Though the term ‘safe sex’ used to be popular, ‘safer sex’ is now often used instead. That’s because safety is a relative term. When two bodies come into contact with each other, all kinds of transmissions can occur, through the exchange of bodily fluids but also simply through skin contact. A condom can greatly reduce the chance of getting certain serious STDs, but a rubber around your dick doesn’t make you immune to all things itchy and drippy.
Safer sex aims to reduce the risk of catching an STD. When it comes to sex among men, the STD that people are most concerned about avoiding is HIV. Apart from that, there are other STDs which are much easier to catch but also easier to treat. Some of these are hard to protect yourself against while having sex. The best way to avoid them is to choose your sexual partners carefully and to get yourself checked for STDs regularly.
To avoid catching HIV when getting physical with another guy, you’re most of the way there if you always use condoms correctly when having anal sex, in combination with an ample amount of silicone- or water based lube. This is still the foundation of safer sex, but over the last years new options have presented themselves that make the definition of ‘safe’ sex a bit more complex. If someone who has HIV is being successfully treated and their ‘viral load’ (the amount of virus in their blood) is so low that it can’t be detected, they can no longer pass HIV to their partners. (Undetectable = Untransmittable) Please note that you would have to believe a new partner at their word, as you would not yet be able to estimate if someone is reliably taking the medication. Men who do not have HIV, can preventively take a pill (PrEP) to ward off the virus. So especially if one partner is undetectable and the other is on PrEP, a condom is less essential, with regards to HIV.
Giving or getting a blowjob is not without risk, especially when it comes to common but relatively lightweight STDs. Recent research seems to indicate that it can increase the risk of getting throat-cancer many years after exposure, because of possible transmission of a high-risk form of the HPV-virus. It’s very rare for someone to get HIV from having oral sex without a condom.
In practice, gay men rarely use a condom when giving or getting head. For both parties, oral sex with a condom is less pleasurable to the point that they are willing to run the risk of getting an STD. However, men who suck without condoms will generally say that they always have safer sex, as long as they do use a condom for anal sex. Some will even let a partner come in their mouth and still consider that to be safer sex, while to others this is an unacceptable risk. Getting come in your mouth is more risky than just pre-come, because the first contains a much larger quantity of the HIV virus than the latter.
You’ll run into people’s personal assessment of risk when you end up in bed with them. Certain risks are hard to quantify objectively. Someone who is fucking can come into the condom or pull out and unload over himself or his partner. Assuming that the condom doesn’t break, you could say the first option is less risky, as the come is instantly ‘caught’ and can’t accidentally get into a mouth, eye or wound on the skin. But if something goes wrong with the condom, for whatever reason, then the bottom is instantly at high risk. So there is a small chance of high risk or a somewhat larger chance of a very small risk.
“Condoms aren’t completely safe. A friend of mine was wearing one and got hit by a bus.”
– Bob Rubin, politician
In practice, the most common (but often unspoken) definition of safer sex that people operate by, is using a condom for anal sex, not using a condom for oral sex and not letting someone come in your mouth. Because of PrEP and effective HIV-medication, however, there is a clear trend in which people mutually agree to alternative choices.
There are some things to keep in mind when following this general guideline, though. When you’re having anal sex with a condom, don’t forget to use a lot of lube, as this makes it much less likely that the condom (or the ass) will tear. And it’s not a good idea to suck without a condom when you have a sore throat, bleeding gums or little wounds, like sores, in your mouth. Do not brush your teeth right before or after giving a blowjob, to avoid making fresh little wounds.
As said, this definition has been developed to reduce transmission of HIV; activities that put you at risk for other diseases aren’t covered by it. For instance, rimming (‘eating ass’) is risky when it comes to hepatitis A and B and various other STDs and can lead to a variety of bacterial and parasitic infections, but someone who does it isn’t automatically deemed to be acting ‘unsafe’. Using drugs during sex isn’t generally directly connected to having safer sex, though drugs can impair your immune system and your judgement, increasing the chances that you will do something risky. Fisting and sharing sex toys both have a certain amount of risk when it comes to HIV and other STDs, but these activities are outside the realm of ‘regular’ sexual activity in the minds of a lot of people and are therefore not included in their concepts of safer sex. To be clear, if you fist someone, always use a clean glove made of latex or rubber, and if you’re sharing toys with someone, make sure to clean them thoroughly in between. Preferably cover them with a condom.
If you’re sexually active, get yourself checked for STDs every six months or so. You may have one without having any symptoms and not only could you pass on an unnoticed STD to your partners, but you would also be more likely to pick up an additional infection. Someone who has syphilis, for instance, is at a much higher risk for getting HIV. It’s an uncomfortable truth, but if you plan to have a ‘normal’ sex life, you will at times be at risk for getting an STD, no matter how responsible you are. You could lock yourself away in a tower and wait for an untouched, pure virgin, but it’s far more practical to carefully weigh the pleasures of sex against the risks. Having safer sex may also entail avoiding certain sexual practices, at least until you get to know someone a bit better. You don’t have to go for the ass straight away, for instance, and can stick to kissing and jerking off.
You do have to realize that, despite your best efforts, you could still end up pulling the short straw. A friend of yours might go through thirty men during one night at a sex party and come away clean, while you get stuck with an infection after your first, fairly well-behaved romantic date. It’s all about decreasing the odds of something jumping on board. Selecting your partners wisely is also part of this process.
Mindset & picking partners
Anyone can have an STD — either you or your partner — even though there are no symptoms. Virgins are rare and those that claim to be, well, you’ll have to take at their word, as official documentation is unlikely to be available. You can’t generally tell just by looking at someone. Both anonymous sex and a high number of sexual partners increase the likelihood of having to deal with an STD. Naturally, sleeping with a lot of people ups the odds of one of them having an STD.
During anonymous sex, both parties tend to feel less responsible for the well-being of their partner. If you are complete strangers when the pants drop to the ankles in a darkroom, at a park, in the dunes, in public toilets, in a porn theater, at a sex party or at his or your place, it won’t always be clear if your partner practices safer sex. Maybe he thinks it’s no big deal to come in your mouth without warning or he tries to initiate fucking without a condom. You can get mad about things like that after they’ve happened, but then it’s too late and you will be worrying about any risk you ran until your next test. So always bring up the topic of safer sex before or while turning up the heat, no matter how brief the encounter. Don’t wait until the fires are fully blazing. Simply saying “Don’t come in my mouth” can be enough if you’re already getting into the thick and hard of it. Even if you don’t have casual contacts like these yourself, you are more at risk for STD’s if you’re in bed with someone who does. Anonymous encounters with a lot of different partners are ideal for circulating STDs, which also increases the odds that your partner picked something up and can pass it to you.
Your partner’s mindset with regards to safer sex, however, is at least as important as the amount of partners he’s had. If he regularly gets himself tested and puts on a condom without any prompting, chances of him exposing you to something are decreased. Someone who clearly shows concern for his own health is also more likely to consider yours as well. If a date tries to get you to fuck without a condom because he ‘doesn’t have anything anyway’, that’s an extra reason to use one. After all, you won’t be the first one he says this to, and though you can be fairly sure that you are STD-free, it’s strange that he thinks he can just take your word for it. Maybe he really is naïve enough to think someone’s declaration of health should be taken at face value, but it’s more likely he’s just horny, can’t be bothered with condoms and isn’t all that worried about STDs, which increases the odds of him having one.
“It’s an instant turn-off for me if I see a profile online somewhere and it says ‘needs discussion’ or ‘when appropriate’ under safer sex. On sites where people are mostly looking for hook-ups, safer sex is always appropriate, no discussion needed. To say nothing of guys who then claim to be HIV negative, as if they could be sure of that.”
Let’s talk about sex, baby
As previously said, always try to bring up safer sex before getting it on with someone. Make it clear that you always use condoms and expect the same from your partner. It’s not likely to be the first topic that comes up when you meet someone, because it can be a bit presumptuous unless a shared bed is quite clearly in your near future. Only bring it up if you’re certain that you’re about to have sex, as it can be embarrassing to blurt out that you only play safe, while he honestly was just expecting to drop by for a cup of coffee. But do mention it before the pants actually come off, as it’s less likely to break the mood at that moment. If you verbalize it in a breezy way and don’t make it a leaden declaration, it can serve as a promise of things to come. “Well, I guess I didn’t buy those condoms for nothing after all!” is an option. If you can’t find a proper moment to drop the topic into casual conversation, you’ll have to stay extra alert when you get busy and put the brakes on your partner if he is about to cross a line.
Of course, it would be best to know in advance what kind of personal definition someone has of safer sex, but an extensive interview ahead of time will tend to deflate the sexual energy and working something like that into a regular conversation will be a challenge for most men. Always be alert with a new partner, even if the topic of safer sex has already come up, until it has become clear in practice what each of you considers safe and what you are both comfortable with. Be direct and clear if he does something you’re not comfortable with. You can initiate a change in position or activity to stop what he is doing. If your partner tries to have his way despite your protestations, start getting dressed.
If your first contact with someone is online, it’s best to have the safer sex talk before the first real-life meeting which may lead to sex, be it the first or the third. You may find indications in a profile about sexual preferences, but it is best to ask outright if something is not clear. If the word ‘condoms’ is missing from their ‘safer sex’ list, it will be good to know if they refuse to use them or if they are just not the first choice. You may run into the phrase ‘TasP’. This means ‘Treatment as Prevention’ (getting treated for HIV) and this indicates that someone is (most likely) ‘undetectable’.
Because there are more virtual silences during a chat and while exchanging messages on dating sites, it’s relatively easy to bring up safer sex. You start out flirting, maybe drift somewhere more explicit, and from that point it’s just a small extra step to say “By the way, do you play safe?” If you get a vague or evasive answer, or if your potential date is irritated with you for bringing up the topic, this is not encouraging and likely an answer in itself.
Risk factor ‘love’
A lot of HIV-transmissions take place within relationships. After a couple of months, there is a sense of intimacy and familiarity which leads to condoms being forgotten more and more often, even if both partners haven’t gotten tested yet.
In principle however (with unknown HIV status) it’s only safe to stop using condoms within a relationship if:
- Mutual trust has been earned over a long period of time.
- The relationship is monogamous not only in theory, but also in practice.
- After a monogamous period of six months or longer, both partners have been tested for HIV and other STDs.
You can consider going without condoms in an open relationship, but only if you both agree to stick to the rules of safer sex when playing around with others. If you don’t trust your partner to be capable of that, or if you think he would not dare tell you if something risky does end up happening by accident, then don’t do it. Make your best effort to both get tested once every six months or so, also because of various easy-to-catch STDs. Consider both going on PrEP if you are playing with others.
An unsafe encounter that happens outside a theoretically monogamous relationship can be fatal because the guilty party can’t confess the risk he has put his boyfriend in without admitting he’s cheated. Suddenly wanting to use condoms together until the cheater can get himself tested in three months time, would lead to too many questions, so in practice people tend to pretend it never happened. This leads to the partner being at risk without knowing it.
Choosing lubes and condoms
Especially when it comes to anal sex, using a condom is very important, not only because of HIV but also because of a wide range of other STDs. Apart from that, bacteria can find their way up your urethra and cause an infection in your balls or prostate. Even if you rinse your butt before sex, it’s still the conduit for poop. Thankfully, there is a wide variety of condoms and lubes to choose from. If you feel too ashamed to walk into a store and buy them, you can also order them online and have them delivered to your home discretely.
Apart from variations in the size of condoms, there are also variations in thickness and you can choose between condoms made of latex and condoms made of polyethylene or polyurethane. This last category is relatively new and the options are limited. The newcomers are expected to perform as well as latex condoms, though they are a bit less elastic. They have the advantage of not getting damaged by oil-based lubes, as latex condoms are, and they can be used by people who have an allergy for latex. In general, stick to ‘serious’ condoms of a trusted brand and be very critical of condoms with funny shapes, colors and flavors when you are serious about safer sex.
Which size you use will depend on your personal preference. Condoms can be stretched quite a bit, so even if you have a sizeable package, a ‘normal’ condom is likely to do the job just fine. But if it does feel too tight or if you want to impress the guy behind the counter, then go for a larger size condom.
Should you be unable to find a condom big enough to fit (let’s have a respectful moment of silence for the bottom you will be topping…) then you can also decide to use a female condom (a ‘femidom’) to be inserted anally. After warming up the butt with a whole lot of lube, use two fingers with clipped nails, to avoid damaging it, to carefully push it mostly inside. Then you can slide your dick into the condom, avoiding the too-tight feeling a condom gives certain thick-dicked men. Keep an eye on it to make sure your thrusting doesn’t push it all the way inside and safely remove it afterwards, avoiding spillage.
Regarding the thickness of condoms; extra thick condoms used to be recommended for anal sex because the back road tends to be tighter and give more friction than vaginal sex. Thicker may be safer but also takes away some feeling, especially for the top. This can be problematic for men who have a tough time reaching an orgasm to begin with, but can have an advantage for men who tend to peak too soon. If you use plenty of lube and don’t get overly rough, a condom of regular thickness from a trusted brand should suffice. Not optimal for anal sex are condoms which have been pre-lubed with lube containing spermicide. These contain substances which can irritate your insides and are likely to make you more susceptible to HIV and other STDs.
Unless you’re using condoms made of polyethylene or polyurethane, you should avoid contact with fats and oils. If you both are covered in oil after a nice massage or if you’ve been going crazy with oil and sex toys, pass on fucking for the moment. The oil needs to be washed off, and if it also ended up inside your ass, it needs to have been absorbed and broken down. This can take up to 24 hours.
When using latex condoms, you can choose between lube that’s water-based and lube that’s silicone-based. Limit yourself to these two options and don’t get creative with other liquids, which are likely to damage the condom. Water-based lube dries out quicker — though it can be revived with water — so will have to be reapplied more often, but it is generally less thick and sticky than silicone. Silicone lube can’t be washed away easily unless you use soap. This makes it a little harder to wipe your hands clean during sex, but it has more staying power. Recent research seems to indicate that several brands of water-based lube slightly irritate the tissue inside the ass, increasing vulnerability to STDs. This points to silicone being the better choice when it comes to safer sex. However, if you are playing with toys made of silicone, avoid silicone based lube. It damages the toys, dissolving them and making them go soft.
Regardless which lube you’re using, make sure you’re using enough. The risk of a condom tearing or someone’s ass getting damaged increases massively if the ass isn’t lubed and relaxed enough. Do a lot of foreplay (see chapter 26 for more details) and keep a towel at the ready to wipe your hands if they get too messy. There will be slight differences in your experience, depending on the brand of the condom and the lube you are using. Do some experimenting until you find a combination that really works for you.
Don’t depend on your partner to provide the latex. Make sure you always have lube and a few condoms with you if you are headed out and may end up in some sexy entanglement. Condoms and lube can be bought in small packages, which can easily and discretely be carried around in your coat, bag or even pocket. Some health services and bars provide individually packed condoms with packets of lube for free. While you’re carrying, make sure the condom doesn’t get too warm and doesn’t get damaged by something like a pen or a key pressed up against it. Always bring more than one. That may seem a bit optimistic, but it would be annoying if something goes wrong with that first condom, if you unexpectedly head into a second round or if you are both versatile and want to take turns. If you ever end up without protection at a moment when you need it, save the anal sex for another time and focus on less risky sex.
Do a quick visual check to see if the packaging around the condom looks undamaged before you carefully tear it open along one of the edges. If this is difficult because of lube on your fingers, give them a wipe first or let your partner handle it. Make sure you don’t have precome on your fingers when you take hold of the condom; you don’t want this to end up on the outside of the condom. Take a moment to see which side is ‘up’, before pressing it against the head of the dick. If you start out with the wrong side up, there is a chance of precome ending up on the outside of the condom. If this happens, it’s best to toss away the condom and grab a new one. If your partner is the one handling the condom, make sure he actually does take out a new condom in such an event. With the fingers of one hand, squeeze the air out of the little ‘reservoir’ at the tip of the condom. Not all condoms have such a reservoir. Its purpose is to catch come, but if there is too much air in there, it may burst during sex. Beware of long or sharp nails; these may harm the condom or the penis. Use three or four fingers of one hand to start pushing the rubber ring downwards over the dickhead and the shaft. Be sensitive when handling the tip of the penis: awkward pushing on this very sensitive spot can be unpleasant. If the dick is uncut, you have to carefully pull back the foreskin before you proceed rolling the ring down the shaft. If you’re applying the condom to someone else, keep an eye on their response. Discomfort can kill an erection and damage the mood. Make sure that there are no wrinkles in the condom along the shaft of the penis as these may irritate the ass during fucking. Should you accidentally create a wrinkle, put your fingers under the condom and pull it down a little bit. Avoid getting pubic hairs caught under the condom, as the resulting pain will not generally be considered a turn-on.
While fucking, make sure that the condom stays in place and pull it back down if it starts to creep up the shaft. When you pull out, hold the condom at the base of the cock, to prevent it from slipping off. After use, don’t roll it back off all the way. Pull it off in one movement while closing off the end of it with your fingers, to prevent anything from leaking out. If you didn’t come while fucking and there is something brown on the outside, you can grab the condom at the base and pull it off inside out, to have the clean(er) side on the outside. Throw the condom in the garbage, possibly with a tissue around it or tied in a knot if you’re afraid it will leak. Don’t flush it down the toilet as that may clog things up.
Practice solo with condoms before you get other people involved. Roll one over your dick a few times to get skilled at it. You may as well masturbate when you practice this, so you’ll get used to the sensation of a condom on your dick. Some men actually enjoy the feeling of tightness. It simplifies clean-up in any case.
Ambitious men can use a dildo to practice rolling a condom over a dick just using their mouth. This entails using your lips to push the rubber ring down the shaft while going down on a guy. Be sure to keep your teeth out of the way.
If you’re faced with a challenge during a date, like an exceptionally thick dick, the best thing to do may be to hand over the reins to its owner. He will have more experience handling his goods when it comes to condoms. But make sure he does it correctly before you lie back and put your legs up.
“Condoms should be marketed in 3 sizes, jumbo, colossal, and super colossal, so that men do not have to go in and ask for the small.”
– Barbara Seaman, writer
Failure to launch
Some men instantly go soft when condoms are brought into play, likely because of a mental resistance to them. Using them is seen as less natural and less intimate, or it brings up performance anxiety. The prospect of fiddling with one and the fear of not doing it properly, may break someone’s concentration and make him more self-conscious. The fear of going soft then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, making him lose his erection as feared. But this stress really isn’t necessary, and there are ways to make things easier for yourself and your partner.
For starters, keep yourself busy while you grab a condom, and have condoms, lube, and a clean towel within easy reach. It’s practical to have all these things in a cupboard next to your bed. You can even take the condom out of its packaging just as you start to play around and put everything on the nightstand, before you actually begin to gear up to a fuck. “Time for a condom?” is a good way to verbalize that you want to fuck and do it safe. But if it’s clear what is about to happen, you can start prepping without having to say something explicitly.
Don’t take a long break. One of you shouldn’t lean back and fold his arms while the other opens up the packaging and applies lube. Just keep kissing each other and touching anytime your hands aren’t busy with the condom or lube. The person getting the condom put on his dick, can go down on his partner or play with his partner’s ass. And giving a dick a good suck right before a condom is slipped over it makes its owner hornier and harder. Be sure the ass is properly relaxed and lubed before you start your entry.
Because of the minor loss of sensation, not everyone has an easy time staying hard with a condom on. Some men put a little lube on their dick before the condom goes over it, but that isn’t entirely without risk. You’ll have to be extra careful that the condom doesn’t slip off while fucking. Alternatively, you can use a thinner but still reliable condom which allows for more feeling. A cock ring may help; this keep blood inside your dick and makes it easier to stay hard. If all else fails, a doctor may be able to prescribe Cialis or Viagra to keep you up and ready for action.
Excuses, excuses, excuses
You’re likely to encounter partners who don’t take safer sex all that seriously. These people may try to do something which makes you slam on the brakes. They may want to come in your mouth, or want you to come in theirs, or play around with their dick not only near your ass, but actually try to push it inside without a condom. You need to be especially on your guard with guys who do things like this. It won’t be the first time they have done this during a date, which increases the chance that they have done risky things. Break off the activity, give them an implicit or explicit warning and kick them out of bed if they try something unsafe again, without checking your boundaries.
Horny men who are so lost in the moment that they don’t think about the future, use all kinds of excuses to not have to put a condom on, especially when they are drunk or under the influence of certain kinds of drugs. It may be true that there is a slight loss of sensitivity, mostly for the top. But the idea that it would be more intimate without a condom is very subjective; intimacy has a lot more to do with the emotional connection you feel to your partner than with having a rubber around your dick. There is plenty of direct physical contact in addition to those centimeters down below. Emotional manipulation may also be employed to try to goad you into having unsafe sex. “But I know I don’t have anything! You do trust me, don’t you?” However, many men with an STD don’t actually know they have one, and your health is not something you should put on the line to prove your feelings to someone.
The argument that safer sex is a hassle that breaks up the action is mostly true if you are inexperienced with it. A little bit of practice is all that is needed to make condoms a smooth and natural part of your sex life.
Even when playing around with a trusted partner, fucking without a condom is only responsible after a couple of not very romantic medical tests. Love by itself isn’t enough of a reason to do away with condoms. Emotions do not protect you against STDs.
Last edit: 7 June, 2020. Dutch version here.
“We had a heavy conversation when a std appeared in our supposedly monogamous relationship. The emotional fallout of the STD turned out to be greater than the physical damage.”