My friend seriously freaked me out when she told me that I should always use condoms for oral sex when I’m not in a longterm, monogamous relationship. Have I been sleeping on this or is she being dramatic? What are the transmission rates of STDs through oral sex?
We take risks every day. We take risks when we drive a car, we take risks when we fall in love — I took a risk today when I waded across a deep swimming river with my dog in one arm and my precious smartphone in the other.
We assess for and manage both minor and major physical and emotional risks everyday, in many ways that are unique to us. And sex is no different. Sex is a risky activity, both physically (pregnancy! STDs!) and emotionally (heartbreak! jealousy!). However, sex’s risks are often highlighted in a pleasure-negative, slut-shamey way with lots of focus on STDs/STIs as being “dirty,” “slutty,” and “unforgiveable.”
Some STDs/STIs are fatal and serious. Others are just as common and curable as other non-sex-induced illnesses. We wouldn’t call someone a whore because she caught a cold from a doorknob. We wouldn’t yell, “What were you doing touching doorknobs anyway!?”
Just as “wash your hands” is suggested risk management for colds, “use a condom during non-monogamous oral” is a suggested risk-management tool for safer sex.
While this is well-meaning advice, managing your sexual risks involves taking stock of your unique experiences, history, and current health. Managing your sexual risks involves ongoing negotiation with your partners, setting boundaries for yourself and your own body, and active consent practices.
Don’t get me wrong: This isn’t a get-out-of-safer-sex-practices-free card, FAF. It’s an invitation to take charge of your own personal sex risks, sexual behaviors, and on-going sexual health.
Speaking generally, oral sex on a penis without a condom involves a high risk-of-transmission of herpes and HPV, a medium-high risk of gonorrhea, syphilis, and chlamydia, and a small-but-present risk of HIV transmission — however, due to its fatal nature, HIV’s important to account for. Using condoms reduces these risks, though HPV and herpes can exist outside of the condom’s protected range. HRC.org has a new online Safer Sex Manual that offers inclusive, sex-act-specific risk-management statistics and tools with more details.
Another simple way to reduce your risk is to leave the lights on and look at what you’re putting in your mouth or elsewhere. Does your partner’s junk have bumps, sores, or open wounds? Get that checked out before putting your mouth on it!
It’s worth noting monogamy isn’t an invisible, ever-present condom, nor are monogamous people having risk-less sex. Not to be dark, but our nation’s infidelity statistics show us we don’t always know about the sexual risks our partner might be taking without us. Furthermore, some STIs/STDs are invisible or have dormant symptoms. For example, it can take 10 years for HIV symptoms to show.
Just as we don’t let these risks stop us from driving to work or getting to the other side of the river, the risks of sex don’t need to stop us from having and enjoying it. We just need to inform ourselves of the risks (car crash, dropping precious phone in river, gonorrhea), of the ways to manage those risks (seatbelt, leave phone in car, condoms), and regularly maintain our sexual health including regular STI/STD tests for yourself and your partner, creating safer-sex plans with those we get busy with, and honoring our bodies and boundaries.
So, FAF, should you use condoms with oral sex outside of a monogamy? Now you have the tools to decide!•
Yana Tallon-Hicks is a pleasure positive sex educator and writer in the Pioneer Valley. She has a website bursting with advice, workshops, and sexual health resources at yanatallonhicks.com.