Q: For the past ten years, I have been in a committed relationship. Now I am single and dating again, and I am worried that I’m out of the loop when it comes to things like STDs. I used to think that condoms protected you from all STD risk, but my best friend says that’s not true. Who’s right?
A: Well, I am sorry to say, your friend is right. Condoms are an amazing way to protect yourself from sexually transmitted infections, or STIs (the more current term for sexually transmitted diseases) and unwanted pregnancy, but they are not foolproof. Even if you use one correctly every single time, you still have a chance of becoming pregnant or contracting an STI because condoms do not protect you from all STIs. For example, human papillomavirus (HPV), the most common STI, is spread through skin-on-skin contact and “shedding”; so even if you use a condom, you still are at risk of contracting the virus.
What should you do? First, be aware that abstinence is the best and only way to stay completely safe from the spread of STIs. Since most people wouldn’t select abstinence as a lifetime option, this isn’t always realistic. However, it is a good cautionary reminder that you should be careful when selecting sexual partners. Remember, there is no way to tell if someone has an STI simply by looking at him. Even rich, handsome, healthy people can have STIs…and some of them might not even know it. So don’t throw caution to the wind just because you are dating a guy who looks like a movie star; safer sex is a must no matter what the outer package looks like!
Second, talk to your partner about safer-sex practices before you become sexual. Don’t wait until you are already halfway undressed and already in the bedroom. Bring up the topic at a neutral time and place, and keep it lighthearted and even flirtatious. Say something like, “I love hanging out with you and I think we are headed to the next level. But before we get there, I want to make sure that we are both safe and responsible. When was the last time you were tested?” If he hasn’t been tested in a while and is intimidated by the idea, you can offer to come with him.
Third, talk about how you are going to manage your safer-sex goals and contraception. For example, are you going to use condoms as well as birth control pills? Do you both agree to be completely monogamous, or are you both free to see other people? All these issues should be discussed and understood so that you can be on the same page and be as safe as possible.
Last, don’t neglect safer-sex practices when it comes to oral sex. Many people don’t realize that you have to practice safer sex even during oral sex, as STIs such as herpes, HIV, and HPV can all be spread during these activities. Ask him to wear a condom during oral sex, and you can use a dental dam when receiving oral sex. Remember, anal sex counts as well: Always use condoms during anal sex, and if you are switching from anal to vaginal sex, switch to a new condom to prevent the spread of bacteria.
— Dr. Laura Berman