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Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

Safe Sex: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You And Your Partner

Safe sex is more than a physical act. It involves the decision to have sex in a responsible way to avoid becoming infected with or transmitting a sexually transmitted disease (STD).

In the United States, an estimated 15.3 million new cases of STDs are reported each year. STDs do not discriminate by gender, age, ethnic group or economic background.

The most reliable way to avoid joining those numbers is not to have sex, also known as abstinence.

For most people, however, abstinence is not an option or lifelong goal. When this is the case, sexually active people must rely on "safe sex" practices.

  • Talk with your partner before the passion of intimacy distracts you from asking important health-saving questions.
  • You owe it to yourself and your partner/s to learn as much about STD symptoms as possible.
  • Don't have sex if you have genital sores, warts, itching or sores in your mouth.
  • Avoid any exchange of bodily fluids such as semen, vaginal secretions or blood during sex (anal, oral or vaginal).
  • See your doctor to get checked for STDs if you have any concerns about your risk or that of your partner(s).

Although people in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with an uninfected partner have a very low risk of STDs, infections may sometimes be passed from partner to partner unknowingly. So make sure you are always prepared.

No matter the form of intercourse, remember, safe sex always requires thinking and preparing before acting.

If you practice: Then:
Vaginal Sex

Use a condom every time you have sex, unless you have only one partner and you both have been tested for STDs. Latex condoms offer the best protection against STDs. Learn to use them correctly. Use a new condom for each individual act.

Oral Sex
to a Male

Use a condom for each act, unless you have only one partner and you both have been tested for STDs. Latex condoms offer the best protection against STDs. Learn to use them correctly. Infections that can be transmitted by oral sex include herpes, gonorrhea, syphilis, chlamydia, some forms of hepatitis and HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

It is possible to transmit herpes during kissing, oral-genital sex, or skin contact between an open sore and broken skin. It is also possible to transmit gonorrhea to the throat during oral sex.

Oral Sex
to a Female

Use a dental dam, a thin sheet of latex placed over the vagina, clitoris and anus prior to oral sex. Female condoms, also known as "intravaginal pouches" or "vaginal condoms," are made of polyurethane and cover the vaginal walls, cervix and a small portion of the external genitalia. They are useful but do not cover as broad an area as the dental dam.

Protection against infection using these devices depends on proper placement and consistent use.

Anal Sex

Always use a condom for each act of intercourse. Latex condoms offer the best protection against STDs. Learn to use them correctly.Use a new condom for each individual act.

Last updated March 23, 2008




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