Sex and Risk Reduction

Keeping it wet, keeping it wild - Risk reduction practices

Latex barriers are the most effective way of reducing the chance of contracting an STI. However, there are ways of helping to reduce risk without using latex products. Risk reduction practices can include:
having a regular STI check;

  • not having sex when your immune system is compromised (e.g., when you have a cold)
  • ensuring that you do not have any cuts or abrasions on your mouth, hands or genitals;
  • keeping items for penetration (including hands) clean;
  • having short finger nails to avoid scratching during penetration or external genital stimulation;
  • finding out your partner’s sexual health history; and
  • making sure that DIY sex toys are safe by ensuring they are not brittle, do not have sharp edges and are able to be cleaned easily and often.

Information on ensuring that the sex you have is always consensual and how to effectively negotiate sex with a partner is covered in the emotional safety section of the site.

How smart is your sex?

Risk reduction, as the name would suggest, is an approach to safer sex based on preventative measures. It aims to reduce the risk of contracting Sexually Transmissible Infections (STIs), however it cannot eliminate that risk. The closest to risk elimination that is available is latex use. Risk reduction is not about latex – it is about everything else.

For fucking’s sake

A healthy body is less likely to get infections, even if it comes in contact with them. For this reason, safer sex means being physically well. There is an increased risk of getting an infection if you have one already; even though a middle ear infection (or any other type of illness) is not an STI, having one will put a strain on your immune system and makes you more susceptible to STIs.

Keeping yourself healthy by eating well, exercising regularly and taking time out for relaxation and fun will not only make you more likely to be having sex (you’ll feel and look good), but  you’ll also be having safer sex. The better shape your body is in, the better it can fight off infection – and the more enjoyment it can get out of sex!

Often STIs have no symptoms and can go unnoticed for extended periods of time. However, the majority of STIs are treatable, so having regular sexual health checks is an important safer sex measure. Having regular checks ensures that any infection can be diagnosed and treated before it does too much damage, or is transmitted to someone else. It not only enables you to know your status and make informed choices about your level of risk, but also allows your partner(s) to do the same. STI checks are available at your local Sexual Health Clinic, Community Health Centre or GP and can involve a urine test, vaginal swabs and/or a small blood test (what types of tests you have depends on what you want to be tested for).

Let’s go skin-ny dipping! – the skin

As well as being a central part of sensuality, your skin is one of the most effective barriers to infection. If skin is intact, infectious agents and viruses are less likely to be able to get into your body. So if your skin is without cuts or abrasions your risk of infection is significantly reduced. This is particularly true for the skin on those parts of your body that are likely to be in contact with bodily fluids (mouth, hands, vulva).

There are many skin-related smarter sex behaviours. Regularly moisturising your hands will reduce the chance that you have cracked skin on your hands. If you are unsure whether you have any cuts, try soaking your hands in water and having a look – cuts should be more obvious when the skin is moist. If you do have a cut placing water-proof band-aids on damaged skin can help reduce the risk of transmission. It is also important to be aware of cuts, and if there is a cut, to not use that particular part of your body during sex until the cut heals.

A Volvo driving vulva diver? – other body barriers

For other body areas, it is not enough for the surface to merely be intact. Having an ‘intact’ vagina, mouth or eyeball, for example, does not mean that a virus or infection cannot enter, because membranes on these body surfaces are far more permeable than skin. Risk reduction here may involve:

  • abstaining from genital contact with someone who has a sore or redness on their genitals;
  • not kissing or receiving oral sex from a woman with a sore on her mouth (especially a cold sore as oral herpes can be contracted on the genitals);
  • ensuring that you have short fingernails so that you do not scratch the other person unknowingly;
  • chewing gum rather than brushing your teeth before sex (small cuts in the mouth are a potential route into the blood stream); and
  • avoiding getting body fluids in the eyes (e.g., rubbing your eyes after your hands have been in contact with vaginal fluid).

Are you ready, randy and raring to go?

So your body is healthy and ready for sex. What about risk reduction in an actual encounter?

One of the easiest and most useful risk reduction techniques is cleanliness. This includes having clean hands (including under the fingernails) and clean sex toys.

Sex toys can be cleaned using a Sex Toy Cleaner (available from sex shops), or using an anti-bacterial soft handwash with warm water. Be careful not to use abrasive or harsh cleaning materials, as these may corrode the rubber (silicone, plastic, latex or other materials) that the toy is made out of. Alternately, you can keep your toys clean by placing a new condom over them before each use. This means that if you want to share toys you need to put a new condom on for each person.

It is also a good idea to remove batteries from toys when you are not using them – battery acid in the vagina or anus is not a pleasant sensation!

If you are planning to use DIY sex toys be sure that they are safe. All home made sex toys should not have any sharp edges and must be able to be cleaned easily and often. All objects that you plan to use for anal penetration must have a flared base to ensure that they can not get lost in the rectum.  Objects that are small and easily separated (eg. grapes) should be used with caution as they have also been known to get lost.

Keeping it wet, keeping it wild

Other smart sex activities include:

  • using lubricant to reduce the risk of abrasions;
  • using tampons when having sex during menstruation to reduce the risk of transmitting Blood Borne Viruses (HIV, Hepatitis B and C);
  • not giving oral sex while you have a cold sore (you may transfer oral herpes [cold sores] onto the genitals); and
  • taking off jewelry before genital contact.

“I can resist anything except temptation” – try me!

Safer sex is not just about behaviours, it is also about making informed decisions. Drugs and alcohol are often seen as an important social lubricant; unfortunately they sometimes lubricate you into a situation you otherwise would not want to be in. Moderating your use of drugs and alcohol allows you to be more aware when going into a sexual situation. This means that you can make a more active choice about the kind of sex you have. It also means that you can be more aware of bringing in safer sex practices and are better able to gauge the risks of a given situation.

Open communication is an essential part of risk reduction. If you know a person’s sexual health status, you can work out what level of risk you are prepared to take, and which safer sex measures to use. Also, by letting them know your sexual health status/history, you show them respect by allowing them to take the same amount of control. The more open the communication, the more informed the choice. It is important not to fall into the trap of assuming that knowing someone’s sexual history somehow, in and of itself, reduces risk - knowing history only helps if it changes behaviour!

Being in a monogamous relationship reduces the likelihood of getting an STI, simply by reducing the number of sexual partners. However this is only the case if both parties have no infections – repeated exposure to the same STI does not, through some magical means, stop the transmission of the infection. Monogamy is also only useful if both people stick to it.

Although covered in another section of this site, it is worth briefly mentioning that safer sex also involves emotional and mental safety. Emotional safety may include being aware of your own boundaries, checking in with a partner about consent or avoiding sexual contact when you may be emotionally vulnerable.