Anilingus. Cunnilingus. Mutual masturbation. Many nonpenetrative sex acts are *veryyy* much worth exploring from a pleasure perspective.
But many sex-havers engage in these sex acts under the assumption that sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can only be transmitted through penetration.
This myth results in many explorers thinking they’re being Safe™, when in fact they’ve put themselves in a position where STI transmission is, indeed, possible.
Confused? Concerned? Don’t be.
Below, experts explain exactly how an STI can be transmitted when a hole isn’t being penetrated. Plus, exactly what you need to know about STI testing.
STDs vs. STIs
Both acronyms refer to conditions that are primarily transmitted through sexual activity. STI stands for sexually transmitted infection, while STD stands for sexually transmitted disease.
Technically, a condition only qualifies as a disease if you have advanced symptoms, while the term infection applies if you don’t have any symptoms at all.
In everyday conversation and medical resources, the two terms are used interchangeably.
Sexually transmitted infectious particles don’t “hide” in the way back of your holes (e.g., mouth, anus, vagina).
Instead, these infectious particles can live on any internal or external skin or in bodily fluids, explains Dr. Felice Gersh, author of “PCOS SOS: A Gynecologist’s Lifeline To Naturally Restore Your Rhythms, Hormones, and Happiness.”
For this reason, “certain STIs can be spread anytime there’s skin-to-skin contact or when body fluids are spread,” she says.
Important: Not every STI can be passed on through contact with every single section of skin or every single bodily fluid.
What segments of skin or which bodily fluids can transmit the STI depends on the particular STI. It also depends on where the STI is located, or if it’s considered a full-body STI.
To be very clear, STIs aren’t weeds: They don’t simply sprout up out of nowhere.
For an STI to be transmitted, someone must be doing the transmitting. And for someone to do the transmitting, they must be STI-positive.
(And the only way to know if you’re STI-positive is to get tested, but more on that below).
According to Gersh, depending on what the STI is and where it’s located, an STI could be transmitted during any sexual activity that involves the following:
- the mouth, lips, throat, or saliva
- blood or breast milk
- vaginal fluid, pre-ejaculation (pre-cum), semen, or anal secretions
- the internal anal canal, anal entrance, or perineum
- the vaginal canal, vulva, penis, or testicles
That means that, in theory, an STI can be transmitted during any of the following sex acts:
Anything that involves the ingestion of, exposure to, or swapping of bodily fluids could result in the transmission of infection.
- platonic mouth kissing
- getting a tattoo or piercing
- sharing sex toys that haven’t been cleaned
- getting a blood transfusion
- sharing needles
- breastfeeding or chestfeeding
- giving birth
However, most of the fearmongering around nonsexual STI transmissions — for instance, that you can get an STI from a toilet seat, hot tub, or public pool — is *not* based in science under most conditions.
STIs generally cannot exist outside the homeyness of the body’s mucosal membranes for very long. And all the chemicals in pools and hot tubs kill off any infectious agents.
Before we answer this question, let’s talk about the word ‘dormant’ real quick. Most doctors don’t use it anymore, according to Gersh.
“The concept of a dormant STI isn’t helpful,” she says. “It’s predicated on the idea that you can have an STI that just isn’t doing anything in your body.”
The words doctors like to use instead are “asymptomatic” or “latent.”
An asymptomatic STI occurs when someone isn’t currently experiencing symptoms that they can feel, see, or smell. According to the
“It’s possible to have an STI, not be experiencing symptoms, and still transmit it to someone else,” Gersh explains.
“It’s also possible to have an STI, not be experiencing symptoms that you can feel or see, and still have it be doing something to your body,” she says.
For example, someone can have human papillomavirus (HPV), not be experiencing any symptoms, but still have the cellular makeup of their cervix altered by the virus.
You can also have an STI, not be experiencing symptoms now, but begin experiencing symptoms later.
An STI cannot be detected by an STI test immediately after exposure.
The STI can’t be detected because it hasn’t been in the body long enough for the body to develop antibodies in response to it, which is what most STI tests are looking for.
But as Gersh says, “It’s good practice to get STI tested before every new partner.”
Why? Because that’s the only way to know your current STI status and to reduce the risk of transmission.
The incubation period is the amount of time between when someone contracts an STI and when they test positive for that STI on a test.
If you get tested for an STI during its incubation period the test will come back negative. “The incubation period is different for every single STI,” Gersh says. “It ranges from anywhere between 2 days and 3 months.”
|genital herpes||2–12 days|
|hepatitis A||15–50 days|
|hepatitis B||8–22 weeks|
|hepatitis C||2–26 weeks|
|HPV||1 month–10 years (depending on type)|
|oral herpes||2–12 days|
|syphilis||3 weeks–20 years (depending on type)|
This means that, if you have unprotected sex with someone, the move actually isn’t to get tested the next day, she says.
“That test will tell you if you were exposed to any STIs prior to having sex with that person,” Gersh explains. “But the test will not tell you if that person exposed you to any STIs.”
If you had unprotected sex, Gersh recommends getting tested after 2 weeks and then again 2 weeks later.
Some may use the phrase “unprotected sex” to refer to bareback penis-in-vagina intercourse. But here, we’re using it to refer to any sex that took place without a barrier method.
That includes any sex that happened with a broken condom, expired condom, or other condom mishaps.
If you’ve never been screened before and want to, congratulations on deciding to take your sexual health into your own hands. Seriously, the importance of this step can’t be overstated!
Start by finding a testing center near you by checking out this STI testing center guide. Before you head to the testing spot, make sure they test for all the STIs you’re interested in getting tested for. Some clinics only test for HIV, for example.
When you get there, be sure to ask explicitly for all the STIs you want to get tested for, especially if you want to be tested for oral or anal STIs.
Most testing centers only test for genital gonorrhea, genital chlamydia, HIV, and syphilis unless asked otherwise, Gersh notes.
It *is* possible to contract or transmit an STI without having penetrative sex. The best way to protect yourself and your partner(s) from transmission is for everyone to know their current STI status.
Gabrielle Kassel (she/her) is a queer sex educator and wellness journalist who is committed to helping people feel the best they can in their bodies. In addition to Healthline, her work has appeared in publications such as Shape, Cosmopolitan, Well+Good, Health, Self, Women’s Health, Greatist, and more! In her free time, Gabrielle can be found coaching CrossFit, reviewing pleasure products, hiking with her border collie, or recording episodes of the podcast she co-hosts called Bad In Bed. Follow her on Instagram @Gabriellekassel.