Practice safe sex

As a woman, you shouldn’t be afraid to take control of your sexual health and safety. Being prepared, being ready, and being safe are healthy and wise. Preventing getting or spreading sexually transmitted infections (STIs), such as HIV, gonorrhea, or syphilis, helps both you and your partners stay disease-free. Plus, smart use of birth control can help you avoid an unplanned pregnancy.

Birth control options are expanding. Today, daily pills, monthly injections, vaginal rings, and intrauterine devices are all options for preventing pregnancy if you are sexually active. Talk with your health care provider about your birth control options if you are or may become sexually active. At each yearly check-up, discuss your lifestyle changes and decide if your birth control option is still the right one for you. Also, if your birth control is causing unwanted side effects (such as dizziness or decreased sex drive), work with your doctor to find a birth control option that works better.

If you are sexually active or have been in the past, it’s important you are checked regularly for STIs. Some diseases that are contracted through sexual encounters do not cause significant symptoms or signs until several weeks, months, or even years after you’ve contracted them. By the time you find out you have the STI, you may have unknowingly shared it with someone. Likewise, a partner may unknowingly share an STI with you. That’s why you should be tested often. It’s the only way you’ll know for sure if you—and your partner who is tested with you—are clean. Your general practitioner can conduct the test. You can also visit your county’s department of health or a local family planning clinic. (1)

It might seem like trite advice, but the best way to prevent pregnancy and lower your risk for getting an STI is to use barrier protection correctly every time you have a sexual encounter. Male condoms are the most common form of protection. If your partner does not want to use a male condom, you can use a female condom. (More is not better—using both a male and female condom can cause one or both to break.) (1) If you or your partner is allergic to traditional latex condoms, polyurethane condoms are available. Also, natural condoms, often made from lambskin, can prevent pregnancy, but they do not protect against HIV or other STIs. You can purchase condoms at most any pharmacy or mass-market retailer. Your doctor’s office or local health department may offer free condoms. (1, 2, 3)

Be honest about your sexual past, your preferences, and your decision to practice safe sex. This way, you and your partner can communicate openly. It’s important that the two of you share your sexual histories so that you can find out about potential STIs or diseases. Some STIs are not curable; you will want to use protection to prevent receiving any incurable STIs from a partner. Also, discussing your past opens up the path to talk about testing for STIs.

You can contract STIs from vaginal, anal, and oral sex. The only way to be 100% sure you’ll prevent an unplanned pregnancy or an STI is to not have sex, or to abstain. Make a decision to abstain from sex until you’re emotionally and physically ready. Share this decision with any partners, too, as a way to keep yourself accountable. Sharing your decision to abstain from sex until you’re in a committed, monogamous relationship opens up channels for discussion with your partner and can help the two of you be more honest about your sexual health. (1, 2)

This fact is simple: The more people you are sexually involved with, the more likely you are to get an STI or to get pregnant. Limit your number of sexual partners. Each new partner brings a history of other sexual partners, sexual encounters, and potential infections. If you’re not in a monogamous relationship, being smart about your sexual encounters can help keep you safe.

Apart from abstinence, the best way to prevent contracting an STI is to be part of a long-term, one-partner relationship. As long as the two of you remain faithful to one another, you may reach a point in your relationship where you decide to have sex without barrier protection. (If one of you has an STI, you may want to continue using barrier protection, even if you’re monogamous, to prevent transmitting the infection.) However, this pact only works if both of you remain monogamous. If your partner begins having sexual encounters outside your relationship, you may contract STIs without knowing it. (2)

You can only get pregnant from vaginal sex, of course, but you can contract an STI from vaginal, anal, and oral sex. For that reason, protection is a must at any sexual encounter. Using male condoms or dental dams can help keep you from contracting an STI, such as HIV, during oral sex. Male condoms can also prevent sharing an STI during anal sex. Both female and male condoms are good for vaginal sex, but do not use them together.

Don’t be quick to use a douche or vaginal wash. These products can remove normal, healthy bacteria—bacteria that could actually help prevent an infection. If you use these washes frequently, you increase your risk of getting an STI.

Use a lubricant when you have sex. Condoms can tear or rip if you or your partner is not properly lubricated. Lubricants can also prevent skin tearing during sex. Open skin is an avenue for sharing STIs. Use water- or silicone-based lubricants, not oil-based lubricants. Oil-based lubricants can actually increase the risk of a condom tearing. Read all directions on the condom box to make sure you’re using it properly.

You and your partner may turn to sex toys as a way to add interest to your relationship. These devices cannot get you pregnant, but they can still spread STIs and other infections. Wash and sterilize any sex toys between uses. You can also use latex condoms on sex toys. This will help keep them clean and reduce the likelihood you’ll get an infection. Read the directions that come with the device to learn the best way to clean it. Different materials require different cleaning methods. (2)

Sex is not always the easiest topic to bring up with a new partner—or even a partner you’ve had for a while. It can be uncomfortable, but it’s important. Safe sexual practices keep you and your partner healthy. Before your first sexual encounter, it’s smart to have a discussion about your behaviors, preferences, history, and choices for protection. Being proactive about this talk helps prevent heat-of-the-moment decisions that can lead to long-term regrets.