Safe Sex in All Respects
by Nicole Howley | published May. 3rd, 2014
Sex is a fantastic activity, and like any other fantastic activity, sex comes with risks. However, unlike fantastic activities like sky diving, consuming alcoholic beverages and eating more than your recommended serving size of cake, sex has risks and safety measures that often go unstated or unexplained.
Sure, most people have heard of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) as well as the risks of pregnancy, but with the rates of infection and unplanned pregnancies still high, some information still seems to be lacking. When people do talk about safe sex, emotional and psychological safety often go undiscussed. Although this article is too brief to cover all of the missing information, we do hope to address some of the most important safety precautions you can take for your physical, mental and relationship health.
“First of all, we never say safe sex; we say safer sex,” said Betty Vickery, Women’s Health and Sexual Health nurse practitioner at RIT’s Health Center. “Because unfortunately any sex can put people at risk for infection, injury, pregnancy — that type of thing.” These risks can often be reduced when they are fully understood and when appropriate safety precautions are taken.
Knowing your partner’s sexual history can be one of the most important nuggets of information for making decisions about how to approach your sex life together and what methods of birth control or STI protection are best for you. Considering the rise of hook up culture, Vickery said. “I do wish people would just sort of step back and get to know somebody first. Ask them questions.” One of the most important steps you can take to protect yourself is to make sure that you and your partner get tested for STIs. Although this is common advice, there are still a few misconceptions about how these tests work.
“People frequently will come in [to the Health Center] and ask to be tested for everything and I have to tell them that there is not a test for everything,” explained Vickery. Instead, there are multiple tests and even once taken you may not know that you are completely clean. The most prevalent STI, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, is human papillomavirus (HPV) with about 79 million people in the United States infected (most in their early twenties or late teens) and about 14 million new cases each year. There is still no test for this STI.
Another set of preventative measures that can make sex safer are barrier methods. These can extend beyond the well-known condom because sexual activity can often extend beyond the well-known sexual penetration. “Even though people may use barriers for vaginal sex, for some reason I think they think that mouth and genital contact is not going to cause a problem,” stated Vickery. Dental dams, saran wrap and latex gloves can all play an important role in sexual safety too.
However the inconvenience, awkwardness and impracticality of these methods lead few people to use them. Message boards about dental dams, for example, are filled with people saying that they have never used them or if they have, they gave up pretty quickly. These methods may work for some, but for the majority, one of the best ways to approach barriers and birth control is by looking at your own situation.
For instance, if you are in a committed relationship where you have been together for months or years and you have both been tested, maybe your only concern is with pregnancy prevention. In that case, barrier methods may be impractical and other options for pregnancy prevention are available. Many experts recommend using two methods of birth control — usually one barrier and one hormonal (two hormonal together is not recommended though) — you have to decide which ones are right for you.
If you are going to engage in more casual hookups where you hardly know your partner, more barrier methods should be involved. On the other hand, if you know your partner well and you are aware that they have HIV, there are additional methods that can reduce your risk. The Center for Disease Control even started acknowledging these options when they changed the term “unprotected sex,” meaning sex without a condom, to “condomless sex” because there are other measures that can protect you.
Some of these alternative methods include antiretroviral therapy (the treatment for HIV) and pre-exposure prophylaxis which can be taken by a partner who is not infected to reduce their risk. Neither of these methods are 100 percent effective solutions. Yet neither are condoms or other forms of birth control. Sex is inherently risky but so is life. Just make sure you know what birth control and safety measures work for you, and if you don’t, have some fun and try them out.
According to the Red Flag Campaign website, “Research indicates that in 21 percent of college dating relationships, one of the partners is being abused.” With statistics like this and the number of students who are raped or sexually assaulted each year, safe sex goes beyond using a condom; a safe sexual relationship is very important as well.
Erin Esposito, executive director of Advocacy Services for Abused Deaf Victims and faculty member in NTID, speaks with victims of relationship abuse at RIT and beyond. To her, a safe relationship means that “all people who are involved in the relationship feel safe, comfortable and respected, and I mean that on every level,” Esposito said. “I mean physically, emotionally, psychologically [and] financially, depending on the level of the relationship that you have.”
Abusive and unhealthy relationships can come in many forms from physical to emotional to psychological and noticing this abuse can be half the battle. “Sometimes people think that if something is physically abusive, it’s easy because it’s obvious … Physical is black and white. There’s no uncertainty about it. You’re physical or you’re not,” Esposito stated. “Emotional is a whole different ball game. I personally have seen several people who have been emotionally abused. Verbally abused, psychologically abused and it’s just as bad if not worse.”
When abuse is not physical, it can be difficult to notice what’s going on, even for the victims. “[B]ecause I wasn’t physically being abused, I stayed in a situation that had me an emotional wreck for too long,” recalled fourth year Graphic Design major Alyssa Miller. She was in unhealthy relationships during high school and her freshman year of college. The way people reacted to her relationships made recognizing the abuse even more difficult.
After her first unhealthy relationship in high school, when her ex began following her around the school, she reported his actions. “When I finally broke down and reported, the school psychologist said, ‘Oh, well, you hurt his feelings because you wouldn’t date him,’” said Miller.
She believes that these words contributed to her decision to stay in her next relationship for longer than she felt was right. “And I was totally miserable in it. And a friend at the time was saying, ‘Alyssa, these are relationships. You’re miserable like 70 percent of the time. That’s just how they are,’” recalled Miller. “And I just remember thinking, I don’t know, I’ve never really dated much before so I just kind of went along with it until I reached the point of no, I don’t like being miserable 70 percent of my life.” Knowing the warning signs for abusive relationships can be vital. That’s why groups like the Red Flag Campaign and people like Esposito are working to inform people of what abuse looks like before it happens.
“One thing I do know is that it’s very frustrating for friends especially to see someone they care about being in that unhealthy situation and have a hard time getting out,” said Esposito. “And while I’ve seen people be supportive, I’ve also seen people get frustrated and say, the second or third time they go back, ‘I’m not helping you anymore because you’re not leaving.’” On average, someone will leave an abusive relationship seven times before they leave for good and it can be difficult for friends to stick around through the whole process. However, support can be critical to helping a friend out of the situation, especially since losing their social network can push people further into the abusive relationship.
“You don’t want to encourage them to leave; you want to encourage them to take care of themselves and make sure that they feel comfortable, safe and respected. If leaving is a part of that, then that’s a part of that,” advised Esposito. “You want to say, ‘I care about you and you don’t seem as happy as I’ve known you to be. I’m here.’
Recently, Miller designed a graphic that she hopes will provide support and encouragement to others in unhealthy relationships. “It’s a graphic that’s in pinks, purples and blues of these two hands doing a heart, and then underneath it says ‘Love Should Not Hurt,’” Miller described. She is currently working with the Center for Women and Gender to launch a campaign on the topic using her graphic. She hopes that they can give out a token with the logo on it to remind students of what a healthy relationship is and is not.
Even though abuse and rape still happen, Esposito is noticing a shift in culture. “Rape still occurs, but if you look in comparison to the way things were centuries ago to now, it’s changed,” she stated. “I mean there is potential for more change which means really, honestly, I believe there’s going to be a day when it will be very minimal. I really, truly hope.”