Knowing how to protect yourself from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections is essential to your sexual health.
There is no way to have 100% risk-free sex, however, there are many steps you can take to substantially reduce your risks. Getting tested, using condoms and other barrier methods correctly, using birth control, and getting immunized against vaccine-preventable STIs are all ways to have safer sex.
What is “safer sex?"
While sex is never 100% safe, it can be made much safer by using the strategies described below. You should aim for consistent safer sex, but don't let one slip-up throw you off. Instead, just make sure you practice safer sex next time. Remember that alcohol and other drugs can impair your judgment, and plan accordingly.
- Use condoms every time you have vaginal or anal intercourse. Make sure you know how to use them properly.
- Use condoms for oral sex on a man, and dental dams or other barriers for oral-vaginal and oral-anal sex.
- Use condoms on sex toys, especially if used by more than one person or penetrating at more than one site (e.g. anus to vagina).
- Use water-based or silicone-based lubricant with condoms. Lubricant increases sensation and helps to prevent STIs by decreasing friction. Never use oil-based products with latex.
- Never reuse condoms, dental dams, or other barriers.
Learn more: STI Prevention
Condoms – What? When? Where? How?
Condoms are barrier methods that prevent the deposit of sperm and other body fluids into the orifice from being penetrated during penis-vagina, penis-anus, or penis-mouth sex. Condoms are the only contraceptive method that also protect against STIs, with the exception of animal skin condoms, which do not offer such protection.
Two types of condoms are currently available:
- External condoms consist of a thin sheath of latex or polyurethane worn on the penis, but may also be worn on a sex toy or phallus-shaped object. With perfect use, a traditional condom is 98% effective at preventing pregnancy; with typical use, it is 85% effective.
- Internal condoms are used for vaginas, but they can also be used for penis/toy-anus, penis/toy-vagina sex. Insertive condoms are made of nitrile, making them a great option for anyone with a latex sensitivity or allergy. They are 95% effective for preventing pregnancy with perfect use, and 79% effective with typical use.
Condoms can be a sexy adventure for you and your partner. Try them in a variety of materials, sizes, colors, textures, and flavors! (Flavored condoms are for mouth-to-penis/toy play, and are not recommended for vaginal or anal penetration.)
There are several sexually transmitted infections that can be safely and effectively prevented prior to exposure by the use of vaccines. These vaccine-preventable STIs include Human Papilloma Virus (HPV) and viral hepatitis (types A and B).
HPV vaccination (Gardasil) is recommended for everyone between the ages of 9-26, and can be used to prevent genital warts, cervical cancer, and other HPV-associated cancers. It is most effective when administered prior to becoming sexually active for the first time.
Hepatitis B vaccination is recommended for everyone and is often administered in infancy. This vaccine effectively prevents the Hepatitis B virus, which can be passed through sexual contact (as well as other types of contact, such as during childbirth) and is associated with chronic liver disease, cirrhosis, and liver cancer. Immunization against HBV is required to enroll as a student at the University of California.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve been vaccinated against HBV, a clinician can order a blood test called a HBV titer to help decide whether you should start the vaccine series or not.
Hepatitis A vaccination is recommended for all men who have sex with men, as well as several other higher-risk populations. The Hepatitis A vaccine effectively prevents the Hepatitis A virus, which can cause an acute infection of the liver resulting in fever, nausea, jaundice, abdominal pain and, rarely, liver failure and death.
Meningococcal vaccination is now being recommended for certain groups of men who have sex with men from New York City or Los Angeles county, in addition to current guidelines calling for immunization of all adolescents and first-year college students living in residence halls.
Meningococcal infection is passed through inhalation or intimate contact with secretions from the mouth, nose or throat. Early symptoms of meningococcal meningitis include fever, headache, stiff neck, and confusion, and can be fatal if untreated.
Contraception and Emergency Contraception (EC)
Contraception is a medical term for pregnancy prevention and is commonly referred to as birth control. Many sexually active college students do not intend to become pregnant. However, 85% of women will become pregnant within a year if they have penis-vagina sex without using any type of birth control method. Fortunately, there are a variety of hormonal and nonhormonal birth control methods available. Every method has advantages and disadvantages, and what the “best” method is will vary by person and situation.
You should also consider keeping emergency contraception, or Plan B, on hand in case your plan A method fails (e.g. you forgot a pill, were late inserting a NuvaRing or applying a patch, the condom broke, slipped, or was not used for whatever reason).
- Contraception and family planning services at Tang
- Visit Bedsider.org for more information on available birth control, including great questions to help you decide if it's right for you.
- Free health and wellness education sessions. Schedule a one-on-one appointment with an experienced health educator to discuss birth control options in greater detail, as well as any other general sexual health concerns you might have
HIV Prevention: PEP and PrEP
PEP and PrEP are terms used to describe several ways in which people who are currently HIV-negative, and who are at higher risk for HIV infection, can use anti-HIV medication to prevent infection with the HIV virus.
PEP (Post-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a term used to describe taking anti-HIV medication AFTER a specific high-risk exposure to HIV - for example, after engaging in anal sex without a condom (or if the condom slips or breaks) - with a partner who is HIV+, or whose HIV status is unknown.
PEP must be initiated within 72 hours of high-risk exposure to be effective at preventing HIV. If you suspect that you have recently been exposed to HIV, it’s important to talk to a healthcare provider (either a clinician here at UHS or a provider at a local emergency room or an outside clinic) about PEP as soon as possible.
PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis) is a term used to describe taking anti-HIV medication every day to prevent HIV infection, taken by HIV-negative persons who are at high risk of infection. Used together with other HIV risk reduction approaches, including consistent condom use, PrEP can significantly reduce the risk of HIV infection.
If you’re interested in learning more about whether PrEP might be right for you, please schedule an appointment with a UHS clinician.