Whether you’ve never had sex before, or you’ve been at it for a while we can all agree that the sexual education most of use were exposed to growing up was lacking in real depth and helpful information.
The term we hear repeated over and over again is “practice safe sex”. But what does that actually mean?
If you’re anything like me, all you can remember from your high school sexual education is your teacher awkwardly sliding a condom over a banana, and your classmates giggling at every mention of “penis” or “vagina”.
This overgeneralized approach doesn’t exactly leave young, blossoming teens feeling prepared and empowered as they start to explore their sexuality.
They are then left with the words “practice safe sex” ringing in their ears, with no tangible ways as to how to put that into practice outside of grabbing a pack of condoms from the health center on their school campus.
Back to Basics
The idea that condoms and birth control are the only tools that make sex safe is backwards and outdated.
Of course you will want to cover all your bases, especially when it’s with a new partner, or you practice non-monogamy. That means getting tested regularly for STDs (every six months or after a new partner), discussing your STI status with each other, as well as talk about birth control choices if that applies to you.
It’s important to mention that although you should be discussing birth control and STI status’ with your partner, this makes sex “safer”, not “safe”. Sex inherently comes with some risk or chance of becoming pregnant and contracting a sexually transmitted infection, no matter how “safe you are”.
If you do happen to contract an STI, this is a natural part of biology, and not something to be ashamed of. Many are easily treatable when detected early, or go away on their own.
But there’s so much more to safe sex…
Communication is Key
Sex in of itself is a form of communication, but talking things through before, after, and possibly during your intimate interactions can help clarify that communication, and make it a more enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Communication builds trust, which in turn leads to a feeling of safety. When you feel safe, your body can relax, allowing you to be present in the moment and your pleasure.
Checking in With Yourself
In order to make sure your needs are being met, it’s helpful to have guidelines about what you’re looking for in a sexual experience, and what lends to your feeling of safety.
You can start with your outside environment. Do you feel comfortable in the physical space you’re in? Is it somewhere you are able to relax and be in the moment?
Safe sex is also checking in with your body and your nervous system before, during and after intimate encounters.
Try asking yourself these questions…
- Am I clenching or tense in any areas of my body?
- Does this feel right – trust your gut.
- Am I enjoying myself?
- Am I in any pain or discomfort?
- What is my mind on?
- Do I feel safe emotionally and physically safe with this person?
- Do I feel seen and heard?
Checking in With Your Partner
All those questions you just asked yourself, you can now ask your partner.
Now that doesn’t mean going through a laundry list Q&A in the heat of the moment, but asking quick questions like “does this feel good” or “how does this feel?” can open the space up for them to communicate their needs.
Checking in before and after, and giving each other an opportunity to reflect on your experiences can help build this sense of safety. These conversations don’t need to be dry and boring. Make them sexy! It can even be part of foreplay or pillow talk after.
Over time, if you have a regular sexual partner this can become clearer and clearer, and it will be easier to pick up on eachother’s nonverbal cues.
The Power of Choice
Safe sex must also encompass the power of choice. This means that both you and your partner have autonomy over your own bodies, and of the experience, you are creating together.
Bodily autonomy means moving with your body’s sense of timing, and going at a pace that feels comfortable. Know that you have the power to stop things or slow them down if that is what feels right to you.
That also means respecting your partner’s pace, desires, and boundaries, without judgement or shame.
Choice also means choosing how you define sex. Sex doesn’t have to penetrative, it can be whatever you and your partner(s) want and need to be.
Feeling safe during sexual encounters is a basic human right. Redefining “safe sex” gives us new tools to advocate for our needs, and build trust in relationships. Pleasure is power.
Natasha (she/they) is a full spectrum doula, reproductive health content creator, and sexual wellness consultant. Her work focuses on deconstructing the shame, stigma, and barriers people carry around birth, sex, and beyond, to help people navigate through their lives with more pleasure, softness, and sensuality. You can connect with Natasha on IG @spectrumoflovedoula.