Avoiding sexually transmitted infections
If you are sexually active there are ways of reducing your risk of acquiring sexually transmitted infections (STI), for example, genital herpes, HIV or chlamydia.
When used correctly and consistently, condoms in combination with water-based lubricant will reduce the risk of many STI during vaginal, anal or oral sex. Latex gloves also provide barrier protection for sexual activity involving fingers and dams can be used to protect against STI during oral sex. It is important to note that some STI can be transmitted by skin to skin contact from parts of the body not covered by condoms, dams or gloves. Like everything in life, sexual activity comes with a degree of risk, and while there are a lot of things we can do reduce risk, we cannot eliminate it completely. The only way to ensure zero risk of STI is to choose not to participate in any sexual activity.
Most common STI have no obvious symptoms and therefore it can be difficult to know whether you or your partner has an infection.
The only way to be sure whether you or your sexual partner has an STI is to get an STI check at your local sexual health clinic or GP (see the Sexual health services page for more information).
Unprotected sex in a relationship: negotiated safety
Many people in relationships wish to have sex without using condoms, dams or gloves.
A practice called 'negotiated safety' is a safer way for people in relationships to stop using condoms, dams or gloves while reducing the risk of STI. Negotiated safety is where both partners test negative for STI and mutually agree not to use condoms, dams or gloves as part of their sexual relationship.
Negotiated safety provides a safer context for unprotected vaginal, anal or oral sex, but for it to work three things are essential:
- Talking. Talk early and openly with your sexual partner and arrive at a mutual agreement about not using condoms, dams or gloves, and about the need to reduce the risk of STI. This is a good time to also discuss options around contraception and, if you think there might be a risk of HIV, the use of pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP).
- Testing. Test for STI at least three months after the last time you had unprotected sex with anyone, including your current sexual partner. Three months is usually enough time for most STI, but not all, to show up on a test. Talk to your doctor about the different incubation periods for other STI. Share your test results with your partner and if you and your sexual partner both have negative tests for STI, you can then consider having unprotected sex. Consideration of contraception is also important if there is a need to avoid unplanned pregnancy from vaginal sex.
- Trusting. Once you and your sexual partner have made an agreement to have unprotected sex this will mean having unprotected sex only with the sexual partner who has been tested and cleared of STI and with whom you have negotiated to have unprotected sex.
It is important to keep the conversation going around your sexual practices and sexual health, as you and your sexual partner may need to talk about reintroducing safer sex practices if either of you engage in unprotected sex outside of the relationship. If you or your partner has unprotected sex outside of your sexual relationship you will need to return to using condoms, dams and/or gloves for at least 3 months and then get tested again.
Contraception methods do not provide protection against any STI.
The only way to reduce the risk of both STI and unplanned pregnancy from vaginal sex is correct and consistent condom use.