Guide to Safer Sex and Sexual Hygiene
For many of us, attempting to put a condom on a banana in high school was a formative part of our teenage years. It came with a warning from teachers and probably parents too: if you’re going to have sex, do it safely! (Or for some: don’t have sex, ever, or terrible things will happen).
But what exactly is ‘safe sex’? Do we really need to be discussing contraception and STIs with every sexual partner we have? What happens if the condom breaks? And what exactly are dental dams, anyway?
In our Guide to Safer Sex and Sexual Hygiene, we set out to answer all of these questions and more.
- Why do we call it ‘safer sex’ and not ‘safe sex’? Because there’s no form of contraception or protection that’s 100% effective all of the time, but using some protection is safer than using none.
What is safer sex?
Safer sex is sex that prevents, or limits, the exchange of bodily fluids—like semen, blood, and vaginal fluid—between partners. This helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, or STIs (we’ve written a big guide to STIs here!).
If you’re wondering what kinds of sexual contact can transmit STIs, here’s a quick list:
- Anal sex
- Vaginal sex
- Oral sex (including blowjobs, rimming, and licking a vulva)
- Dry humping, if your genitals touch your partners genitals or butt
- Kissing, if your partner has a cold sore or other infection in their mouth
Handjobs and fingering generally don’t transmit STIs, because STIs can’t be absorbed through the skin of our hands. If your partner’s bodily fluid gets on your hand and you put that hand near your mouth or genitals, though, STI transmission can occur.
What is sexual hygiene?
Sexual hygiene is, essentially, keeping your space, any objects you bring into sex, and your body clean where possible. This will lower your risk of transmitting bodily fluids and developing infections (like UTIs). It’s also just a lot of things that are considered good practice and good manners: having clean sheets on the bed before inviting someone over, showering regularly, and keeping your toys and any accessories clean.
How do I practice safer sex and have good sexual hygiene…
A big part of having safer sex is about how you prepare for sex. If you’re not someone who gets regular sexual health check-ups, we highly recommend that you start—especially if you’ve had new sexual partners since your last check-up. Sexual health check-ups are quick, painless, and a whole lot less intimidating than you probably imagine! We wrote about what you can expect during a check-up here. You should generally wait until you have the results back from your check-up before you hook up or have sex with anyone, especially if you’ve noticed any STI symptoms.
A really important way to prepare for safer sex is to consider what protection options are right for you. Barrier methods of protection, like condoms and dental dams, create a ‘barrier’ between yourself and your partner that prevents bodily fluids from being shared; while contraception prevents pregnancy but doesn’t prevent STI transmission. There are heaps of different types of contraception available these days, and although not every one might be right for you, there will be one that is. We recommend having a chat with your GP if you’re unsure about what kind of protection to use—and you can check out our Big Guide to Contraception as well! Condoms are a really popular option, but vaginal condoms can also be used. Dental dams are a thin piece of plastic (basically a flat sheet of condom material) that can be useful for oral sex and rimming. PrEP might also be an option, although it’s important to remember that while it’s highly effective at preventing HIV infection, it doesn’t protect against other common STIs.
You should absolutely have a conversation with any sexual partners about the contraception and protection you use. Even if it’s as simple as, “I’ve got some condoms, is this brand okay with you?”, checking in with your partner about contraception is part of making sure you’re both consenting to the sex you’re about to have. If your partner isn’t so keen on using protection, we recommend speaking with them about why and asking them to explore some alternatives to the protection they normally use. If they’re worried condoms don’t feel great, have they tried vaginal condoms? If they can’t come with a condom on, is there another way they’d like to come that’s safe even without a condom? Don’t feel afraid to shut a partner down if they refuse to compromise, either—protection is a huge part of sexual health and safety, and your safety is not up for compromise. (And feel free to direct them to the Condom Challenge if they insist they’re ‘too big’ for condoms.)
To answer the common question of ‘who’s responsible for buying the contraception?’, we reckon it’s smart for everyone to keep a form of protection handy. Although it does make sense for the person who has the penis to be responsible for buying condoms for it, for example, it can’t hurt to keep a few on you just in case. The same thing goes for vaginal condoms, dental dams, and any other protection you can buy over-the-counter.
In regards to sexual hygiene before sex, you don’t have to go overboard: deep-cleaning your house before your partner comes over probably won’t be necessary! But we do recommend taking a shower, washing your body with soap, and your genitals with water. Both the penis and vulva can be irritated by soap, fragrances, douches, and sanitizer, so we recommend you avoid using these things. Douches are more commonly used for anal sex, but they can also strip the anus of its natural, healthy bacteria so we don’t really recommend them either. You can also clean up your room, put some fresh sheets on the bed, and have a towel handy if you think you’ll need it. Our Guide to Setting the Mood goes into more detail about how to freshen up your home before someone comes over!
Some forms of protection—like the pill, implanon, and PrEP—you don’t need to think about at all during sex. However barrier methods like condoms, dental dams, and vaginal condoms do need a little bit of thought in the moment to make sure you’re using them properly.
Although barrier methods are highly effective at preventing pregnancy and transmission of STIs, they only work as well as you use them. If there’s semen or vaginal fluid on the outside of the condom or dental dam, it can still get into your mouth, vagina, anus, or any other part of the body. Condoms, vaginal condoms, and dental dams can all rip and tear, so we recommend using them with lube, which will reduce friction and reduce the chance of tearing. Never use oil-based lube with Latex condoms, as this can increase the chances of the condom breaking. Water- and silicone-based lubes are fine, although silicone lubes should not be used with silicone toys.
If you’re having sex with multiple partners, or having anal sex, we highly recommend changing the condom before moving to another parter or another part of the body—bacteria from the anus, for example, can stick to the condom and be transferred into the vagina or mouth.
In terms of hygiene, sex can get messy—but that’s not usually a bad thing. If a condom breaks and semen or vaginal fluids get into your mouth, eye, vagina, or anus, you can rinse that area with water to flush the semen away, but it’s important to remember this does not reduce the chance of pregnancy or STIs.
Immediately after sex, you should remove the condom, vaginal condom, or dental dam you’ve been using and throw it away (not in the toilet!). You shouldn’t reuse condoms, so if you’ve ejaculated but want to go again, you need to change the condom.
You should also get up and pee shortly after finishing sex to lessen the chances of getting a urinary tract infection, or UTI. Our urethras are very close to our vaginas (and for men, the urethra is the same hole that ejaculate comes out of) and when fingers, mouths, or other genitals are going near our own genitals, bacteria can be transferred into the urethra. If it stays there, it can cause a UTI. UTIs are very common, but they can be painful and they can cause real problems if they’re not treated.
You should also clean off any toys or accessories you’ve been using. If you don’t have the energy to go to the sink and get your antibacterial soap out—or if you’re just enjoying the post-sex buzz too much to move—at least grab an antibacterial wipe or some toy cleaner and give your toys a quick once-over. Don’t throw them under the bed or in your bedside drawer, either—keep them in a safe, relatively air-tight container so they don’t pick up dust or bacteria.
What to do if you’ve messed up…
Accidents happen. Condoms can break and we can forget to take our pill. So what should you do if you’ve had sex without contraception or protection?
- Talk to the person you’ve had sex with. Let them know what happened, if they don’t already. “Hey, I realised the other night that I had forgotten to take my pill the weekend we had sex,” or, “It looks like the condom has ripped, let’s stop for a moment.”
- Develop a plan of action together. You might need to get emergency contraception or an STI test.
- Keep in touch. If you get an STI test and have a positive result, you should tell the person you had sex with—and any other recent sexual partners. A phone call or in-person conversation is best, but if that’s not an option for you an anonymous text message is better than nothing.
Can we ever stop having safer sex?
There are plenty of reasons why people stop using contraception and protection—in fact, it’s pretty common! People who are trying to get pregnant will stop using contraception, and people who are in a committed relationship might stop using barrier methods to protect against STIs. But there are a couple of things you should consider before you throw away the pill packet or get rid of the condoms:
- Have you had an STI test recently? If you and your partner have decided to stop using barrier methods that protect against STIs, we recommend getting one last check-up before you decide you’re in the clear. Just in case!
- Will you practice safer sex with other people? If your relationship isn’t monogamous, you should talk to your primary partner about what steps you’ll take to be safer when having sex with other people.
- What would you do if you got pregnant? Contraception is pretty reliable, but if you have a slip-up with the one you’re using—or you stop using it altogether—you may get pregnant. It’s worth discussing the possibility with your partner.
How can you keep practising good sexual hygiene? Even though you’ve stopped using protection, you should still make sure you clean and store your toys properly, continue peeing after sex, and avoid spreading bacteria from one part of the body to another (so if you’ve stopped using condoms for anal, you can still jump in the shower before switching to oral).