January 27, 2010

Stirring Things Up: Safer Sex for Women Who Love Women

by Elizabeth

Compared to heterosexual sex or sex between men, sex between women is generally a lower-risk activity. It isn’t however, a no-risk activity.

The Risks of Lesbian Sex

Compared to heterosexual or gay male intercourse, sex between women is generally a lower-risk activity. It is not however, a no-risk activity. Bacterial vaginosis seems to be easily transmitted between women, as well as any of the STDs that are spread by skin to skin contact—e.g. syphilis, herpes, HPV, and molluscum contagiosum. They may be somewhat less common in the sexual networks of lesbians, but they are far from absent. The level of risk for other STDs transmitted via bodily fluids is also not without risk; it’s just lower than that for heterosexual sex, and more dependent on what kind of sex the women are having.

As the CDC fact sheet on HIV for women who have sex with women points out, there is to date no conclusive evidence that HIV has spread through lesbian sex, because most HIV-positive women who have sex with women have other potential exposure risks. That doesn’t mean that transmission between women isn’t possible—it just means that it’s more difficult to fully investigate.

One of the more interesting findings on lesbian health to come out of the AIDS epidemic is that many self-identified lesbians occasionally have sex with men…and that the sex they have is both less likely to be safe and more likely to be with high-risk partners.

How Do Women Have Safe Sex?

When people talk about safe sex for women, they’re generally talking about protection during three specific types of activity:
1. Oral sex
2. Manual sex (fingering, fisting, etc.)
3. The use of penetrative toys such as dildos and strap-ons

These activities only cover a fraction of how women have sex with each other, but they share two useful characteristics:
1. They are relatively common among women who have sex with women.
2. They can be practically made safer.

Frottage, the act of rubbing your body against your partner’s for sexual arousal, is often a part of women’s sexual repertoire. The most practical way to make it safer is to simply leave your clothing on. It’s hard to talk about that in a hot way, especially when doing so is extremely intrusive, and women often don’t perceive the risk of skin-to-skin transmission as something they need to be worried about.

When it comes to oral sex between women, the simplest way to make sex safer is to use a barrier. It is impossible to deny that using barriers for cunnilingus is far more intrusive than for fellatio, but there are ways to make it easier. Thinner barriers, made from cut-up condoms or plastic wrap (although there is no real evidence for using plastic wrap as a barrier during oral sex, most sex educators think it’s better than nothing), are much less imposing than commercially-produced dental dams. They transmit heat and sensation better, which makes sex more pleasurable for both partners.

Using cut-up gloves as dental dams can also be a good option, since they can be made with convenient handles, as well as altered for lingual penetration. (In other words, if you cut down the sides of the glove to open it up and then stick one of the fingers into your girlfriend, you can use that finger to put your tongue inside her while you’re going down on her. Lingual penetration just sounds more scientific.)

The same box of gloves you’re using to make oral sex safer can also be used to make your manual sex safer. Gloves are a good idea for fingering and fisting, because will they not only prevent any bacteria from getting from your hands into your girlfriend (or vice-versa), they also tend to make you pay attention to what you’re doing with your fingers. While wearing gloves, you tend to notice where your hands are, which may make you less likely to touch your partner and then yourself, thus transferring fluids.

As for choosing gloves, it’s a good idea to look for either nitrile gloves or unpowdered latex gloves, since there’s some data suggesting that powdered gloves are more likely to sensitize people prone to latex allergies. Plus, it’s much easier to find nitrile gloves in pretty colors. There’s no reason why safe sex can’t be decorative as well.

The third pillar of safer lesbian sex is having sex safely with toys. The simplest options are not sharing toys, using condoms on toys (where appropriate), and doing both. Putting condoms on penetrative sex toys, and changing that condom between partners and whenever a toy is moved from one orifice (mouth/vagina/rectum/nostril) to another, is a good way to reduce the likelihood of transmitting an STD. Many sex toys can be scrubbed and washed, and silicone toys can even be boiled—but porous toys should always be covered or restricted for use on a single partner, and using condoms even on washable toys is never a bad idea. It’s important to know that most commercial sex toy cleaners and sprays are not actually rated to kill sexually-transmitted bacteria and viruses. If you read their labels, they are novelty products or simple soaps, not hospital-grade disinfectants. Spraying them on sex toys will not make them safe.

Practicing safe sex, and having regular STD screening exams, is as important for women who have sex with women as it is for women who have sex with men or men who have sex with men. After all, sex between women can be just as exciting, just as fulfilling, and just as real—and, as it pertains to STDs, it can have just as many risks.

So you can have your tea—and love it.