vegetable oil, butter, body lotions or cremes, or saliva. While those can be fine for masturbation, mutual masturbation and/or when NOT using latex, they can erode latex. Feel funky about using lube? Unpack that bag.

Don’t want to deal with barriers or other safer sex practices, but want to explore sex with a partner safely? There are some activities where there are no STI risks or where risks are very low, so going without barriers isn't a big risk. Those are:

  • kissing or making out (does pose an oral herpes risk)
  • general body stroking ("feeling up") or massage without genital contact
  • dry sex (with both partners clothed)/clothed tribbing or frottage
  • mutual masturbation or solo masturbation
  • receptive anal intercourse where the insertive partner is using a sanitized sex toy/dildo, not a penis
  • sex toy play where toys are not being shared and are cleaned properly before use
  • phone sex or cybersex
  • sharing fantasies and/or role playing (within the context of the activities above)

Want to ditch the barriers? IF after around six months, partners have ALL a) remained in an exclusive sexual relationship with each other and b) EACH have had a new, full STI testing with negative results at that point OR got a positive result for an STI that was treated fully, then most STI risks have likely been radically reduced and will remain reduced so long as partners stay in an exclusive relationship, so it's considered fairly safe to stop using barriers if you want. (There is still no approved test for HPV for men, so HPV risks may still exist with male partners who have otherwise negative results from STI testing.) This isn't just about two-person monogamous relationships: with closed poly relationships - where three partners, for instance, are only with each other sexually and no one else -- where all partners have followed the protocols above, people are likely just as safe as closed relationships-of-two where those protocols have been followed.

IF you're in an open relationship or any relationship where everyone isn't keeping sex to a closed, communicative safer sex triad or group, or you're not 100% sure if a partner is really being monogamous or really got tested, it's ideal to stick with barrier use no matter how long you're together.

Step Two: Testing & Treatment

The only way any of us can have an accurate idea about what our infection status is -- or what the STI status of our partners may be -- is through STI testing. Most people who have STIs don't have obvious symptoms so that they can know and more people with STIs don't know they have one than those who know they do; most folks with most STIs feel and look just the same as folks without. Some people think they've been tested if they have donated blood, had a pregnancy test or got a regular checkup, but a full STI screening isn't usually part of any of those things.

In order to get a full screening for all STIs, we need to ask for one expressly. Unless you or a partner have been to a clinic for STI testing, and asked a healthcare provider for a full screening for STIs, it's highly unlikely you've had STI tests or complete testing. A whole lot of people who are or have been sexually active also haven't ever been tested, and some folks who got tested for a couple STIs once think that means they have no STIs or can't get them ever after, but that's not true.

To have the best idea of what we've got and what we don't, we want to get tested around once every year as a habit; more often if we're switching partners more frequently, or we and/or a partner are not being or have not been sexually exclusive with only each other. In a new relationship, if someone has had other partners before don't figure anyone starts off automatically STI-free because it's a new relationship: we need at least a few months to pass before getting tested again to be sure. It's always key that all partners get tested, not just one: a partner's status is not always an accurate reflection of our own, and our tests won't always show us what infections our partners may or may not have.

There are a lot of different places to get tested: general or sexual health clinics, private OB/GYNs or urologists, your family doctor, urgent care or hospitals. If you live somewhere with national healthcare, some STI tests are usually covered. If you live somewhere without socialized medicine, insurance may cover your testing. If you do not have insurance, many states or areas public health departments can provide STI testing at low or no cost, whether you are or are not enrolled in a public health program. What a given test involves varies, so take a look here if you want to know which test is for what. You can always ask for a full screening or can talk to your healthcare provider about your sex life and ask what tests they recommend for you.

To get a full screening, you'll have blood, urine and genital and/or throat swab tests. Folks with vulvas will also have a pap smear to screen for cervical cell changes usually due to infections. After getting tested, there's generally a waiting period to get results back, anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. That waiting period can be pretty nerve-wracking the time you get tested, especially if you think you have been at risk of an STI, so see if you can't find a partner or friend to give you support. If it helps, know the wait used to be a lot longer than it is now and it does get easier the more often you do it. (Yeah, I didn't think it would help, but it seemed worth a try).

Privacy is vitally important to most sexual healthcare providers, and in most areas, is also required by law. So, the way you can get your results is often restricted. You may be able to call in for results or they may be texted or mailed to you. If results are by mail and you're worried about having them sent to your house, just let your clinician know, and you two can come up with an alternate method of notifying you.


Some people get STIs within relationships where they were monogamous, have been treated and then have gotten the STI again, with the same partner who says they were also treated and were monogamous. If and when this happens, you need to understand that partner is NOT being honest about something. Either they were not treated and/or have not remained monogamous. Our best advice? Ditch this partner: dishonest people just aren't safe for us to be sexual with, physically or emotionally. If you don't do that, always insist on barrier use with this partner, knowing you have to figure you're likely to remain at high risk of STIs with them.

Unfortunately, you do need to be aware that some people not only think they've been tested when they haven't, but that some people will just plain lie, even people who say they like you or love you. Sometimes, it can just be really hard to be honest about sexual history. Other times, people don't realize how serious STI status can be or what kind of impact they can have on a partner's health. Sometimes, it's a maturity issue: someone just doesn't have the kind of maturity involved to be honest. Other times still, people who say they care about you just don't.

So, for a lot of reasons, certainly including those the safest way to play it is to go by that six-month rule we talked about above or to just stick with barrier use, full-stop. You'd probably want to know someone for at least six months anyway before you risked (if you've got an opposite-sex partner) having a pregnancy with them or (no matter who your partner is) getting an infection which might be a lifelong reminder of the time you spent together. Do know that someone who does really care about you is seriously unlikely to take issue with that: the people who throw up the biggest fuss are usually the people who care the least.

Step Three: Limiting Partners & Other “Lifestyle” Issues

It's obvious that if we limit our partners to exactly zero, we are not going to be at risk for nearly all STIs, just like if we don't cross the street, we're highly unlikely to be hit by a car. Some nonsexual behaviors can present risks of some STIs (like using intravenous drugs), but overall, sexually transmitted infections are called that because they're most often transmitted through genital sex. If you don't have any kind of sex involving your own or someone else's penis, vulva and/or anus, you're probably not going to get or transmit an STI.

Delaying sexual activity -- or at least some of it -- is known to help prevent infections, particularly in people assigned female sex. From a physiological standpoint, very young women are more susceptible to STIs than other people just because of the state of their not-yet-finished reproductive systems, particularly the cervix: the rate of STIs for people under 19 who have a vulva is 2 to 1 compared to those with a penis. Younger people often have a tougher time negotiating safer sex as well as acquiring regular sexual healthcare. So, sometimes just putting off the riskiest kinds of sex for one more year or two can make a big difference when it comes to STIs.

Limiting partners mostly means we try to be thoughtful and selective in our choices about partners, aiming to choose fewer rather than more, and to be careful in who we choose as partners, either avoiding partners who may pose the highest risks to us -- like partners we know don't or won't use condoms or have a history of being dishonest -- or, if and when we choose partners who we know are higher-risk in the STI department -- like an ex-IV drug user or a partner who is HIV-positive -- that we go the extra mile when it comes to sexual safety. It also means we aim to be real about how many partners we are choosing or have chosen no matter what situations those partnerships happen in: someone who has had four partners for casual sex in a year has had the same number of partners as someone who has had four serious girlfriends or boyfriends they were sexual with in a year. They have also likely had the same level of STI risks.


A lot of people think that people who have “multiple partners” means people who either have more than one partner at a time, or who have a lot of partners. But that’s not what it means: even if you have been monogamous with your partners, if you’ve had two, three, four or more partners, you have had multiple partners. Serial monogamy – going from one monogamous relationship to another – doesn’t protect against STIs. If someone is in an open relationship with two people where they’re all using barriers and getting tested, they can be safer than someone with only one partner who isn’t doing those things.

None of this is to say there is one right or wrong thing for everyone when it comes to when we become sexually active or how many partners we have, or that having a given number of sexual partners -- or none at all -- makes anyone a better or worse person. What's right for us emotionally, interpersonally, in terms of our life goals, experiences and relationships is something we have to figure out for ourselves, and something that varies a lot among people. But from a standpoint of personal and public health, delaying sexual activity with partners and limiting partners can make a difference.

If you and a partner have been each other's only partner for ANY kind of genital sex – not just intercourse -- and neither you nor your partner have ever been sexually assaulted, your risks of STIs are likely very low: not none, but low. We still strongly encourage folks in that situation to start with safer sex for the first six months. That's not just about the fact that not everyone is truthful about their sexual history, it's just a smart start. Very few people in the world will have only one sexual partner in a lifetime. We get that often a lot of young people feel certain their first partner will be their only partner, but that’s usually not how things work out in reality. Even if you and a partner are each other’s firsts now, you’re likely going to need to know how to practice safer sex for other partners later.

What else can you do to help prevent STIs? Stay as healthy as you can. When we’re in good health, our immune systems are powerful, and do their best job fighting off infection. So, things like eating well, getting enough rest and activity, and managing your stress matter, not just in general, but with sexually transmitted disease. If and when you’re not well, or have any kind of infection – an STI or something else, like a cold or flu – it’s best to focus on resting up and getting better, and setting sex aside until you're well again. Having any kind of current infection or illness -- including an STI - puts a person at a higher risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections. People don't get STIs because they're "dirty," but hygiene can count: washing up before sex can help reduce the risks of some infections. Not overdoing sex can also help: going at it over and over again in one session is tough on genitals, and can create tiny abrasions or fissures that make it easier for microorganisms to take root.

Another biggie is to avoid recreational drugs and alcohol with sex. When people are drunk or high – or even just tipsy – we tend to make different choices than we would otherwise. Not only is that a big issue with sexual consent, it also is with safer sex: when intoxicated, people much more often ditch or goof up safer sex. There are a lot of studies that back this up. So, if you or a partner or potential partner are wasted, it's much better to go to bed and go to sleep than to climb into bed for sex.

Only choosing to have sex within healthy relationships – relationships free of abuse, control and manipulation – is another way to stay safe from STIs, as well as safe, period. Rates of STIs, much like rates of unintended pregnancy, are higher within abusive relationships, and abusive partners are often not open to negotiating sex, let alone sexual safety. In healthy relationships, partners are more likely to be honest about their sexual history, STI and testing status, and to earnestly care about you and your health. When you're in an unhealthy relationship, you care less and less about yourself over time as part of the effects of abuse, so it gets harder to even feel motivated to stay safe and well.

Want help talking to a partner about barrier use, testing or sex in general? Check out Be a Blabbermouth! The Whats, Whys and Hows of Talking About Sex With a Partner. Feel like you just can’t have these talks? That can be a clear signal that you’re getting sexual with someone too fast. To check in about readiness, have a look here. If you seem to be as ready as ready gets and you still feel like you can’t assert yourself with safety, your relationship may not be a healthy one. You can give your relationship a checkup here.


What if you or a partner already have an STI?

If you feel like you're alone in having an STI, please know you're not: around 1 in every 4 people between the ages of 15 and 25 does in the United States alone. Having an STI doesn’t mean anyone is dirty, ruined or of low character or value: it just means someone got sick.

Most STIs can be treated and 100% gone unless someone picks them up again. The trouble is, so many people don’t get tested that most folks with an STI don’t know they have one: most of the time, STIs don't present obvious symptoms. Be sure to get regularly tested -- and insist sexual partners do, too -- and if an STI crops up, get treated ASAP and inform partners so they can get treatment, too. Abstain from sex until retesting to be sure you don’t have the STI anymore. You'll also need to go back to square one with safer sex practices: if you've ditched barriers, start back at the beginning of that six month window.

Getting an STI within a relationship you thought to be mutually exclusive can mean that a) one of you came to the relationship with an STI already, b) one of you was not exclusive or was dishonest about STI testing you got during the relationship. Sometimes a healthcare provider can help you figure out which it is, and can also help you know how to talk to your partner: ask for that help if you want it, and don't be ashamed to ask. To sexual healthcare providers, STIs are no different than other kinds of illness, and good providers understand how loaded an STI can be and feel.

If you have an STI that can be treated but not cured – like HPV, Herpes or HIV – be sure and inform partners, take any medications you're prescribed properly, practice safer sex to the letter and find out more from your doctor how to keep each other as safe and well as you can. If you're feeling lousy about getting an STI, ask your healthcare provider about support groups or other resources so you can take care of your emotional health, too. We're also always glad to listen and provide support and information for you at our own message boards.


How can you introduce safer sex to partners and support each other in sexual safety?

This is reality that everyone needs to accept: If you're sexually active and not using barriers and other safer sex practices, you're probably going to transmit or contract a disease or infection before you're done with college or reach your mid-twenties. There are almost 7 billion people in the world right now, and the World Health Organization estimates that every day, more than 1 million people contract curable STIs alone -- that's not counting HIV, which in 2008 alone, nearly 3 million people acquired. 20 to 25 percent of US college students currently have or have had an STI, and the majority of STIs around the world occur in people under the age of 25. Most STI transmission is due to people not using latex barriers, not getting tested and treated and living in denial of reality, to everyone's great detriment.

If you want to prevent that from happening, you've got to learn how to use this stuff and insist on it, or you've got to choose not to be sexually active with partners when it comes to sexual practices which carry those risks. Sometimes just being really plain about all of this and straight-talking with partners is the best way to get safety happening and keep it happening. If a partner balks or tries to talk you out of safety, your very best bet is to nix sex with that person.

You can explain to your partners that being truly aware of what the risks are when deciding on what sexual activities to participate in and how, and being aware of one's own status with regular testing makes all the difference in the world in terms of a positive, healthy sexuality. When you and your partners have that going on, whatever consent you give or get gets to be truly informed consent. Being informed and acting in accordance with realistic information benefits all of us sexually. People who really respect other people respect that. And when we all get informed and act responsibly, we can make a viable difference in the level and prevalence of disease in our world and help make it a safer place for everybody.

Sex is often about play -- even safer sex: When you were a kid, you probably liked being on the swings for hours because it felt good, it gave you an adrenaline rush, and you were able to enjoy having that dedicated playtime. Sex is much the same way. When it's good, we usually have fun with it -- we laugh, smile, giggle, bring the house down. Sex can be sacred, too, but not usually like Sunday Mass.


Having unprotected anal sex because you think it's safer? Please understand that it is not. Anal intercourse presents the highest risk of STIs of most kinds of sex, so it's an activity where it is MORE important condoms are used, not less.

You can make introducing safer sex playful, too. On the day you want to introduce condoms into your partnership, blow up a bunch of them in your room like balloons. Happy condom day! Or buy some glow in the dark ones and don't tell your partner what they do until the lights go out. Surprise! To introduce latex gloves and lube, borrow a stethoscope and play doctor. To start using a vaginal barrier, make a ridiculous bikini out of plastic wrap. If things get awkward as you're learning to use these things, let yourself laugh about it -- a glove that shooting across the room is funny, and racing to try and get the condom on can be awfully silly. Being able to have fun with this and laugh when it's unfamiliar can take the pressure off. Laughter and play are important components of a happy sex life, so laugh it up and just play safe.

Being safe makes everyone feel sexier: Being savvy about sexuality and knowing how to manage it well is a natural buzz. It makes you feel better because you have less to worry about, and it makes your partner feel better because they can feel supported in being responsible and feel safer with you. Someone saying "Trust me, babe," when they're not acting trustworthy isn't sexy, it's creepy. On the other hand, someone who says that who has shown they can be trusted and are doing all they can to keep you both safe for real, so you can truly enjoy yourselves? That's earnestly sexy. Being assertive, responsible, educated and smart about sex is empowering and about as sexy as sexy gets. If someone doesn't think those things are sexy, do yourself a favor and pick a partner who does: not only will they be safer, you're likely to feel a whole lot better about having sex with them and while having sex with them.

Don't forget that if the way you practice safer sex is just to nix sex altogether, that can be sexy, too. Deciding not to have sex doesn't mean a person doesn't have sexual desires or isn't a sexual person. Part of being empowered in our sexual choices includes knowing when the best or safest choice for us isn’t to have sex with someone at all. You can decide to put sex on the shelf and still be as sexy as you wanna be.

Safer sex comes with some hidden benefits: Betcha didn't know that condoms can help to maintain erection and fend off premature ejaculation. They can! Did you know that fingering usually feels better with lube and a latex glove? Latex gloves keep calluses, cuticles and jagged nail tips from scratching delicate vaginal or anal tissue. And intercourse using condoms and lubricant can feel divine: latex provides a smoother texture, and lubricant keeps everything from drying out and feeling raw. That's just the tip of the iceberg. Most people find that when they make an attitude adjustment about safer sex that they discover great things about it that don't just make sex safer, but make sex better.

If you're waiting on sex or certain kinds of sex to reduce your risks, anticipation can be exciting. Waiting can also give you and your partner more time to get to know one another, feel more comfortable around each other, and even talk in advance about your sexual desires or anticipated wants down the road. Even just the few seconds it takes to slide on a condom or a glove can create anticipation that gives a thrill.

In good sex, more than one person is in the driver's seat: One of the coolest things about partnered sex -- whether it's serious, casual or in between -- is that it's about union, about coming together and making something totally new and original. And that's something safer sex can help support.

Learning to communicate and cooperate in safer sex helps us to communicate and cooperate in our sexual relationships, and that enhances those relationships as well as our own sexuality. Talking about how and when to use a condom or dam and getting that down pat -- including how to put them on right and use them in ways that feel good -- makes talking about how you'd like to try something new, or about how you want to try and find greater sexual satisfaction a LOT easier. What it also means is that BOTH of you make the decisions and choices. If ever you find yourself in a situation where one partner makes all the rules, all the choices, and shoulders all the responsibility (or worse, is in charge of keeping you both unsafe and irresponsible), stand up for yourself: remember that if it isn't taking two, it's no partnership at all. And if it isn't taking two? Then it's likely only one of you is actually having sex.

Take turns putting on barriers:sometimes barriers are a lot more exciting when one partner puts one on the other. Create a joint budget for safer sex supplies and do your shopping and choosing together. Talk about what you each want and need to feel safe. Make a sex kit that is just for the two of you, creating a cool case or container that's personalized. If you don't like the brand of condom or lube you're using, explore together to find what does work best for the both of you. You can make a date out of STI testing instead of going it alone. When you and your partners share responsibilities with sex, caring well for one another mutually, it can not only keep you both healthy so you can enjoy that relationship best, it can deepen your bond and your partnership, no matter what kind of bond or partnership it is.

Now that you know what safer sex is, want to double-check what it isn't? Click here. What about safer sex for your heart and mind? Check this out.

Want to see what some other health organizations say about safer sex? Have a look at information from:

written 06 Mar 2001 . updated 25 May 2014

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