Last Updated on June 4, 2020 by Saurabh Sethi, MD, MPH
When you think about girl sex, the first thing that comes to mind is not usually your potential for risk or needing to practice safer sex.
In some ways, that makes sense: unplanned pregnancies are not a concern when you’re a girl who’s enjoying sex with another girl, so traditional contraception geared toward planned conception is unnecessary. But what about contraceptives and safer sex methods that reduce your risk of sexually transmitted infections or diseases? Probably not on your mental checklist either.
That’s because our sexual education system is failing, according to a new study led by researchers at the Centre for Innovative Public Health Research, a non-profit research group based in California, conducted in collaboration with researchers at the University of British Columbia and the City University of New York. The study, published recently in the Journal of Adolescent Health, was funded by the Office of Adolescent Health in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and states, basically, that our sexual education system sucks. It’s not inclusive, it is only geared toward heterosexual, binary relationships, and it leaves women who have sex with women completely unaware that they can contract STIs/STDs from the sex they’re having.
And that’s shameful. Relationships are much more multi-faceted than a man and a woman saving themselves until marriage and then having sex in the missionary position for the rest of their lives. (Not that there’s a problem with missionary, don’t get me wrong, the old standby still comes in handy….but, come on, folks!) Had this study been published in, say, the late 1980’s, I might get it, but at this point, I’m ashamed to lump myself in with sexual health education. If we’re not focused on comprehensive, inclusive, empathetic, accurate, and relevant sexual health content then we’re wasting our time and it’s our fault that someone contracts an infection and winds up shocked. Shame on us.
So, let’s talk about girl sex from a practical, safer sex perspective, shall we? We shall. If you identify as lesbian, bisexual, or anyone else enjoying sex (hand sex, oral, vaginal, anal) with another woman, then listen up – this post is for you.
What are your actual risks?
When looking at the numbers themselves, women who have sex with women experience fewer infections than men who have sex with men or women who have sex with men, but that doesn’t mean your risk is zero. On the contrary, my fair friend. And because so few women are incorporating safer sex methods into their activities with other women, that number of new infections keeps rising.
What’s more, the type of infections that we see most often in people who have vaginas are usually left undetected and untreated, because people don’t realize they have an infection. The most common symptom of all STIs/STDs is no symptom at all, and that’s especially true for infections in the lesbian and bisexual populations. Infections, like gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, mycoplasma genitalium, bacterial vaginosis, HPV, hepatitis, herpes, molluscum contagiosum, and even HIV have all been associated with having sex with more female partners.
The biggest bummer about that news (it’s not news to us, of course, but it might be to you) is that an undetected, untreated infection can cause irreparable long-term damage, like pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) – a disease most often caused by an untreated bacterial infection. PID can lead to scarring, continuous pain, discharge, and infertility… In fact, PID is the cause of 15% of all infertility cases. Whether or not you’d like to conceive one day, PID can still come with a host of other complications.
So, mistakenly believing that you aren’t at risk of an STD is not just inaccurate or problematic, it can become life-changing, by threatening your overall health, if you’re not proactive.
How can you reduce your risk of infection?
So, what now? How do you reduce your risk of contracting or transmitting an infection when you’re having sex with other women? Are there things you can do that apply to you and your partner(s), specifically?
- Use barriers, such as dental dams, saran wrap, or cut open a condom, for oral to vaginal and oral to anal contact.
- Use gloves for hand sex and especially when inserting fingers into the vagina or rectum.
- Wash hands well, including under the fingernails before having sex as well as afterwards – even if gloves are going to be used.
- Clean your sex toys before and after each use.
- Put condoms on sex toys, changing the condom for each partner and anytime you change body parts. Say, for instance, you’re using double ended dildos – for that kind of toy, put a condom on each end, and if you change body parts or swap ends with your partner(s), then put on a new condom.
What about comprehensive safer sex? Is there more? Well, kind of, yes. Here’s our list of all of the things included in comprehensive safer sex (the abridged version):
- Talking to a partner about safer sex before engaging in activities with them.
- Have full STD screenings and sexual health exams at least once a year and more often if you have new or multiple partners.
- Use barriers consistently and correctly.
- Consider making safer lifestyle choices to reduce risk.
This News Isn’t as Scary as It Sounds
Right about now, you might be reading this and freaking out, but that’s not helpful either. Knowing that you are at risk isn’t the end of your healthy sex life – it’s just the beginning. Being sexually healthy doesn’t require you to be free from infection, but it does require you to be as aware and educated as possible while considering your and your partner(s) risks and deciding what ways you’d like to reduce those risks in order to have more positive, enjoyable, and rewarding relationships.
All partnered sexual activities contain some level of risk, and even after incorporating all of the aforementioned suggestions around safer sex for girls who have sex with girls, you still might contract an infection, and that’s ok. That’s why we’re here.
Come back and visit if you do; we’ll be here for you, but in the meantime, we hope this helps!
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Are you worried about incorporating safer sex into your sex life with other women? Do you have questions about risk and how to reduce your risk? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!