I recently broke up with my long-term boyfriend. Being out on the dating scene and having multiple sexual partners is making me nervous. I don’t want to remain celibate until I find my next serious boyfriend, but I’m curious what I need to do to make sure I’m being safe. Obviously condoms are a good start, but is there anything else I should know?
To see Dr. Glickman's answer, read more.
Let’s start with the basics. First, I need to acknowledge that the only way to be 100 percent safe is to never have sex. But that’s like saying that the only way to 100 percent avoid getting into a car accident is to never get into a car. Since that’s not something most of us are willing to do, we take steps to make it safer. Second, while some sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be life-threatening, others are generally treated quite easily, as long as you get tested. It’s worth getting tested on a regular basis, such as every six or 12 months.
Third, a lot of people find that it’s really useful to be able to talk with a potential sexual partner about their sexual and STI testing history. Other people prefer to assume that a partner has an STI and act accordingly. Given that a lot of people lie about their STI history and a lot of people (especially men) have an STI and don’t know it because they’ve never had any symptoms, it’s certainly worth considering. Whatever route you choose, think about it in advance.
Now let’s talk about what you can do. Condoms work more effectively when you know how to use them. For example:
- Check the expiration date. As latex ages, it becomes more likely to break.
- Keep condoms away from heat and direct sunlight. Heat makes latex more fragile. Don’t keep condoms in the glove compartment of your car. It’s okay to put a condom in your pocket when going on a date, but don’t keep one in your wallet.
- Using condoms is only an interruption if you let it be. Keep them close and find ways to incorporate them in your play.
- Put a few drops of a latex-compatible lubricant in the head of the condom before putting it on. Not only will this reduce air bubbles and the chance of breakage, but it also increases sensation for the wearer. Never use oils with latex or polyisoprene condoms! They will break in less than a minute.
- Roll the condom all the way down and check to make sure that it’s still there during sex. Sometimes, condoms can slip off, especially if they’re not rolled completely down.
- After ejaculation, hold the base of the condom. It is important to pull out before he gets too soft. As the penis softens, the condom is more likely to come off.
While condoms are very effective at preventing certain STIs, they don’t necessarily protect against all. If someone has herpes on his penis or inside her vagina, a condom can cover it during intercourse. But if they have it on their scrotum or labia, the condom won’t prevent transmission if the person is shedding the virus. That’s why it’s important to talk with a potential partner. Scarleteen has a lot of excellent info here.
Also, different activities have different levels of risk. Anal penetration is higher risk for many STIs than vaginal penetration. Contact with blood (including menstrual blood) or semen increases the possibility of transmission, especially if you have an open cut or sore. And oral sex on a woman is very low risk for both people for most STIs. So you might choose what you’ll do with a particular partner based on your assessment of your STI risk. It doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing. Planned Parenthood has a lot of great info here, as does San Francisco City Clinic.
I really hope that I didn’t scare you. I know that fear of STIs is often used to try to keep people from having sex. But making safer sex part of your routine is pretty easy — with a little practice, you won’t even notice it anymore. Have fun!