Everything You Need to Know About Having Safe Sex

You know unprotected sex is a bad idea. You’ve heard it a million times — from your parents, from your teachers, even from us — but it’s still easy to brush off the risks and assume those worst-case scenarios will never actually happen to you.

But the stats are pretty scary:

• DoSomething.org reports that 3 in 10 teenage girls in the U.S. will become pregnant at least once before they turn 20.
• According to the CDC, 20 million new cases of sexually transmitted infections are diagnosed each year — and about half of those occur in people between the ages of 15 and 24.
• Among sexually active high school students in the U.S., only about half reported using a condom the last time they had sex.

…so safe sex needs to be on your radar. Here’s what you need to know.

1. “Safe sex” isn’t just about birth control.

Obviously preventing pregnancy is important, but it’s not the only thing you need to consider when it comes to safe sex.

“Safe sex includes getting tested for STIs, preventing STIs, preventing unintended pregnancy, and making sure all parties have good communication and provide enthusiastic consent,” says Sheree Anderson, the Time for Your Teen coordinator at Planned Parenthood of South, East, and North Florida.

And not to sound like a preachy sex-ed teacher, but abstinence is really the only 100% safe bet — so when we talk about “safe sex,” we’re really talking about making sex safer for you and your partner.

2. You’re more at-risk than you realize.

One of the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to safe sex is assuming the rules only apply to penis-to-vag intercourse. But if you’re doing anything even remotely sexual with anyone at all, you should be taking steps to protect yourself.

“Safe sex means condom use during vaginal or anal intercourse and oral sex,” says Sherry Ross, MD, an OB/GYN, board member at Planned Parenthood LA, and author of She-ology. Sexually transmitted infections like HPV, chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis can be transmitted through any genital contact, so don’t slack on safe sex just because you’re doing “everything but” — you still need to use a condom or dental dam to protect yourself.

Ross also notes that many people are super-careful at first, then get a little lax once they’re comfortable with their partner — but it’s important to use protection every single time, even if you’ve been with the same person for-literally-ever.

3. Most birth control methods won’t protect you from STIs.

Male condoms, female condoms, and dental dams can help prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections. That’s it. Full stop. If you’re using a method of birth control not mentioned here, you’re still at risk.

“Birth control methods like the pill, IUDs, the shot, the patch, implants, and the vaginal ring do not protect against sexually transmitted infections,” says Courtney Pierce, Community Health Educator, Planned Parenthood of South, East and North Florida. “While they are effective for pregnancy prevention, you should definitely use condoms or a barrier method as well to prevent getting an STI.”

4. You NEED to talk to your partner about safe sex.

Yeah, it’s going to be an awkward convo. But if you’re planning to be intimate with someone, you should trust them enough to talk openly about your sexual history, your boundaries, whether you’ve both been tested for STIs, how you plan to stay protected, and who’s in charge of the condom-shopping.

“This conversation should happen even before foreplay occurs to make sure both parties have the same expectations,” Pierce says — but even if you find yourself in a steamy sitch unexpectedly, it’s never too late to call a time-out and talk about protection.

5. Condoms aren’t foolproof.

Condoms go a long way in cutting your risk, but they’re not indestructible. “Make sure the expiration date of the condom has not expired, and avoid petroleum jelly, baby oil, or other lotions that can break down latex condoms,” Ross says. Store condoms away from heat, and make sure they’re the right fit — if you’re using male condoms, they should cover the entire penis, because HPV can appear anywhere along the shaft.

6. Keep your gyno in the loop.

STI symptoms aren’t always obvious, so you need to let your gyno know if you’re sexually active — or if you plan to be — so she can test you for sexually transmitted infections and help you choose the best method of protection. (This may feel like another awkward conversation waiting to happen, but your gyno should never judge you for requesting an STI test.)

If for any reason you don’t feel like you can make a gyno appointment for this, you can always contact a local health center or use the free online chat feature on the Planned Parenthood website.

“The best way to make sure you’re having safer sex is to be your own advocate,” Anderson says. “Make sure you’re educated when it comes to your sexual health, and ask your doctor any questions you may have — everything you discuss with a health professional is completely confidential.”

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