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School is a time of discovery. Gail Wingate, a nurse practitioner at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, says, “For many students, exploring sexual health is a natural part of college.” Considering safer sex options is one part of making decisions about whether or not, and in what way, you may be sexually active with another person.
If you make the decision to abstain from sex, explore what that means to you. Understanding your own boundaries is essential, and allows you to communicate clearly. And even if you’ve had sex before, it’s okay to say “no” to any activity you’re not interested in right now. Your decisions about sexual activity are your own, and no one has the right to influence your behavior or make you do something you don’t want to do.
Defining abstinence: What is it?
- Do you engage in some intimate activities and not others? For example, will you kiss, have skin-to-skin contact, oral sex, or something else?
- Do you refrain from all sexual activities with another person?
- Do you masturbate?
- Do you fantasize?
- Do you tune out all sexual impulses?
If you decide to be intimate with another person, an essential part of having healthy sexual relationships is understanding your own desires, boundaries, and feelings. Deanna D., a sophomore at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, says, “It’s important to be completely honest with your partner. Trust is definitely needed to be able to talk about safer sex.”
What is safer sex?
In short, protecting yourself and your partner from unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STDs/STIs). This might sound straightforward, but there are many options.
Explore your needs
- What’s available?
- How much do they cost?
- Which methods am I comfortable using?
- Are my partner and I monogamous?
- What does my partner think?
- How do we use the materials properly?
If you’re sexually active with someone the same sex as you, pregnancy prevention won’t be a concern. However, you’ll still want to talk about your sexual histories, have regular STD/STI tests, and protect yourselves from potential infection.
If you are intimate with someone of the opposite sex, pregnancy prevention is important, unless you’re interested in having a baby. You might choose an option that provides both birth control and STD/STI prevention, or you might use a combination of methods.
Safer sex materials known as barriers, when used correctly and consistently, help prevent pregnancy and reduce the risk of STDs/STIs by blocking the exchange of bodily fluids-semen, vaginal secretions, and blood-during vaginal, anal, and oral stimulation.
Condoms come in tons of varieties. There are options for people with latex allergies, for both men and women to wear, and an amazingly wide variety of textures, colors, and flavors.
Condoms for women? Yes! The female condom, or insertive condom, can be put in even hours prior to intercourse. It’s made from a nitrile polymer material and acts just like a male condom to prevent pregnancy and transmission of STDs/STIs. In the past, users felt they were noisy, but the material has been improved. Here are some of its benefits:
- Gives women more control over her safer sex practices
- No need to stop in the heat of the moment
- An external ring of material provides extra stimulation for both partners
- Can be used in the vagina or anus
More about male and female condoms
Polyisoprene condoms are the newest type of condom available. They are an excellent choice for people allergic to latex or polyurethane. Many people who use them feel that they have a soft, natural feel that conforms to the skin.
Polyurethane condoms are also available for those with latex allergies. They’re generally thinner and stronger than latex condoms (though have the same effectiveness), and also warm up more efficiently, which may increase sensation for both partners.
Both polyisoprene and polyurethane condoms tend to be more expensive than latex condoms.
Lambskin condoms are made from the intestinal membrane of a lamb. They work well for pregnancy prevention but are not effective for protection against STDs/STIs because of small pores in the material.
Learn more about the female condom
More about condoms and their usage
Need an option for oral sex? Dams are made of latex or non-latex materials and used for oral stimulation of the vulva or anus. They’re sometimes hard to find in stores, but your school’s health center may have them, and it’s easy to make your own. Just remember: They can’t be used for vaginal or anal penetrative sex.
Instructions for making a dam
You can also remove the wrist elastic from a surgical-type glove and cut down the side. The fingers of the glove can be used for manual stimulation, too.
Tip: Be mindful of which side is used, to prevent inadvertent exposure to bodily fluids, and discard after one use-just like a condom.
More information about dams.
Only Birth Control
If you and your partner are mutually monogamous and have been tested for STDs/STIs, you may prefer to focus on pregnancy prevention. Here are the main methods:
- Diaphragm, cervical cap, and sponge
- Intrauterine devices (IUDs)
- Fertility awareness
Hormonal contraception prevents ovulation, thins the lining of the uterus, and thickens cervical mucus. Together, these make it more difficult for sperm to reach an egg. Hormonal methods are among the most effective for pregnancy prevention, but remember: They provide no protection against STDs/STIs.
If you’re interested in influencing when you menstruate, extended oral contraceptives may be an option.
Extended Oral Contraceptives
Extended contraceptives come packed with three months of active pills and one week of placebos, reducing periods to four per year.
Learn more about extended oral contraceptives
If you don’t plan to get pregnant anytime soon, these methods may be right for you:
- IUD (hormonal or non-hormonal)
IUDs are increasing in popularity, especially among young women. These small, T-shaped devices are inserted into the uterus by a health care provider.
There are also permanent methods of preventing pregnancy, including tubal ligation for women and vasectomy for men. Rose B.*, a senior at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, notes, “Hormonal and long-term birth control should be discussed in depth with a health care provider.”
What About Withdrawal?
Having sex without a condom (male or female) or dam exposes you to bodily fluids and skin-to-skin contact that can transmit STIs/STDs. And even if a man pulls his penis out of a woman’s vagina before ejaculation, she can get pregnant. That’s because pre-ejaculate fluids can contain sperm, and ejaculate may also come in contact with her vagina.
Exploring your safer sex options can support your decision-making about sexual activity. Doug C., a junior at Metropolitan State University of Denver in Colorado, says, “If I didn’t feel comfortable enough with a partner to talk about safer sex, we wouldn’t be having sex.”
* Name changed for privacy.
- Explore your thoughts about abstaining or being sexually active.
- Research safer sex options. There are many!
- Consider whether you and your partner will use a method to prevent STDs/STIs and pregnancy, or only birth control.
- Talk with your partner about your choices.
- Consult a health care provider for guidance.
If you had unprotected sex, are concerned that your birth control failed, or you’ve been sexually assaulted, emergency contraception is available. But it’s not intended to be a primary or regular form of birth control.
Get help or find out more
The Kinsey Institute
National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus Health, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Health
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Women’s Health Planned Parenthood, Health Info & Services, Men’s Sexual Health
Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States