Safer Sex Practices

In recent years, the term ‘safe sex’ has been exchanged for the phrase ‘safer sex’. This acknowledges the fact that almost all types of sex come with some risk. That being said, it doesn’t mean that the fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) should ruin your sex life. There are many steps you can take to keep yourself safe while still having fun. In this article, you will learn about the most common types of STDs out there, steps you can take to protect yourself, and how to have the safer sex talk with a potential sexual partner.

Bacterial STDs – Chlamydia, Gonorrhea, Syphilis

The three most common bacterial infections that can be transmitted sexually are chlamydia, gonorrhea (also known as “the clap”) and syphilis. The bacteria that cause chlamydia and gonorrhea live in the vaginal fluid, semen, and precum, and they are both able to infect the throat, genitals, and rectum. These infections are passed on when the infected fluid comes in contact with the mucous membrane of the partner.

The majority of chlamydia infections occur in the 15 to 24-year-old population and account for two-thirds of new infections. Gonorrhea is also more common in people ages 15-24, with two-thirds of new cases each year affecting this group. That said, being outside of this age range doesn’t mean you should slack on safer sex practices. In recent years there has been an increase in cases of chlamydia and gonorrhea in people over 40.

Unfortunately, the majority of people infected with chlamydia or gonorrhea will not show any symptoms. Or, if they do have symptoms they appear several weeks later, which can lead to a delay in getting proper treatment. On the bright side, chlamydia is easily treated with a single dose of antibiotics, as are most cases of gonorrhea. Recently, there has been a rise in antibiotic-resistant cases of gonorrhea, so it’s always better to prevent an STD than treat it.

How To Prevent Chlamydia, Gonorrhea & Syphilis

You can greatly reduce your chances of contracting chlamydia or gonorrhea by properly using barrier methods of protection every time you have sex. Although chlamydia and gonorrhea prefer to colonize the tissues of the vagina, penis, or anus, they can also survive in the throat, so you may want to use condoms or dental dams when performing oral sex.

Syphilis is not a particularly common STD anymore, but it’s worth knowing that condoms won’t give you as much protection as you might think. Syphilis is transmitted via contact with syphilitic sores (known as chancres) which are painless, firm, and round. Chancres can be found in a variety of areas, including on the vagina, around the anal area, in or near the mouth, and on or around the external genitals. If a condom is covering a chancre, then transmission risk is reduced. If a chancre is not covered by a condom and direct contact occurs, transmission is likely. Luckily, syphilis is easily treated with penicillin and is not the scourge it once was before the discovery of antibiotics.

Viral STDs – Herpes, HPV, Hepatitis, HIV

An easy way to remember which infections are viral and which are bacterial is that all of the viral infections start with an “H.” The viral STDs include Herpes Simplex Virus types 1 and 2 (referred to as HSV-1 and HSV-2), Human Papillomavirus (HPV), Hepatitis (types A, B, and C), and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV). Unless you are sharing dirty needles, Hepatitis isn’t likely to be an STDs to worry about. You can prevent Hepatitis by using condoms consistently.

Herpes (HSV) Infection Rates & Symptoms

The most prolific viral STDs out there are Herpes and HPV. HSV-1 is the virus that causes oral herpes, while HSV-2 causes genital herpes. However, HSV-1 is able to cause genital herpes as well. Low-risk Herpes strains are able to cause genital warts, while high-risk HPV strains can cause cancers of the cervix, vagina, rectum, vulva, or mouth.

So just how common is Herpes? Well, 50% of people under age 50 in the US are infected with HSV-1, and about 1 in 8 people in the US under age 50 has genital herpes. Despite the high rates of infection, about 90% of people who have it don’t know about it.

Besides giving one cold sores on the mouth or genital sores, Herpes is pretty benign and won’t cause you any long-term health complications. Just be sure to avoid contact of the infected areas and infected saliva with other people’s skin while you are having an outbreak in order to prevent transmission. After the first outbreak, symptom severity tends to decrease over time, and many people will be symptom-free for years at a time. Antiviral medications are available for those concerned about spreading Herpes to their partners.

Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Infection Rate & Treatment

When it comes to HPV, it is estimated that 80% or more of sexually active people will harbor an HPV infection at some point in their life. HPV is spread through skin to skin contact, not via an exchange of bodily fluids. Thus, using condoms can reduce the risk of transmission, but it cannot totally eliminate it.

In the vast majority of cases, HPV is completely harmless and the immune system is able to clear it from the body in about two years. Even if one does happen to pick up a strain of HPV, the resulting genital warts are highly treatable. HPV also puts women at risk for cervical cancer, but a regular PAP smear test should detect that. Any abnormal changes to the cervix will be able to be picked up in time for treatment before they progress to cancer.

HIV Treatments

If you are worried that you may have been exposed to HIV, there is a treatment available called post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) in which you take antiretroviral medicines in order to prevent becoming infected. This treatment must be administered as soon as possible after exposure and is only effective up to 72 hours post-encounter.

If your partner has HIV or you play with populations that have statistically higher rates of infection, it may be worth looking into pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP). PrEP is an HIV medicine, taken daily to lower the chances of getting infected by 90% or more.

protection

Other STD Prevention Methods

In conjunction with talking to a potential sex partner about their STD status (which we’ll  discussed in depth below), the best thing you can do to protect yourself from STDs is to use barrier methods of protection correctly each time you have sex.

This means using latex or non-latex condoms for any kind of intercourse or oral sex involving a penis, and using dental dams when performing oral sex on someone with a vagina. Female condoms are an alternative to male condoms and can be a good choice if a man is concerned that putting on a condom will cause him to lose his erection. Be sure to use water-based lubricant with latex condoms as this will help keep the condom from breaking.

Shaving of the genitals has been shown to increase the risk of STD transmission because the razor blade causes micro cuts on the skin that can let in infectious fluids. Alternatives to shaving are waxing and laser hair removal.

How to Talk about STDs with a New Partner

Having a conversation with a potential partner about safer sex is hard for many people. However, it’s absolutely necessary if you want to play safely. Before having the conversation, check in with yourself and decide what your own personal level of risk tolerance is when it comes to STDs. This will help you decide what your boundaries are when it comes to sexual play. It’s best to bring up this conversation while you are still clothed and are not in the heat of the moment, so you can make the best decisions possible. If you don’t know how a partner will react to the conversation, it sometimes helps to self-disclose your own STD status first.

Here are some questions you should talk to your partner about before having sex:

  • When was the last time you got tested for STDs?
  • What were you tested for and what were the results?
  • Have you had any sexual partners since the last time you got tested?
  • Have you ever had any STDs before? Which? Did you get them treated?
  • Do you use condoms and/or dental dams? How consistent are you?

How to Tell your Partner you Have an STD

If you have an STD you need to disclose, make sure you have moved beyond your shame around it (see the below section on How a Sex Coach Can Help). Make sure you understand the best ways to protect your partner from infection. It is best to bring up the topic prior to having sex so your partner feels they can trust you to take care of them. Let your potential partner know what STD you have, and how they can protect themselves. Take the time to listen to any feelings or fears they have, without becoming defensive or apologetic. You can reassure them that you care about their health and commit to whatever kind of protection they want to use.

If you are worried that your potential partner may not be honest, you may want to see the actual results from the testing facility. Refusing to use protection or get tested should set off alarm bells, and it’s best not to have sexual contact with them. If someone won’t use protection with you, they probably did the same with previous partners. This significantly increases your risk of getting an STD. Holding this boundary can be hard, and not getting to have sex with someone disappointing – but ultimately it’s not worth risking your health. Wait until you find a partner who is happy to respect your health and play safely within your level of risk tolerance.

How a Sex Coach Can Help

There are a number of things a sex coach can help you with in the realm of STDs and safer sex practices. A sex coach can help you clarify the personal risk level you are willing to engage in. They can help you practice safer sex and STD disclosure conversations, as well as teach you how to use condoms and other STD prevention tools properly.

They can help you let go of any shame around having contracted an STD. Unfortunately, even though STDs are just another illness that can be passed from one person to another, like a cold or flu, society makes people feel ashamed of STDs. People have sex all the time and many will end up getting an STD – regardless of how many partners they have had, or how careful they have been. A sex coach can help you feel good about yourself and help you approach dating as an STD-positive person.

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Danielle Harel
Danielle Harel, PhD is the Co-creator of the Somatica® Method and the Co-Founder of the Somatica® Institute. She trains coaches in the Somatica® Method of Sex and Relationship Coaching. She has her own private practice in Sunnyvale, where she supports her clients in having amazing sex and relationships as well as passion-fueled lives. She has published original research on Orgasmic Birth and is the co-author of two books, Cockfidence - The Definitive Guide to Being the Man You Want to Be and Driving Women Wild and Making Love Real - The Intelligent Couples Guide to Lasting Intimacy and Passion. Danielle Has her Masters in Clinical Social Work From Haifa University in Israel and her PhD in Human Sexuality from the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Sexuality (IASHS). She is a Clinical Sexologist and a Certified Sexological Bodyworker. Danielle is a Certified Body Positive Facilitator and took many trainings in embodied and mindfulness based therapeutic approaches such as Hakomi.