What is Safer Sex?

It used to be that, if a person was taking precautions against pregnancy and diseases, she was said to be engaging in safe sex. More recently, the term has shifted to "safer" sex as people recognize that engaging in any sexual activity at all can put you at risk. Is this alarmist? Maybe. Does it pay to know what folks are talking about when they mention safer sex? Absolutely. Here's what safer sex is and isn't.

Safer sex is protecting yourself against unwanted pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs). The tools for protection include birth control; condoms (both male and female); dental dams; finger cots and latex gloves; water-based lubricants; and abstinence.

If you're not sure which prophylactic is best for you, get a few different brands and experiment. While birth-control methods will only prevent pregnancy, condoms, when used consistently and correctly with every sex act, can be up to 98 percent effective in preventing pregnancy and some STIs. But remember that some STIs are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact, so condoms can't protect against those. Also, condoms made out of anything other than latex or polyurethane will not prevent the transmission of STIs. Though it may not be your choice, abstinence is still the only 100 percent effective method of preventing both pregnancy and STIs.

Safer sex entails getting tested for STIs before you engage in sex. Make a date of it: Grab a bite and then go to the clinic. Many clinics (especially those that serve young people) are happy to see couples or friends coming in together. The more the merrier; it sometimes helps to have the company. If you're scared of needles, don't worry: Most of the testing for STIs can be done by testing your urine or by a quick swab of the inside of your mouth.

Safer sex can encompass all kinds of consensual sexual activities. Why is the word "consensual" important? If everyone's not in agreement, then the sex is no longer safe. Unless it's explicitly agreed upon by all people involved that "no" means "yes," "no" still means "no."

Safer sex is sometimes awkward. When you're in the middle of things, it can be tough to stop and say, "Hey, grab that condom, I'm ready" or "Just a sec, I need to get that dental dam." How can you find a way to make such moments less awkward? Pratice effective communication. Talk about what you're into before you get into it; what you like or don't, and how you like it; and you open yourself up to a more pleasurable and healthier sex life.