Say the phrase “safer sex” and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Condoms. Of course. But condoms are far from the only thing that makes a sexual act “safer.” You see, safe sex is like safe driving. No matter how safe you play it, there’s still a risk. That’s why it is always said that the only 100% guarantee against getting an STD (sexually transmitted disease) is abstinence. But, then, even though driving is not 100% insured against an accident happening, most people still drive. So unless you are going to stop having sex, it really is a question of doing what you can to be safer.
Even when using a condom, you can still pass certain STDs in other ways. Or the condom can fall off or break. Or sexual fluids can get on the other person and serve as a transmission pathway for certain STDs – chlamydia is incredibly easy to spread, for example, and herpes and HPV are sometimes still able to pass even when condoms are used. But all this does not change the fact that condoms are still the most obvious way out there to reduce risks while having sex. This is well-known and documented. What is very little talked about, however, are the myriad of other sexual choices we have, and how such choices can also make us much safer in our sexual activity.
Some of the more obvious choices we have (but are not always conscious of) include:
- Sex with a condom vs. without one (as mentioned above).
- Sex with a stranger vs. someone you know well and trust (of course the stranger is a wild card; you don’t know really anything about them).
- Sex while sober and alert vs. sex while drunk, tired, or otherwise partially incapacitated (we tend to make better decisions when our mind is all there).
But then, there are a great deal of other factors involving things most people likely have little to no conscious awareness of, in regards to safer sex. Here below are some of those risk factors – to be applied to you, as well as to any potential partners you may have:
1. How eager the person behaves regarding the riskier parts of sex with someone they do not know well. Of course, it’s only human to want to plunge into sexual ecstasy in a heated moment – but desire and behavior are two different things. Behavior that is too eager means higher risk – because even if partner A is able to keep partner B’s behavior in line this time, that very well might not be what has happened with partner B’s past encounters – which makes those encounters higher-risk. Be especially mindful of resistance to requests to slow down a bit – not a good sign.
2. Eagerness to talk about safety and protection is a good thing; in addition to being a practice common to people who tend to play safer, it’s rather comforting to know that someone is taking this kind of care of themselves. Extra points to folks who bring up protecting for oral sex with condoms and dental dams – however inconvenient it might be to think about a mouthful of artificial rubber / plastic, unprotected oral sex still presents STD risk, and thus it is a valid place to talk about protection. And don’t be afraid to ask someone to get tested, either. Whatever is agreed on is the business of those agreeing on it – but taking the initiative to have this talk is definitely a hallmark of safer behavior.
3. Whether the person brings condoms to the encounter (if a penis will possibly be involved). That’s called being prepared, and it’s pretty likely that somebody who does that is at least minimally careful. Who is responsible for bringing the condoms? Both participants are responsible, that’s who. If you happen not to have them on you at an unexpected moment, ok, no biggie, buy some – but having them ready beforehand definitely earns a point or two for safety. Better yet if you’re carrying more than one or two condoms; that means you’re even more serious, cause many times you will find yourself needing more than one or even two…
4. Resistance to taking safety measures like using condoms indicates significantly higher risk. I’m talking about the person who says “aw come on, do we have to use a condom?” – especially if they bring it up repeatedly. These people are higher risk for two reasons – first of all because they very likely have a pattern of negotiating for unprotected sex with past partners, but also because someone who doesn’t really care that much about protection is more likely to not use such protection correctly; I knew of someone who did this with a friend of mine, and sure enough, the last time they had sex, oops! The condom just “fell off” and he kept going and ejaculated inside of her unprotected (later claiming “he didn’t know” it had fallen off). I am pretty certain that the condom was not put on securely to begin with, and whether or not he deliberately put the condom on wrong, his negative attitude toward using a condom definitely contributed to this “accident.”
5. Dishonesty of any sort is a big indicator of higher risk – even if it’s about something totally unrelated. Patterns of dishonesty tend to get stronger, not weaker, as the stakes get higher – and sex can involve some pretty high stakes. You wouldn’t trust a surgeon with ulterior motives to tinker with your most intimate parts – so why trust any other dishonest person to do such a thing?
6. Lack of openness can also indicate potentially higher risk. Even when a person is not actually dishonest, how open are they? Does it feel like pulling teeth to have key conversations with them? True, there may be times when a person doesn’t really want to talk – but does it happen like this all the time? Folks who don’t open up can often develop a mental mechanism that “forgets,” or deprioritizes, those important things that aren’t exactly easy to deal with. Like the fact that the last person they slept with, ummmm, had some funny symptoms down there, or something like that…
7. Lack of coherent recollection of one’s past sexual activity is a sign of higher-risk behavior. Maybe you and your partner don’t need to know all about each other’s sexual pasts – but the fact is, the more partners one has had, especially if it’s in a short period of time, the higher the possibilities are mathematically that this person has been exposed to someone with an STD. If a person can explain in what ways they protected themself and in what ways they didn’t for specific sexual encounters / relationships with specific people, this gives much clearer info to work with than if the person were to say “well, most of the time I’ve used condoms.” Which one would you feel safer with?
8. Difficulty recognizing, respecting, and agreeing on boundaries – of any kind – is a red flag. Just because somebody consents to make out without any clothes on, for example, does not mean necessarily that they have consented to any other specific sex acts. The boundary-pusher, however, is likely not to respect the way you view and want things; you know, the kind of person that you have to keep reminding over and over again where the line is drawn? I certainly would not count on someone like that to be a partner in mutual safety.
9. Passive-aggressive behavior, including attitudes that try to guilt-trip or shame another person into doing something, goes hand-in-hand with dishonesty and not respecting boundaries. It’s a manipulative, coercive style of behavior that has no place in safe interaction.
10. Addictive behavior can certainly indicate higher risk, especially if that behavior involves a substance of some sort. Addictive habits are more serious than simple habits because the premise is that the compulsion to indulge in the habit outweighs any wiser judgment a person might have. No matter how safe a person is when not engaging in the addiction, all that is out the window once the addiction takes hold, and patterns of addiction can often spread from one habit to other areas of a person’s life.
11. High-risk behavior in other areas of life, which is often a clue into how much attention a person may be paying to safety in any environment. One sometimes key distinction is how much the person has thought through the risks they take, and their effect on people around the person. It shows maturity and attention to potential risk when such a person makes sure to protect such people from any of the potential consequences of their risk-taking. People who engage in risky activity without a lot of forethought, however, are much less likely to even be aware of how to keep others from suffering the consequences of their risky actions. Not the type of person you want to count on as a partner in safer sex.
12. General stubbornness, closed-mindedness, and refusal to listen well tells you a lot about somebody – don’t expect to be able to have difficult conversations about risks with somebody like this, even if they seem to agree with you for now on everything. You never know when they’ll flip on you and shut you out if you need to bring up an important, sensitive issue – a risky reality indeed.
13. Strong feelings of jealousy, when not worked on and talked out, are signs of possible danger. There’s nothing wrong with feeling jealous sometimes – feelings happen, and there’s nothing you can do but feel them and learn the lessons they are trying to teach you (more on that here). But when a sudden jealous sentiment is permitted to grow into a full-blown jealous mindset that is always lying in the background, watch out. The reason for the danger is that the background of a consistently jealous mindset is “you should not have things that I want but don’t have.” Jealous-minded people often see injustice when their partner enjoys something that they are not a part of, and those who are unwilling to look at themselves and work on their jealous ways… often find other not-so-safe ways of “evening the score,” if you know what I mean.
14. An imbalance of responsibility is a warning sign. This goes both ways – as much when a person wants all the responsibility as when a person tries to avoid the responsibility. If the responsibility is thought to lie with only one of the participants, that often demotivates the other person from keeping their head in the game and taking initiatives to make sure everyone is on the same page. Waiting for the other person to bring up things that need to be talked about, or feeling as though it’s your job to “pull teeth” to extract the other person’s thought process, greatly increases the chances that safety issues will get passed over. There are of course Dominant/submissive relationships in kinky or BDSM situations, but even then the submissive partner must take responsibility for making their limits clear at the outset in order for such an interaction to work well.
15. Remember that “safer sex” does not just apply to STD prevention. It’s also an issue of looking out for your partner’s best interests and maintaining good communication – making sure one’s partner feels safe. It’s a grave error in today’s thinking to restrict “safer sex” to merely guarding against STDs.
Basically, in one sentence, the summary for all this is that for safer sex, you should find people who also want to do what it takes to be safe. That makes things a whole lot less high-risk. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s up to you and your partner whether to go forward or not – many people that are low-risk will not meet all of these criteria, and that’s fine. But at the very least, you should have a perspective that lets you be as aware as possible of the nature of your choices.
Follow-up post: The real meaning of “safer sex.”