Pregnancy may not be a risk, but STIs still are.

By Gabrielle Kassel
August 24, 2019
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Cool! You're sleeping with another person with a vagina, and that means you don't have to worry about protection, right? *Buzzer noise*

Wrong.

If you thought that having lesbian sex or sex with another woman (however you identify or define that!) is risk-free or have had a doc dismiss the safe-sex chat after learning your bedmates are other people with vaginas, you're not alone. There's a serious lack of information available to lesbian and bisexual women, says nurse practitioner Emily Rymland, FNP-C, DNP, who specializes in HIV care and works as the clinical development lead with Nurx, a new sexual health platform.

Why is there so little awareness about lesbian safe sex? On one hand, info about safe LGBTQ+ sex is sorely missing from most sex education systems: One survey found that only 4 percent of LGBT students were taught positive information about LGBTQ+ people in their health classes. "There's such an over-emphasis on pregnancy and conception in sex education system that, because lesbians and women who sleep with other vulva-owners can't get pregnant, they feel a false sense of safety," she says.

On the other hand, "the medical system as a whole isn't comfortable talking about the fact that women sleep with other women and how to do that safely," says Rymland. Research backs up her claim: One 2019 study found that less than 40 percent of healthcare professionals felt they could confidently address the specific needs of members of the LGBTQ+ community. Less than half is pretty damn shabby, folks. (That's not all. Read more: Why the LGBTQ Community Get Worse Healthcare Than Their Straight Peers)

Why Safe Sex Matters for *Everyone*

First of all, "women who sleep with other women aren't immune to STIs," says Rymland. People of any gender, genitalia, or sexuality can contract an STI. If you don't know your own STI status, your future partner doesn't know their STI status, and/or one of you currently has an STI, STI transmission is possible.

Talking about your STI status with your partner (of whatever gender!) is essential for giving informed consent, explains sexologist and STI educator Emily Depasse. However, only 5 percent of people have been tested in the last month, 34 percent were tested over a year ago, and 37 percent have never been tested, according to a recent survey by Superdrug Online Doctor, a UK-based health service provider. Yikes. (You have no excuse: You can now get tested for STDs right at home.)

That's why Rymland says the best plan of action is for both (or all) parties to get tested before sleeping together for the first time, and to make sure you're getting the full panel of tests (gonorrhea, chlamydia, trichomoniasis, herpes, HPV, HIV, HSV, hepatitis B, and molluscum contagiosum). But even Rymland admits that's not super realistic—and that's where safer sex practices come in.

If you and your partner have gotten tested and everything looks clear, know that STIs aren't the only concern; women who sleep with other women are still at risk for other not-so-fun things like sex injuries, microtears, bacterial vaginosis, and UTIs. (Related: Why Having Sex With A New Partner Can Mess With Your Vagina).

Data is pretty limited, but a few studies have even suggested that women who sleep with women are significantly more likely to have bacterial vaginosis compared to heterosexual women. And there may be a higher risk for vulva-owners to pass yeast infections back-and-forth to each other.

That's why we asked Rymland and Allison Moon, co-author of Girl Sex 101, which is lauded as THE safer sex guide for queer women, to explain the possible risks associated with some of the most common sex acts between two vulva-owners.

Fingering and Fisting

Fingering, manual sex, partner masturbation, third base—whatever you call it—involves sticking one or more fingers inside your partner's vagina.

The most important thing here is to wash your hands and to make your partner washes their hands before any fingers go anywhere. "Do you really want all the germs from every dollar bill, cigarette, beer bottle, etc. that you've touched tonight to go in your partner's vagina, or vice versa?" asks Moon. Um, hell no you don't.

And your manicure matters. Shorter, smooth nails are better in this case. Any pointy bits can irritate the inner vaginal wall and create tiny micro-tears, which increases the risk of infection, says Moon. Also, ouch. (Related: Why Does My Vagina Itch?)

Some experts even recommend wearing a glove during hand sex—especially if you have a hangnail or other cuts on your fingers or hand. "Anytime you have a break in your skin, you want to wear a glove because any bacteria that's in the vagina could result in infection," says Rymland. (Go for a pair made of non-powdered latex or nitrile, a medical-grade material considered a good alternative for people with latex allergies.)

Keep in mind that the hand can also act as a vector, she explains. That means if you finger your partner without a glove and your partner has chlamydia or gonorrhea, and then your touch yourself later on during the sexual encounter, it's possible that the infection will spread to you. "Wearing a glove while you finger your partner, then disposing of the glove after the fact helps eliminate that risk," she says.

If you decide to level-up to fisting, a lot of the same safer-sex practices stand. (If you're wondering HOW?! Trust, fisting can be an incredibly pleasurable way to create a sensation of fullness, press against your  G-spot and A-spot, and play with power dynamics.)

Again, wash your hands—ideally all the way up to your elbow. Another non-negotiable? Lube. "You want to go really, really slow and use a lot of lube along the vaginal opening and all over your hand," says Moon. (Here's everything you need to know about lube—and some of the best ones to buy.)

"The person doing the fisting isn't at risk of any STI's unless they later use that hand to touch themselves or put it in their mouth," says Rymland. Even so, Moon suggests wearing a glove because it will hold the lubricant better than your naked hand will. "Plus, with gloves, you can actually see if there are any dry spots on the glove, so you'll know if you're not using enough," she says. A note on hand removal: "When your partner is ready, have them give a strong long exhale, which will help relax the muscles and allow you to easily slip your hand out," says Moon.

Oral Sex

The risk of STI transmission is, statistically speaking, rather low during manual sex. The same can *not* be said for oral sex. "If you have an STI of the mouth or throat and perform cunnilingus on someone, you can transfer the STI to their genitals," says Rymland. Likewise, she says, "if you perform oral on someone who has genital STI, it's possible that it spreads to your mouth or throat."

Unforch, majority of genital STIs have no symptoms at all, according to the World Health Organization, and "the most common symptom of an oral STI is a sore throat that's not accompanied by a fever, according to Rymlan, which is pretty easy to write off as nothing. (See more: Everything You Should Know About Oral STDs).

That's why Moon and Rymland recommend using a dental dam (like these by Trustex) when performing cunnilingus, which research shows are an effective barrier method from fluid-borne STIs. You can also snip the tip of a condom and slice it in half (check out this visual from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) or use Saran wrap if you don't have any dental dams on hand.

Because dental dams can feel sticky or friction-y against your clit and labia, Moon recommends putting some lube on the vulva side of the dental dam. "You can also eroticize the dental dam by using it to enhance oral sex play," she says. "You can create a neat snapping or suctioning feeling with the dam on your partner's vulva."

BTW: You should also grab a dental dam for oral-anal sex. "If you're performing anilingus on your partner, gonorrhea chlamydia, syphilis, herpes, HPV, hepatitis, E-coli and other intestinal parasites are all a risk," says Rymland. "If someone has parasites and you're having oral-anal sex with them you're at risk for those parasites." (Have more rimming Qs? Check out this guide to anal sex.)

Scissoring

Listen, scissoring gets a bad rap—and not *everyone* who owns a vulva is super into this position. But if you're Team Clitoral Stimulation, scissoring (or tribbing, as it's sometimes called) can be seriously HOT.

ICYDK, scissoring involves rubbing your vulva against another vulva, in any position or at any tempo that feels good for the both of you. (To learn more about scissoring, check out our Guide to the Best Lesbian Sex Positions).

But, scissoring isn't without its risks. In fact, scissoring is the least safe sex act between two vulva owners because it involves direct vulva-on-vulva contact and the transmission of fluid, says Moon. Simply put, STI's that spread via skin-to-skin contact (like herpes and HPV) and through vaginal fluids (like chlamydia, gonorrhea, and HPV) can all be transferred during this move. There may also be an increased risk of bacterial vaginosis or yeast infection after scissoring.

That's why Moon recommends dabbing some lube on both sides of a dental dam and having one partner pull it taut between your bodies as your grind, hump and rub together. You might even try Loral's, which is underwear that has a built-in dental dam. Also hot: Scissoring with clothes on; try leggings.

Strap-On Sex

If you enjoy being penetrated, strap-on sex is a great option because your partner can penetrate you with a dildo while still having both their hands-free for other ~activities~. (Hello, nipplegasm.)

For starters, you'll want to make sure your dildo is made of a non-porous material and that the harness is easy to wash. (For more info on how to buy a safe and quality sex toy, check out this shopping guide).

Next, you and your partner are going to want to start slow, use lube, and communicate a lot. If you're the partner strapped in, know that the lack of biofeedback can be pretty tricky. For instance, you may not feel when your dildo has hit your partners cervix, but your partner will!

The biggest risk for STI transmission or infection with strap-on sex happens if you and your partner are sharing the same harness and dildo, says Moon. "In that case, both of your vulvas will be rubbing up against the same place places," she says. "So if you're going to switch, it's a good idea to use condoms on the dildo so that you don't have to wash it between uses, and for both partners to have their own harness," she says. (Related: The Best Way to Clean Your Sex Toys)

Yep, you can use a strap-on for anal sex too. For this, "make sure that you're never going from anal penetration to vaginal penetration without swapping out the condom or washing the toy," says Moon. Going from the anus to the vagina can introduce unwanted bacteria that increase the risk of bacterial vaginosis.

Have More Questions?

It makes sense that you would. This only begins to cover the bases. Take it from a woman who sleeps with other women; there are way more sex acts you can enjoy (*wink*). So, if you have more questions about lesbian safe sex, be sure to talk to ask your healthcare provider or even the expert at your local sex shop. In the meantime, here's how to have safe and enjoyable anal sex, according to the experts; how to have safer sex in general, no matter the partner; and an insider's guide to sleeping with another woman for the first time.

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