Safe sex is a lot more complicated than slapping on a condom. It’s a balance of communication, pleasure and education — something that many people don’t hear during the “sex talk.”
Of course, there are the basics — contraceptives and protections against sexually transmitted infections — but depending on what kind of pleasure you want and how you seek it, there may be certain safe practices that are just right for you.
“Sex shouldn’t be something you tolerate. It’s something that should be pleasurable to both, or all, parties,” said Kim Marks, the owner and founder of As You Like It Pleasure Shop and the Eugene Intimate Health Center. “Safe sex is individualized — it’s someone’s risk tolerance.”
While considering this idea of pleasure-oriented sexual health, begin with evaluating what pleasure is to you. Ask yourself what feels good, what you’re comfortable doing and what you’re comfortable asking someone else to do.
Knowledge is Power
In order to negotiate the terms of the right safe sex for you, it is important to educate yourself. Planned Parenthood offers a comprehensive breakdown that might help dispel myths or stigmas that exist around different STIs.
Risk tolerance may sound counteractive to those of you who received a traditional sex education, but it’s realistic. An individual might be comfortable having sex with someone with herpes — this is an example of “risk tolerance.” A situation like this might arise when both parties are comfortable because of an agreed upon use of barriers, or perhaps both individuals having the same strain of the herpes virus. Not everyone would be okay with this, but as Marks said, safe sex is negotiated by those involved.
Testing and Screening
A lot of people assume that participating in STI screening or testing means that you have to be symptomatic; even if you are not showing symptoms, you can and should get tested.
How often and what you test for is an individual choice based on you and your relationships. People with prostates or penises often don’t show a lot of symptoms like people with vaginas or vulvas might because vulvas have more exposed mucous membranes. This is the skin around the opening of the vagina. It’s similar to the skin in the mouth.
Marks said that ideally, you should be tested between new partners, or perhaps more regularly, if you’re dating a lot of people. You can refer to the University of Oregon Health Center’s STI Screening Timetable for help with timing when you should be tested if you are specifically concerned with exposure. Certain STIs need a little more time than others to show up in a screening.
It’s not always as simple as just showing up and getting tested though. It’s important to be able to communicate results — a major source of anxiety especially if positive-testing results come in.
Communication is Sexy
It’s really easy to get wrapped up in the moment and get wrapped up in somebody else before you’ve communicated your boundaries or that you have an STI. Sometimes, fear of rejection or judgement prevents honesty upfront.
“We tell ourselves, ‘People don’t fall in love with infections, they fall in love with people,’” said Marks. But that’s not always true. In fact, Marks argues that many of us worry about communicating imperfect sexual health so much that we neglect thinking about what happens when we don’t communicate it at all.
Considering the power of our words and how they connect us to others, we should regard communication as one of our most important tools for sexual wellbeing.
Sobriety and Sexual Health
Being aware of your body is a big responsibility; it is an important aspect of having safer sex, but also of being a better lover. This awareness includes forward-thinking as a part of being proactive with your health.
“Alcohol often doesn’t lead to good sex. It’s usually sloppier, often doesn’t lead to orgasms for any party, and really, it’s hard to give or get genuine consent,” said Marks. “If you can’t feel all the pain, you’re probably not feeling all the pleasure either.”
However, Marks understands that UO is a college campus. Nightlife and drinking are pervasive parts of college culture, so you should be prepared.
The most ideal option would be negotiating and preparing boundaries while sober. Marks said that one method of preparation might be inserting a female or internal condom before going out. These are available at the UO Health Center and can be kept inside you for up to six hours.
Stashing condoms and dental dams around your house, bag or backpack is another smart move. In a pinch, Marks said you can use Saran Wrap as an alternative to a dental dam. Something to keep in mind, however, is that all of this preparation requires you to be knowledgeable — or sober — enough to be able to use them.
Lube and Protective Barriers
Using lube is actually really important for sexual health, not just pleasure — especially if you use condoms, sex toys or have any sensitivities. But with so many options — water-based, oil-based, silicone-based or hybrid lubes — what is right for you can only really be determined by you and your sexual partner based on your activities together. Youtube sex educator Erika Lynae created a quick and simple lube compatibility cheat sheet to help you decide which you prefer.
Consider what might cause a yeast infection or work well with toys and latex barriers. Small packets of lube, dental dams, finger cots and condoms are all available in the UO Health Center. Take advantage of using sample lubes until you find out which one works best for you and use this guide from the UO health center to choose the proper barriers.
“You can put a tiny bit of lube in the condom which helps transfer warmth and sensation through the condom, but don’t put so much that it comes off,” said Marks. For performing oral with dental dams or condoms, she advises using lube between the barrier and the recipient to help increase sensation.
Not Wellness Without Pleasure
Just like with good sex, you have to learn how to practice safer sex. A lot of these tips — like using lube, getting tested, thinking about drinking and more — are actually oriented toward finding a way for you to experience the pleasure that you want. It’s unlikely that you’re having the best sex that you can if you’re also experiencing pain, STI symptoms or can’t communicate with your partner.