Let’s Talk About Queer Safe Sex
Many queer folks did not receive adequate safe sex education in high school. A somewhat recent GLSEN report found that less than 5% of students attended health classes that included LGBTQ+ topics.
Many people can live with STDs/STIs and still have fruitful lives (and sex lives!), but if we can prevent the spread — why not?
Consent: This is a big one – everyone involved in sex should want to be involved. This means making sure that you want to have sex and your sexual partner(s) do too. Consent starts with a “yes” and continues throughout the sexual encounter via checking in with yourself and your partner(s) by asking, “Is this okay?” or any iteration of that. Most importantly, remember that you or your partner(s) can change your minds at any given time. If this happens, you need to stop.
Pro tip: talk about what your partner(s) like in bed and what their aftercare looks like before going to bed with them. Opening up the door for this conversation can lead to a better understanding of each other and ultimately, a better sexual experience.
Penis Condoms: Penis condoms, sometimes referred to as “male condoms,” are typically a thin latex sheath that is placed over the penis and is used to prevent the spread of STDs/STIs and unwanted pregnancies.
Note: people who are taking testosterone can still get pregnant – use a condom if your sexual partner has a penis to avoid any unwanted pregnancies. People who are on estrogen can still accidentally impregnate someone – use a condom if your partner has a vagina.
Internal condoms (sometimes referred to as “female” condoms) work by inserting it inside of the vagina or anus (opposed to an external condom which goes on the outside of a penis). Anyone with a vagina or anus can use these and using these are a great way to prevent STDs/STIs or unwanted pregnancies.
Internal condoms are hard to find; however, some sex stores will have them. Bluestockings Cooperative in Manhattan actually has a bowl of free internal condoms, along with other condoms, at the front of the store. Internal condoms can be found at health departments and reproductive/family planning non-profits. If you’re able and have access to medical care, you can ask your doctor for them. They are also available for purchase online.
Dental dams are thin latex squares or soft plastic that are placed over the vulva or anus to prevent STDs/STIs during oral sex. To use a dental dam, you place it over the vulva/anus and hold it in place while engaging in oral sex.
They work, if used correctly, by keeping anal or vaginal fluids from getting in your mouth and help prevent anal/vulva-to-face contact. This is especially critical as there is a rise in antibiotic-resistant Shigella cases.
Shigella is a bacteria that causes gut infection that can lead to hospitalization or worse, die from it. People can contract Shigella from fecal matter to oral contact (poop in your mouth) or eating contaminated food. In the U.S., there are approximately 450,000 cases per year.
It is recommended that even with a dental dam, you should avoid performing oral sex if you have a cut or sore on your mouth and lips. While using a dental dam does decrease the risk of passing on any bacteria to your partner or yourself, it’s best to err on the side of caution.
Dental dams are tricky to find; however, most sex stores (at least, queer sex stores) should have them in stock. Please check out your local black-owned, female-owned or queer-owned sex shop. They are also available online.
Some infections can be passed from one person to another through hands and fingers. To avoid this, it is recommended to wear a latex glove when stimulating your partner’s anus or vagina or inserting your fingers/hand inside your partner’s anus or vagina.
Luckily, latex and nylon gloves can be purchased at pharmacies, grocery stores, online and some convenience stores. You can even buy a big box of them and store under your bed for the future.
When using sex toys, they should be washed with soap and warm water before and after use. This can prevent spreading STDs/STIs and other bacterial infections. If you choose to use a sex toy on more than one partner, it’s recommended to use a condom over the dildo or phalic vibrator. It is also recommended to change the condom when switching to a different part of the body (i.e. vagina to anus, anus to vagina, one vagina to another, one anus to another, and any other combination in between).
If you have a vagina, you do not and should not douche – the vagina cleans itself and by douching, you can throw off the PH balance of the vagina and cause irritation.
According to the U.S. Office on Women's Health, "In the United States, almost one in five women 15 to 44 years old douche. Doctors recommend that you do not douche. Douching can lead to many health problems, including problems getting pregnant. Douching is also linked to vaginal infections and sexually transmitted infections (STIs)."
Vaccines: HPV, hepatitis A, and hepatitis B are the only vaccines; however, an HIV vaccine is in the works. Moderna, the same company who has worked on rolling out COVID-19 vaccines, has started human clinical trials for an mRNA HIV vaccine (story to come).
Preventative medication: medication like pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) can reduce the risk of contracting HIV when taken properly. See: FDA Approves Injectable PrEP
Okay, so you did everything you could and you think you may have an STD/STI.
Symptoms of STDs/STIs to look out for:
Chlamydia and gonorrhea: typically no symptoms in people who have vagina; however, an untreated infection can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, infection of the fallopian tubes and infertility. Those who do have symptoms (both vagina and penis) may experience pain when peeing or discharge. Those who have testicles may feel tenderness in the general area.
Genital Herpes: this is a very common STD/STI that causes painful blisters and ulcers around the vaginal area, anus or mouth. The CDC estimates that approximately 776,000 people per year contract genital herpes.
Genital Warts: fleshy bumps or growths around the genit al region. These are generally painless but can be itchy.
Hepatitis A: a liver infection that spreads from contact with poop that has the Hepatitis A virus in it. Symptoms include feeling tired and nauseous.
Hepatitis B: a virus spread through blood or bodily fluids. Most people who contract Hepatitis B will not have any symptoms and their body will fight off the infection on its own.
Hepatitis C: a viral infection that damages the liver and is contracted through contact with blood. Most people do not have symptoms but those who do may feel flu-like symptoms, tiredness, loss of appetite or stomach ache.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV): a virus that attack's the body's immune system and if not treated, can lead to Acquired Immunodeficiency Disease Syndrome (AIDS). HIV, in conjunction with treatment, can be controlled. There is currently a HIV vaccine in the making.
Non-specific urethritis (NSU): a bacteria that causes the urethra to become inflamed.
Public lice (“Crabs”): small, parasitic insects that spread through bodily contact, sharing clothes or bedding with a person who has public lice. Symptoms include itchiness and a rash.
Scabies: an infection that is caused by small mites that dig under the skin. Symptoms include intense itchiness and a rash, which typically show up around two weeks after having sex with someone who has scabies.
Shigella: often mistaken for food poisoning (which it can be - people can get shigella from contaminated food) with symptoms that include severe stomach cramps and diarrhea. Shigella can typically be treated with antibiotics but there has been a rise in antibiotic-resistent shigella, which is why it’s important to practice safe sex and visit restaurants that handle food prep properly.
Syphilis: a painless ulcer in the genital area that will typically resolve on its own. Other symptoms include a body rash and swollen glands. If left untreated, the bacterial infection can progress and lead to nerve and organ damage.
Trichomoniasis: frothy or smelly discharge, pain when peeing, vulval soreness and sometimes.
Last, but not least... get tested and do it often. Local LGBTQ+ centers will have information on where you can get tested for STDs/STIs.
For even more information, refer to the following resources:
“How Race and Religion Shape Millennial Attitudes On Sexuality and Reproductive Health” by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox
Understanding Consent by the American Sexual Health Association
Editor's note: this is not a full list of safe sex practices and information is subject to change as technology develops and viruses/bacterias mutate.