The purpose of safe sex" guidelines is protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including HIV/AIDS, herpes, gonorrhea, genital warts, and chlamydia. Except for complete abstinence, no disease-protection method is completely safe as long as any bodily fluids are exchanged. Disease is transmitted through such fluids as saliva, blood, mucus, semen, vaginal fluid, even urine. Basically, the infected fluids have to penetrate the body in some way, and that usually happens through tiny skin wounds or abrasions (not necessarily visible) in the soft tissue (mucous membranes) of the mouth, vagina, tip of the penis, or rectum, or even in mucous membranes of the nose.
The possibility of disease has always been a factor in sex. But, because of changing values and practices - particularly, the number of sex partners engaged with - the likelihood of infection has increased enormously throughout the sexually active population. Many STDs are treated successfully with a variety of pharmaceutical drugs, but with HIV/AIDS the situation becomes much more serious. The introduction of lifesaving drug combinations known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) in 1997 means that AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence. The treatments, when administered properly, may cut the death rate by as much as 80 percent. However, in poorer populations, these costly and often complicated treatments are not always accessible, and growing numbers of infected people worldwide are proving resistant to the drugs.
Communication, common sense, and courage are needed for wise sex/well-sex/safe sex - whatever we call it. When alcohol and drug use enter the picture, as is frequently the case in "party" situations when everybody is "feeling good," or in the down times when we are most hurting, depressed, vulnerable, and needing "a friend," our sense of judgment can be impaired and our desire for contact, fun, or affection may override our usual cautions and precautions.
The following guidelines, published by the University of Maryland Medicine Department (2003) for their student population, are fairly standard in their recommendations for safer sex. We offer them here in an effort to increase awareness for adults and younger people as well:
- If you limit sexual activity to only one partner, who is having sex only with you, you greatly reduce exposure to disease-causing organisms.
- Think twice before beginning sexual relations with a new partner. First discuss past partners, history of STDs, and drug use.
- Use condoms: a male condom made of latex or polyurethane - not natural materials; a female condom made of polyurethane - particularly if your partner will not use a male condom.
- In addition to a condom, always use a spermicide to provide additional protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
- Women should not douche after intercourse - it does not protect against STDs; could spread an infection farther into the reproductive tract; and can wash away spermicidal protection.
- Women should have annual Pap tests and pelvic examinations.
- Men and women should have periodic tests for STDs.
- Be aware of your partner's body - look for signs of a sore, blister, rash, or discharge.
- Check your body frequently for signs of a sore, blister, rash, or discharge.
- Consider sexual activities other than vaginal, oral, or anal intercourse - techniques that do not involve the exchange of body fluids or contact between mucous membranes, such as those in the vagina, anus, and mouth.
At the heart of and beyond all safe-sex methods will ever remain self-awareness, conscientiousness, and genuine caring for oneself and others.