It depends on who you’re asking.
The term’s often used interchangeably with dry humping, which is rubbing, grinding, and thrusting against someone so you’re going through the motions of intercourse without actual penetration.
People do it in varying stages of undress, and it’s all good.
Dry sex is also used to describe the act of intercourse with an unlubricated vagina. It’s done so the vagina feels tighter and increases friction — and supposedly pleasure — for the penis-having partner.
To achieve this effect, people insert things like chalk or sand into their vagina, or douche with caustic agents like detergent, antiseptic, and even alcohol and bleach.
There are also reports of people inserting dry cloths, paper, and leaves into the vagina.
Blame it on a combination of complex biological, economic, and cultural factors — and a lack of access to accurate sex education.
Older research shows that the practice of using vaginal drying agents to please a partner is more prevalent in parts of Africa but also happens in Saudi Arabia, Costa Rica, and Haiti. Other women report using drying agents to treat the symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection (STI).
The drying agents are used to not only tighten the vagina, but men in this study reported that vaginal wetness was considered an indicator of infidelity, STIs, the use of contraceptives, or the result of a curse or bad luck.
While there’s some risk with both, dry humping is a lot safer than dry intercourse for all parties.
Here’s the lowdown on what could go wrong with outercourse and dry intercourse.
Risks of dry humping
Dry humping is a form of outercourse, which to a lot of people is any sex act that doesn’t involve P-in-V sex or any kind of penetration, including fingering.
Because of this, dry humping is considered a low risk alternative to intercourse and other penetrative sex.
As for pregnancy, it’s not a matter of immaculate conception, but rather the possibility of semen dripping onto the vulva. The chances of getting pregnant this way are slim, but it isn’t impossible.
Risks of dry intercourse
The health risks associated with having dry penetrative sex are pretty extensive for both parties, but let’s start with the person with the vagina.
For starters, inserting any substance in the V can throw off pH levels, increasing the risk of vaginal infections.
And — not gonna lie — some agents used are capable of way more than just throwing off your pH.
Harsh chemicals and abrasives, like bleach, can cause a severe allergic reaction, skin irritation and peeling, and even chemical burns.
A study also linked douching with any solution other than water to an increased risk of abnormal cervical lesions.
As for penetration with little or no lube, sex can be painful for both partners and cause some serious irritation and even tearing.
This significantly increases the risk of different types of infections, including STIs like HIV.
Permanent damage to the vagina is also possible.
If you want to get your freak on sans penetration, there are a few things you can do to make it safer.
Keeping your clothes on can prevent skin-to-skin contact and also make pregnancy impossible, assuming you’re not engaging in actual penetration.
Just be mindful of what you’re wearing. Rough fabrics, zippers, and buckles aren’t a good idea.
They can also be used during oral and are good to keep on hand in the chance that you do decide to move to penetration at some point.
Two words: lubricant and condoms.
Vaginal lubricant is normal and actually meant to protect the vagina from irritation and infection.
It reduces friction, and that’s not a bad thing. Too much friction during penetrative sex is painful and risky for both parties.
Having enough lube makes penetration easier and way more pleasurable for all involved.
Condoms are the best way to reduce the risk of STIs and pregnancy.
While we’re on the subject of condoms — the friction from dry intercourse can cause a condom to break.
If you’re going to engage in penetration of any kind, make sure you’re relaxed, comfortable, and aroused. Have lube on hand, especially if you’re using sex toys, fingering, or having anal sex.
Mutual respect, trust, and communication are key when it comes to sex. You should be able to talk freely and openly with your partner about what you want and don’t want in and out of the bedroom.
You should never feel pressured into engaging in any kind of sex act that you’re not comfortable with.
That said, it’s natural to want to please someone you care about, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of your well-being.
If you feel comfortable doing so, try having an open and honest talk with them and be clear about where you stand and why.
Here are some tips for having the convo:
- Explain that it doesn’t feel good and that you’re worried about the risks involved for both of you.
- Let them know how being lubricated can make sex better for them and for you.
- Offer alternatives, like certain sex positions, that make the vagina feel tighter — as long as you’re OK with it.
- Share an article with them about the risks of dry penetration or have a healthcare provider explain it.
Your partner should never try to pressure you into doing anything that you’re not comfortable with.
Any type of sexual activity without clear consent, even if you’re in a committed relationship or married, is considered sexual assault.
If they continually insist or repeatedly ask you to do it until you eventually say yes, or guilt you into agreeing, it’s not consent — it’s coercion.
If you feel like this is what’s happening, reach out for support. You have a few options:
- Call your local emergency services if you feel you’re in immediate danger.
- Reach out to someone you trust and share what’s happening.
- Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or chat online with a trained worker.
Vaginal dryness and dry intercourse can cause painful symptoms, increase your risk of infections, and cause lasting damage.
See a doctor for STI testing if you’ve had sex without a barrier method.
Also, see a doctor if you experience any concerning symptoms after having unlubricated sex, such as:
- vaginal pain
- swollen vagina or vulva
- vaginal burning
- bleeding after sex
- unusual discharge
- vaginal itching
- vaginal cuts and tears
- genital sores
Your doctor can examine your vaginal walls for lacerations and prescribe treatment for damage caused during dry intercourse.
They can also recommend products that can help alleviate dryness, such as estrogen creams.
Dry humping and outercourse are low risk alternatives to intercourse that are pleasurable for both parties. Dry intercourse, not so much. It’s actually painful and can do some serious harm to the vagina and penis.
Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.