Every day, we explain here in articles, advice pieces and on the message boards what safer sex is. But some of our readers come to Scarleteen with ideas about safer sex that are incorrect or incomplete, not knowing they're taking higher risks with sexually transmitted infections (STIs or STDs) than they think or without the level of protection they assume that they have. We recognize and honor everyone's right to make whatever choices about their bodies and selves that they feel are best, but we want to be sure that the choices anyone is making with sex and their health are the ones they truly mean to be making, and are based in fact, not fiction.
So, we figured it might be time to also explain all the things that safer sex is not.
These are some of the things we commonly hear from users who either think they're practicing safer sex, but aren't, or who think they're protected against STIs without doing any part of safer sex practices. I'm pointing them out, because false ideas about what's safe endanger everyone, and no one can make informed choices well if the information they have or hold is false or faulty.
People can and do wind up with STIs at every age, within every sexual orientation, economic class, race, gender or other broad groups, in and outside of marriage, in all kinds of relationship models, where there's love and trust and where there isn't. Both people who are nice or kind and people who aren't either get or have STIs. Hormonal contraception or withdrawal don't provide any protection against STIs, and neither does having any arbitrary number of partners for any kind of sex, being in generally good health, or only having kinds of sex you or others might consider to be "everything but sex." general physicals, gynecological exams or pap smears alone aren't full STI testing, and neither are the screenings some people get done who donate blood. Someone telling you they don't have STIs isn't the same as someone knowing they don't through testing, and people aren't always honest. Anyone basing their ideas on what a previous partner told them about their STI status (which may or may not be correct or true) isn't the same as knowing our own status. We also can't self-diagnose STIs, and more often than not, people who have an STI don't know they do based on symptoms because often, people with STIs won't have any noticeable symptoms.
If and when we want to reduce the risks of STIs as much as possible, while still engaging in sex, then:
What we advise if you want to get to a point where you're taking a pass on condoms or other latex barriers is six months of barriers and exclusivity, then a fresh round of STI testing for both partners. If all of both your tests come back negative AND you both agree to remain exclusive, and only then do you stop using condoms while keeping up with STI tests every year or two (depending on how long you're together and exclusive for) you can be pretty sure that the risk of STIs is very low. That six month window allows for plenty of time for STIs possibly acquired before you two got together to show up on tests, and also gives you both some time to establish trust and see if exclusivity is going to remain something each of you wants to continue and will continue.
You may or may not do all the parts of safer sex, do them consistently or may ditch barriers before that six months is up. Some people will also choose not to be exclusive -- or their partner is not, even if they are -- or will have more than one partner at a time as part of their agreed relationship model. As well, the hard truth is that even after six months of being together -- sometimes after many years -- not everyone will be honest with partners about sex outside the relationship.
If there's any one part of safer sex that doesn't work with your relationship model (like exclusivity), or that you don't do, you can either change that situation, or adjust what you DO do to work better for you. For instance, if you know you and/or a partner aren't being exclusive, or are not using barriers all the time, you can get tested more often than you would otherwise. But if you want to reduce your risks as much as possible while still having sex with a partner, you'll need to be doing all three of those safer sex components, all the time.
It's up to each of us, to decide what level of risk we and our partners are comfortable with and want. When making those choices, we're going to want to consider their possible outcomes, just like with any other decision we make in life, both in the short and the long-term. For instance, while in the short-term, going without condoms may seem like it might feel better physically and be less socially awkward in the moment, in the long-term, acquiring an STI might seriously impact the rest of our lives (especially if we don't get tested or treated), and with something like HIV, may even cut our lives or those of others short. Additionally, even short-term, avoiding important communication with a sexual partner or being unassertive don't tend to have the best results. So, do try and think it through, and if things are moving too fast for you to do that, always press pause and ask for a few moments so you can be sure the choices you're making are the ones you really want to be.
If you don't practice any or all of what safer sex really is, what you need to know is that you just can't figure you don't have potentially high STI risks. If any of us are having sex with someone else, we have those risks: none of us is magically immune.
It's also not sound to think that even when you ARE doing all of safer sex, even to the letter, that you have NO risk: rather, what you have when practicing safer sex is a highly reduced level of risk. That's why what used to be called "safe sex" in the 80's got changed to "safer sex" in the 90's. As I'm sure you know, the only 100% safe sex when it comes to sexually transmitted infections is NO kind of sex at all where there is any possibility of body fluids being exchanged, which means no direct oral or genital contact.
But these three practices, when shared by both partners, provide a high level of protection against STIs. When it comes to fluid-borne infections (like HIV, Chlamydia or Syphilis) latex barriers provide around or over around 90% protection. When it comes to skin-to-skin transmitted STIs, where no fluids are needed for transmission (like Herpes and HPV), latex barriers provide more like 70% protection. We don't have any figures for how much just being exclusive protects you, because we can't account for the wide diversity of everyone's STI status: obviously, if you're having sex with someone who has tested negative for all STIs, that risk may be zero, while for someone who has never been tested it's just a big question mark. We also don't have any figures for how much testing alone protects you because testing by itself isn't really a prevention behavior: getting tested tells us if we or others have something or not, and helps get us treated if we do, but it doesn't prevent STIs from being transmitted in any way.
If you're using barriers, you can figure you've got a minimum of around 70% and a maximum of over 98% protection from barriers alone: if you and your partner(s) are also being sexually exclusive AND getting tested regularly in addition to using barriers, and are either negative or have been treated for any treatable STIs that did show up on tests, you can figure you're at even less risk than that.
If you're not using barriers, you have to understand that you don't have that 70-98% protection like people who are using barriers do.
Lastly, sometimes we hear from users who tell us that they absolutely, positively want to take NO risks of acquiring a sexually transmitted infection. Safer sex isn't 100% protection: again, it's safer, not safe. If you're someone who wants to take absolutely no risks, then your only right answer is not to have any kind of sex beyond outercourse: to avoid any kinds of intimate contact where body fluids of any kind are exchanged (kissing is okay, but that does pose an oral herpes risk), and where there is ANY genital contact. You also will need to avoid intravenous drug use and any kind of exposure to other people's blood or body fluids in non-sexual situations, in case those things aren't obvious.
P.S. The reason I used "clean" in quotes up there is that it's not only stigmatizing language, it's wildly inaccurate. It suggests STIs either make a person dirty or that "dirty people" are the ones who have STIs. STIs are illnesses, just like the common cold, the flu, a staph infection, diabetes and other illnesses are illnesses. People who have STIs aren't dirty, they're sick, just like people who have a cold aren't dirty but are sick. That language can also enable a lot of the myths around STIs that keep people from getting tested and treated, limit research funding and do emotional harm to anyone with an STI. So, we invite you to take a step towards accuracy and away from stigmatization by just changing your language. "Negative" or "clear" are more accurate terms for being without any or all sexually transmitted infections, and they also don't stigmatize people. Changing the words you use in this way is a tiny thing to do that can have a big, positive impact.