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The first time I practiced safer sex it was like my dykey teenage fantasies came to life. On summer break visiting my parents from college, I was feeling invisible and horny. I placed an ad on Craigslist for a casual sex partner and Rachel replied. She was a sex-savvy queer femme, who was bookish and adorable to boot. Immediately, I was interested. We quickly exchanged details about what kind of sex we were looking for.
“Safer sex is important to me. If we get together I want to use barriers,” I wrote in my email.
“So glad you brought up safer sex right away! I take it seriously too, and actually can show you my last test results. Happy to use barriers.”
That afternoon I paced around outside the café where we were supposed to meet. Rachel walked over in cutoffs and a tank top. She surprised me with a big hug.
“Hey,” she grinned.
“Hey,” I blushed.
We got iced tea and talked about college, the weather, had we used Craigslist before. Fifteen minutes of feeling each other out, until there was a lull in the conversation. She nodded her head toward the door. “Do you want to come back to my apartment?”
“Gloves?” I suggested.
Rachel craned her neck around her bedroom eyeing lube, dams. “Shit. Downstairs.” She threw a towel around her waist, soft chest swaying, and hustled out the door.
I lay back happily, relaxed and turned on. I was just admiring Rachel’s bookshelf when a collective cheer rose up from downstairs.
“Go Rachhhhel!” “Woot woot!” “Rachhhhie!”
A half-naked Rachel reappeared, box of gloves in hand. “My roommates’ lesbian coalition meeting,” she offered, red-cheeked.
The hoots continued from below as Rachel kissed me and pulled on a tight pair of nitrile gloves. She began to stroke my cunt. “Good?” she asked softly. I sighed out a yes.
Everyone’s first time using gloves should involve a chorus of dykes cheering you on. If you can make the arrangements, I highly recommend it.
When I started having sex with girls, there was most certainly no one cheering, especially not encouraging me to have safer sex.
The first time I kissed a girl in public, we were fifteen, and a scary guy yelled, “fucking dykes.” With my next lover, I had to carefully sneak out of her house at night because she was afraid her mom would hurt me if she found out about us.
As a teenager, the apparent risks of lesbian* sex had a lot more to do with homophobia than STIs.
No one told me when I was growing up that lesbians could give each other STIs. I never heard from my parents, my friends, or even my early gay and lesbian mentors, that safer sex between lesbians existed. When I found out, I still didn’t quite know what to do with the information.
I’ve found that for me, who identifies as lesbian, and for others who are FAAB (female-assigned at birth) and sexual with FAAB-people who do (or might not, but still engage in sex with each other), the safer sex landscape can be really confusing.
Can lesbians really contract STIs? Do trans guys who only have sex with cis women really have to use barriers? Does anyone actually use dental dams? Do they work?
To be clear: this confusion about how and why to have safer sex is not because of those sexist tropes that “lesbian sex” or vulvas and vaginas are so goddamn confusing. It’s because safer sex between two people with vulvas is so rarely discussed.
Over the last few years, I’ve finally begun to feel confident having safer sex, and it’s improved my sex life basically a million percent. I wish I’d gotten more comfortable with it sooner.
What I feel like I didn’t understand in my pre-safer sex days was that the very challenges of making safer sex happen - being articulate about what I wanted and how to manage the risks involved - would actually lead to much safer feeling sex. Not just safer from STIs, but safer from the dozens of other anxieties I felt about being sexual. If my goal was to reduce sexual anxiety, talking more about sex, not less, would have gotten me there a lot faster.
One of the main reasons I found safer sex practices intimidating was that I didn’t have any models or images of queers my age actually practicing them. I also wasn’t aware that in adult lesbian and queer communities, many people aren’t knowledgeable about safer sex either. So, in this essay, I’m going to describe my somewhat wobbly path to becoming enthusiastic about safer sex. I’ll also outline my current safer sex practices.
Growing up, almost all of the messages I got about lesbian sex were that it wasn’t “real sex.” I knew that was nonsense, but it still made me feel like the sex I had somehow didn’t count. The only people I had telling me otherwise were writing about sex from queer meccas like San Francisco, which seemed like an entirely different universe.
When I first learned about safer lesbian sex as a teenager, it seemed like this highly esoteric practice. None of my early lovers knew about it and I couldn’t imagine how to bring it up. When I read about women using gloves and dams, they were always a lot older and more sexually experienced than me. Gloves and dental dams felt more like props for sexual roleplay than actual safety devices.
In my later teens, I took a break from sex for a while and at the same time became interested in sex education. It was during this period that I learned about the actual mechanics of STI transmission. I began to wrap my head around what STIs really are: viruses, bacteria, and other microbes that are particularly easily transferred between people during sexual activities. I realized that STIs fundamentally are not about gender or sexual orientation, but about how various body parts and bodily fluids can interact and spread microorganisms.
There are many sexual activities between people with vulvas that can accomplish this transmission. Lesbian sex - or, more clearly and inclusively, sex between people where everyone's got a vulva -- is considered “lower risk” by health organizations because many STIs are less easily spread between bodies classified as female. What it comes down to is that vaginal or anal intercourse involving a penis is a particularly stellar conduit for most STIs. But sex that doesn’t involve semen or penile insertion still frequently spreads STIs, regardless of the types of bodies involved. Manual sex, oral sex, strap-on sex, tribbing/frotting, sharing sex toys – all pose significant risks of STI transmission.
Also, many people with vulvas who have sex with other people with vulvas have had sex before with people with penises. So, for most people, the idea of ever entering into, or staying in, a closed sexual circle of people who have only ever had sex with FAAB-people is simply unrealistic.
I was learning my stuff and eventually became interested in seeking out sex again. What I found, though, was that no one else seemed to really know anything about STIs. I hooked up with a few people, trans guys or dykes in their twenties, who seemed to have had many more sexual partners than I had. But even though they had impressive sex toy collections and rolled condoms onto strap-ons like pros, they never used dams or gloves or talked about testing unless I brought it up.
I doubted myself. If these hot, experienced young queers didn’t feel like gloves or dams were necessary, maybe they weren’t? I felt exactly the same way I did when I was younger. I wanted to be responsible and ethical, but believed on some deep level that lesbians didn’t really have to practice safer sex.
I ricocheted back and forth between reading a lot on places like Scarleteen, and convincing myself that, yes, STIs were a legitimate concern, but then having my doubts about safer sex raised all over again. I’d never heard of straight people or gay men using latex gloves for sex. If STI transmission through manual sex really was such a big concern, wouldn’t there be more advocacy for that? The only place I saw non-lesbians using gloves was in BDSM porn, which again, for me, returned gloves back into the realm of fantasy.
I was mostly only having manual sex anyway, and I frankly didn’t understand what the function of latex gloves actually was. If there were open cuts on someone’s hand, that made sense to me: an open cut on a hand + vaginal fluids and/or menstrual blood + the mucous membranes of female genitals; sure, I saw the possible risks of transmission. But if there weren’t cuts on your hands, where did the risk come from? And, again, why weren’t straight people more concerned about manual sex as a site of transmission?
It was hard to talk about these questions. I felt like I should just know.
It was also hard because what manual sex meant to me was different from how I heard straight people framing it. For many straight people, manual sex barely seemed to be sex, whereas the way I had manual sex it was its own whole, hugely important, powerful thing. Could that possibly change how safe it was? Do lesbians have manual sex differently than other people? I know a lot of people, myself included, who feel that lesbians’ hands are pretty damn magical. But is there some scientific basis to that which would lead to greater STI risk?
My straight physician was no help. She was mystified by the idea of using latex gloves during sex, and when I asked to get a full round of STI tests, she balked at the number of tests I wanted. “You don’t need these,” she said. I had to convince her to test me. Her ignorance – many doctors are ignorant about sexual health (1.) – affirmed all of my doubts about safer lesbian sex.
Ultimately, I flailed around for a while. I asked some partners to get tested. I bought dams but didn’t use them. I learned more about STIs and how some STIs, like Herpes, aren’t even spread through vaginal fluid, but via skin-to-skin contact. Those condoms that were being masterfully applied to strap-ons stopped even making sense to me. What was the point of putting a condom on a silicone cock if it was already sterile and wasn’t going to be shared? And since Herpes is spread through skin-to-skin contact – like through mons and vulvas rubbing up against each other – I realized that during strap-on sex those condoms weren’t even really protecting me.
To make matters worse, the people I was hooking up with, even though they talked a lot about “safety” and “consent,” clearly felt that gloves and dams somehow ruined sex. I think, particularly for FAAB-people, because we have so much garbage put on our bodies, feeling told in any way that our genitals are “dirty” or that someone needs protection from them, can be really hard. Bringing up barriers would often seem to make people feel rejected. Easily overwhelmed by even slight discomfort in others, I’d acquiesce to less safe sex than I was comfortable with.
My turning point with safer sex happened in a cheese warehouse.
At the time, I was sleeping with a trans guy, Ben, and I was having a miserable time trying to make safer sex happen between us. Ben was in the beginning of his transition and had just started testosterone.
In the beginning of our relationship Ben had been open to using barriers. I'd brought it up before we had sex, but when it actually came time to use a dam I panicked because I'd never gone down on someone with one before. I said we didn't have to and he seemed relieved. At the time I was mostly okay with going without barriers because we'd both been tested recently and were only having sex with each other.
As time went on, though, and Ben started sleeping with other people (we’re poly), I wanted both of us to start using barriers for real. Ben had been initiating condom use with strap-on sex all along, but now felt strongly that he didn’t want to use dams or nitrile gloves. He said they reminded him too much of being a lesbian. Dental dams and gloves were “what lesbians used,” and he said they made him feel dysphoric.
I roll my eyes at that now, and feel angry about the STI risks he exposed me and others to. But at the time, I was flummoxed. I wanted to be sensitive to his gender issues, and so instead of just taking sex off the table, we continued to have sex, with me feeling increasingly uncomfortable. Occasionally I'd bring up wanting to use barriers and it wouldn't go anywhere.
Anyway, in the midst of a round of tension with Ben about safer sex, I got a temp job in a cheese warehouse. It was weird that I was working there because I was a vegan, plus I’ve always wanted to avoid food jobs. But the temp agency sent me over with only the warehouse address and the information that I’d be performing "shipping duties."
The manager led me into a room that can only be described as a very large bunker. It had more cheese than you can possibly imagine. Like Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory levels of cheese. There was a room with row after row of large wheels of cheese stacked to the ceiling. Then there was a divider and another room with metal tables and tired-looking employees dressed like surgeons. I was soon to become one of these people.
The leader of the group introduced me to the procedures. Keeping the room sterile for the cheese was paramount, so in addition to the stylish outfit I'd have to wear, every few hours we'd completely sanitize the room. This involved washing all the cheese-cutting implements, taking an industrial hose out to blast the floors, and thoroughly scrubbing down every imaginable surface. If you touched your nose or mouth or left the room, you had to put on a whole new protective outfit. This included: a pair of white stretchy booties over your shoes, an apron, a second apron, these weird elastic trash bag things that went over your forearms like leg warmers, latex gloves, and a hairnet.
The third time I had to put on a whole new suit in two hours - I kept touching my nose; it's hard not to - I had an epiphany.
Safer sex really isn't that hard.
I was pulling on my last accessory, a tight new pair of latex gloves, and I thought, "Safer sex is nothing compared to this. Nothing. I am not asking anyone to put on this ridiculous suit or to sanitize their entire home in order to have sex with me. I am barely asking for anything."
I flashed through all the tense conversations I’d had with Ben and with others about gloves and dams, and I just kept thinking, Why would anyone make such a big deal about this? Safer sex is a freaking dream: just these sleek gloves, a whisper thin sheet of polyurethane. And you get to have sex while you're wearing them - orgasms, kisses, deep, comforting warmth – it’s not like you have to handle ginormous mounds of cheese. Get on board, people! This is about sexual health and pleasure.
Ben and I broke up, and the belief that safer sex is not a big deal stuck with me.
It was my lover Davie, who I started seeing almost three years ago, who really cemented my safer sex orientation. It happened rather quickly, as using barriers and talking about safer sex became so normalized I can’t imagine going back. Because Davie and I each sometimes date or have casual sex with other people, I’ve gotten a lot of opportunity to practice.
Davie’s serious about safer sex. For her, safer sex isn’t weird or optional; it’s just what ethical, caring people do for each other. I can’t tell you how sexy and comforting that is. I didn’t realize until I was with her how dramatically having a lover consistently demonstrate their care for my health would improve sex. Talking about safer sex has also made talking about other sexual things much easier - like complicated sexual feelings or fantasies - so overall sex has continued to get much richer.
Our first conversation about testing and barriers was the beginning of an ongoing discussion as we’ve refined what behaviors we need to do so we each feel protected.
When we started having sex we used barriers for everything: If my hands were touching her cunt, I had gloves on and vice versa. We used dental dams for cunnilingus and rimming. We covered dildos and vibrators with condoms and decided not to have strap-on sex, or any other kind of direct genital/genital contact, until after we’d both been tested. We both wanted to rule out HPV and Genital Herpes before having any kind of sex that involved our genitals touching each other.
We decided pretty early on that we wanted to be fluid-bonded; i.e., to get a full round of testing done so we could have barrier-free sex and not worry about it.
Scarleteen’s recommendation for going without barriers is: 1. Both partners getting full STI panels, 2. Using barriers consistently for the next six months, and 3. Both partners getting another set of full (negative) STI panels before abandoning barriers.
Because Davie and I are both in low-risk groups and don’t have insurance coverage for testing, we felt comfortable with just a single round of testing before having sex without barriers.
It had been six months since my last unprotected sexual encounter when I got tested. After my results and Davie’s results came back negative, we started having sex without barriers. When either of us have sex with other people, we always use barriers with them. We also each get tested yearly. When I flubbed up and had sex with a friend without barriers, Davie and I went back to using barriers until I got another clear STI panel several months later.
Honestly, though, going back to barriers wasn’t a hardship at all, and even when we “can” have sex without barriers, we still often use them anyway because they feel good and are convenient.
Gloves tend to feel great for the person on the receiving end – they’re soft and smooth and protect delicate tissues from nails. And they tend to feel great for the wearer (I feel pretty powerful and cool wearing them).
There can be very small, hard-to-see cuts on your hands that can allow STI transmission. If you’re pretty sure the skin on your hands is intact, though, it’s reasonably safe to just wash your hands before and after manual sex. You want to wash your hands before in order to avoid bringing any bacteria into the vagina, and then you want to wash them after to avoid bringing any STIs back into you. I often find wearing gloves easier than having to hop up and down to wash my hands. Also, because I frequently move from manual sex on a partner to masturbating, I usually just find it simpler to have gloves on for touching someone else and then removing them - or, new sensation! putting on a fresh pair - to jerk off.
For oral sex, too, I appreciate dams even when I don’t “have to” use them. They’re silky and let me appreciate oral sex in a different way. Sometimes when I’m going down on someone, what I want more than anything is to really taste and smell them, to feel as close to their body as possible. Other times, because of my mood or where a partner is in their cycle, it’s just a bit of sensory overload. Dams are great for when you want to go down on your partner, but for whatever reason, want to feel a bit more space.
When I connect with someone new I want to have sex with, the steps I take are pretty straightforward: I share that I'm already in a significant relationship where I'm fluid-bonded. I let them know if there are any other sexual partners in my life, or if I’ve had any other sexual partners since I was last tested. I tell them when I was last tested, what I was tested for, the results, and that I don't have oral or manual sex with people other than Davie without gloves and dams. I’ll also let the new person know if Davie has other partners. The new person’s testing status and other factors may inform what sexual activities I do with them.
I haven’t had a problem with anyone not wanting to use barriers since I became more confident about it. Partly I’ve met people who already practice safer sex, but mostly I’ve found that when you speak about it as a given, people want to participate. Most people don’t want to acquire or pass on STIs.
It’s a horrible misconception that safer sex is somehow less intimate or real than unprotected sex. And for queers, where the sex we have is already always under attack for not being “real,” adding unfamiliar safer sex practices can be uniquely daunting.
But we are very real. Our bodies are real, the sex we have is real, and the risks inherent in our sexual activities are real. So, please, let’s protect each other.
*The term “lesbian” - though a word I love - is definitely problematic. I use the word lesbian here because it’s strongly associated with the demographic I want to communicate with, and because it’s a politically and emotionally resonant word for me. Really, though, I’m queer – a butch who was assigned female at birth. Describing sex with trans men under the umbrella of “lesbian sex” is not meant to imply that trans men are lesbians, but to describe my primary identity and the types of sexual health risks that are present from what is most typically described as "lesbian sex." I also realize there are many lesbians who were assigned male at birth and who I’m not including in the context of the sexual health issues I’m discussing. I regret any awkward or transphobic language and welcome critique.
1. Solursh, DS, et al. 2003. "The human sexuality education of physicians in North American medical schools.” International Journal of Impotence Research, 15(Suppl 5): S41-S45.