How to Have the Safest Sex Possible Every Time You Get Busy
So you had an ~amazing~ hookup last night—like, out-of-body experience amazing. Even better? You made sure he slipped a condom on before getting down and dirty. Three cheers for being a responsible, sex-having adult!
You might think you’re totally in the clear, but wait—you could still be at risk for one sneaky STD. If someone has a herpes lesion and it’s not covered by the condom (e.g., not on the penis shaft or is toward the outside of the vagina), you’re not totally protected. “A sore that’s not covered by a condom could touch exposed skin like a cut or razor burn,” says Fahimeh Sasan, D.O., assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive science at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. That’s why it’s so important to talk about sexual health with every partner.
Here’s what else you need to know about staying safe between the sheets.
How to Have the Most Safe Sex
Despite the exception noted above, condoms really are the MVP when it comes to safe sex: “If you use condoms every time, then you can’t get HIV, hepatitis B, hHepatitis C, gonorrhea, chlamydia, or syphilis,” says Dr. Sasan.
Even though they seem pretty foolproof, simply using a condom isn’t enough—you need to use it correctly. That means putting it on at the start of any sexual activity, says Dr. Sasan, and it means using one every. single. time. Follow these step-by-step guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and make sure you’re not guilty of these scary condom mistakes you might be making.
What you don’t have to worry too much about: kissing and mutual masturbation (aka first and second base). “Generally speaking, it’s extremely difficult to transmit any STDs from just mouth-to-mouth kissing,” says Sasan, with the exception of HSV-1 (oral herpes), which shows up as cold sores or fever blisters. Even in that case, it would have to be an active fever blister (that hasn’t crusted over yet), and the other person would have to have some sort of cut or open sore on their mouth, she says. And when it comes to “hand stuff,” there’s not much fluid-to-fluid contact, so it’s not a huge risk either. “Unless someone has a cut on their hand, then there’s a negligible risk,” says Sasan. That being said, any sexual act does introduce the risk of contracting an STD—so you’re not 100 percent in the clear.
When it comes to oral sex, using a condom or a dental dam might seem like a total mood killer, but it’s not something you want to mess with: “Oral sex is one of the ways that STIs are most frequently transmitted,” says Michael Randell, M.D., an ob-gyn at Emory Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta.
Why You *Need* to Care
ICYMI, your STD risk is getting scarier and scarier—and we’re not just talking about the fact that Zika can be transmitted as an STD now too. Earlier this year, unsafe sex was named the number-one risk factor for illness and death for young women worldwide. Chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis rates are at an all-time high according to the CDC’s 2015 STD report, and even though those are known as curable STDs, they might not be for long. Gonorrhea and syphilis are both officially reaching superbug status, and chlamydia is also harder to get rid of than before. (Luckily, scientists might soon have a chlamydia vaccine. Phew.)
Unfortunately, the risk is even higher if you’re lesbian or bisexual: “Women who have sex with women, particularly those with both male and female partners, show increased risk for STIs and HIV,” says Dr. Randell. Although there isn’t much data available on female-female STD rates, HPV remains the most prominent because it can be transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, he says.
And guess what? You or your partner might have and STD right now and not even know it. Not all STDs are marked by lesions or sores—there are plenty of “sleeper STDs,” including HIV, hepatitis B, hepatitis C, syphilis, HPV, gonorrhea, and chlamydia, which can all be asymptomatic, says Dr. Sasan. That’s why getting tested regularly and using condoms is so crucial. (Here’s what else you need to know about sleeper STDs.)
And, FYI, even if you’re crazy fit or super healthy, your STD risk is the same. Drinking 10 green juices a day or maintaining a super-strong immune system won’t help you the same way it might help you ward off a cold.
“That’s why it’s important for everyone to use condoms to prevent against STDs—no matter how good their immune system is or how poor their immune system is, or whether they only had sex once in their life or five times a day,” says Dr. Sasan. That whole “it’ll never happen to me” excuse just isn’t going to fly. (Need a wake-up call? This STD calculator will show you exactly how high your risk is—which may or may not be affected by how you style your hair down there.)
Your Safe Sex Action Plan
If you’re single: If you haven’t gotten tested in the last year or if you haven’t gotten tested since hooking up with someone new, make an appointment, stat. Dr. Sasan recommends getting tested about six to eight weeks after an encounter with a new sexual partner—running to the doc the day after a one-night stand won’t work, because STDs won’t show up that quickly in tests, she says.
If you’re happily committed: If you’re in a mutually monogamous relationship, getting tested on the reg is a personal choice. An easy solution? Ask for routine tests during your annual gyno appointment.
Either way, you should get vaccinated to prevent hepatitis B and HPV. When you go in to get tested (whether it’s at your gyno’s or physician’s office or a Planned Parenthood—as long as they still exist), you can get tested for everything at once with a mixture of cultures and blood tests, says Dr. Sasan. The only exception is HSV-2, or genital herpes, which can sometimes show up as a false negative in blood tests. For that reason, Dr. Sasan says it’s usually only tested for if you present with a herpes-like outbreak.
Whatever the sitch, make sure you’re clear about what you want: “When you’re at your annual exam, you shouldn’t just assume your health care provider is automatically testing you for STIs as part of the exam, because that’s not generally the case,” says Dr. Randell. “Make sure you see your health care provider every year and talk to him/her about what STI testing you may need even if everything appears to be normal.” (Find out how to make sure your gyno is doing the right sexual health tests.)
But getting tested isn’t your only to-do: Talking to your partner about STI status pre-hookup isn’t optional, it’s necessary. So before you get naked, get talking. It might not be the hottest dirty talk there is, but you’ll both feel better during (and after) knowing there are no scary bugs in bed with you.