apparently there was the first confirmed case of lesbian-to-lesbian HIV transmission a week ago
wrap it up ladies
You know, the first time I ever asked a licensed professional about how to have safe sex if it was between two cis-ladies she gave me deer in the headlights look and said “Well, you know I meant to attend that talk, but haven’t gotten to it yet.”
….huh…you know I am suddenly super nervous.
(And regarding dental damns, be straight with me, does ANYONE actually use these? Is this a thing that should be being pushed? Is there a better thing? My safe sex lessons revolved around the word ‘absence’ and then the word “condom” with a side of ‘birth control,’ but that’s it.)
According to the article the infection happened via blood to blood contact, ie having sex during periods and using insertion toys so roughly that it sometimes caused bleeding. So my suggestion would be to use different toys for each person and/or use condoms with the toys (different condoms for each person), and to be careful about blood contact in general. Use gloves for fingering if you have a cut on your hand, that kind of thing.
Personally I wouldn’t be any more nervous than before about sex that doesn’t involve blood or semen or preseminal fluid, but everyone should do what they need to do to feel safe, and only take risks they’re comfortable with.
Oh, good, I get to talk about safer sex for people of all genders and preferences again! That really has been a while, and I totally appreciate the opportunity.
Before I launch into actual safer sex information, let me throw a few handfuls of history at you.
- I’m fairly certain that this hasn’t been the first case of HIV transmission between cis women that has ever occured, just the first one that’s actually documented. (For a really, really long time, the possibility of cis-woman-to-cis-woman transmission wasn’t even asked about as a potential cause of HIV infection by the people who report stuff that makes up these statistics. That means if you were not just a lesbian who had had unprotected sex with her girlfriend (or any other woman), but also a IV drug user who had shared needles with anyone, and/or a sex worker who had had unprotected sex with cis men, it was automatically assumed you had been infected either by sharing needles or by having sex with cis men and questions stopped right then and there. This means that the statistics were pretty much useless to begin with if your were looking for facts about HIV transmission during sex between cis women. Actually, I’m not sure how much this has changed by now, if it has changed at all.)
- Every doctor I have asked about safer sex between cis women (and I have asked quite a few, mostly OB/GYNs) has been extremely clueless and of no help at all about this matter, even at the heyday of lesbian safer sex discussion (which in my mind happened in the 1990s). There just wasn’t any research about HIV transmission during sex without a flesh-and-blood penis, and if there was, they hadn’t heard of it.
- The earliest and most useful safer sex information for cis women who have sex with cis women was developed by BDSM dykes, some of whom also were sex workers. This is true to this day. Once again, some of most marginalized people in LGBTQ contexts (and boy, were they ever marginalized in the 1980s when they started talking and writing about this!) have made shit happen and we all benefit from that.
Okay, let’s get on to the safer sex info. First, some basics that apply to everyone. (And a disclaimer that I am not a medical or sex-ed professional, just an interested lay-person with a collection of safer sex brochures.)
- If you need a default rule of thumb to go by, I suggest having safer sex with everyone (if your life is such that you do have an actual choice there). Not just (as the article suggests) if one of the partners has a known HIV infection. Because you can’t see if someone is infected, many people don’t know they are, and some of those who do know may lie if you ask them. So it makes sense to assume that every sex partner could be infected and act accordingly. (For the sake of simplicity, I’m leaving out special arrangements - like fluid-bonding (= agreeing to have unprotected sex with a particular person, usually after extensive communication and testing for STDs) - you may have made with special people here.)
- Safer sex is not just about HIV protection (because there are a bunch of other STDs you probably don’t want to get/spread, either) but most things that keep you safe(r) from HIV also much reduce the risk of spreading other STDs.
- The basic idea of safer sex is: keep blood (including menstrual blood) and genital fluids from getting into someone else’s body. You may have tiny (= too tiny to see) wounds on your fingers/hands (especially if you bite your nails, have certain skin issues, or work a job where you often come home with small nicks and scratches - or maybe you just have cats that regularly attack your hands!). You could also have tiny wounds in your vagina/front hole or rectum that you can’t feel. Or maybe you have hemorrhoids that sometimes bleed a bit. All of these could be an entryway for HIV and other bacteria/viruses you don’t want.
- In practice, safer sex can mean two different things: a) not doing a specific thing because you consider it too risky (abstinence) or b) using barriers (such as condoms, dental dams, gloves) to do a thing that would otherwise be risky/riskier.
And now for some actual, detailed examples of what that means in practice.
Note: This part focuses on cis women, female-assigned-at-birth genderqueers, and/or trans guys having sex with each other. That said, much of it is applicable to people with other genders/bodies as well. The basic idea is to think about what you (want to) DO and what body parts are (will be) part of that and what barrier methods might suit them, and not on how you and your partner(s) identify in terms of gender or sexual orientation or how you and your partner(s) call those body parts. So pick what’s useful/applicable and leave the rest for someone else.
- You could decide that no-barrier oral sex is just too risky for you (and maybe you’re not a huge fan of it anyway), so you decide to just not do it altogether. Or maybe you decide that you can live with a bit of risk and do your oral sex barrier-free and just skip the going-down on people who have (or just had) their period. The same idea applies to everything else, too. Not doing a thing (or not doing it in certain circumstances) is always an option. It’s just not the only option, and it may not be the best option for you.
- Or you could decide that oral sex is awesome and you’re not going to let a little bit of latex keep you from having it, and then you’d go and get yourself a pack of dental dams or a roll of plastic wrap (seriously! just make sure it’s NOT suitable for microwave use because then there will be tiny holes in it that are big enough for HIV to pass through) and use that for purposes of going down on the person-who-is-not-a-cis-dude of your choice (or have them go down on you). Or a condom. Or a cut-apart latex glove (you can cut it open at the side, cut off the fingers and leave the thumb to pull over your tongue or over someone’s dick/clit). Whatever fits the bodies in question best.
- If you want to use your fingers (or hands because fisting doesn’t just happen in fanfic) on someone’s genitals and/or asshole, you can cover them with a latex glove (you can even buy black ones for extra style!) or whatever other material you’re not allergic to (e.g. nitrile). This has the added benefit of a smoother surface, which is especially relevant for assholes because they are so much more tender than the average vagina/boy hole/front hole/[term of your preference] and/or fisting. You can also use a condom over your fingers if that’s what’s available. Perhaps you also have access to “finger condoms” (doctors sometimes use them but I don’t know the official medical term for them), which are basically gloves for a single finger.
- For detachable (and other) dicks and dildos/vibrators above a certain size, condoms usually are the best choice of barrier. “Finger condoms” may work for smaller dicks, as may cut-open gloves (see above). Or you can use a different detachable dick/dildo/vibrator for each person/hole. You still need to wash/clean the dick/dildo/vibrator in question when you’re done (or between rounds, as the case may be).
- General rule for all penetration/playing around holes: if you want to go from asshole to vagina/front hole on the same person, please change gloves/condoms (or fingers/hands/dildos/dicks). Everyone’s asshole is the home of very useful bacteria which should not be moved into a vagina/front hole (which is also why you should wipe front-to-back on the toilet). The same rule applies to switching between holes on different bodies. In other words: one glove/finger/hand per hole, except you CAN go from vagina/front hole to the same person’s asshole (but not back again).
- Lube is your friend for all of these activities (you can totally put a drop of lube under a dental dam for extra slipperiness). If you use latex things, stay away from any lube that contains fat (because fat breaks latex). This includes Crisco, hand lotions, massage oils, and cream. If you use silicone things, stay away from silicone-based lube (because the lube might break the thing). Some people’s bodies don’t like glycerin, so you may need to look for a glycerin-free lube.
- If you do things that break (or can break) the skin, such as cutting, (play) piercing, or caning, do wear gloves for touching open skin and make sure to disinfect and cover any wounds.
This list is mostly just an introduction and a rough overview, so feel free to ask me follow-up questions (which I will answer to the best of my ability) and do check out other reliable sources of information. For general sex (and relationship) education, I’m a huge, huge fan of Scarleteen (which is written mostly with a young audience in mind, but much of their information is very useful for older grown-ups as well). Here’s everything they tagged with “safer sex.” They also offer a text-only site. They are super LGBTQ-positive and super respectful of differences between humans, and generally think about people as a highly diverse group (and give information/advice accordingly). In short, they are awesome and you should check them out if you’re interested in learning stuff about sex or if you’re in need of advice in that area.