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What is safe sex & how to have it

by Dr. Margo Harrison
Julie Medical Advisor
General Sex

If we’re being honest, Sex Ed in middle and high school didn’t teach us that much about sex. Whether you’re sexually active or not, knowing about safe sex, or “safer” sex, and how to have it can be very helpful in keeping you and your partner, or future partners, protected. Regardless of whom you are having sex with and their gender, it’s important to understand the different types of sex and how to stay protected along the way.

What is safe sex?

Safe sex (or protected sex) is when you use male or female condoms to protect you and your partner from sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) or unwanted pregnancies. Practicing safe sex also includes the regular use of birth control—like the pill, patch, ring, IUD, or other methods—to help prevent unplanned pregnancies.

As a refresher, STIs are infections passed from person to person during sex through bodily fluids, blood, semen, or vaginal discharge. Anyone who has oral, vaginal, anal, or genital skin-to-skin contact shares sexual fluids, making you and your partner at risk of getting a STI if the other person has one. It’s common for people with STIs, which are the infections that lead to STDs, to have no symptoms, making it very easy to pass it on without anyone knowing.

Unprotected sex, on the other hand, is when you don’t use a condom or other kind of barrier method. Unprotected sex puts you at greater risk of contracting an STI or becoming pregnant if you’re not using effective birth control.

Regardless of whether you have a penis or vagina, or if your partner has the same or different genitalia, STIs can still be passed. No matter who you’re sexually active with, it’s worth knowing the steps you can take to protect yourself and your partner.

Get more information about STIs and STDs, how to have safe sex with someone with an STI, and common symptoms here.

Safe sex practices

The first step to having safe sex is talking about it with your partner. If starting the conversation feels awkward, remember that your partner probably wants to protect themselves too. Here are some ways to bring up the safe sex convo before any sexual activity starts.

Talk to your partner

Kick off your conversation by stating your intention. It’s ok to make it as simple as, “I like to have safe sex and want to talk about protection before anything happens.” You can follow that up by sharing your own health status with your partner, like the last time you were tested for STIs and the results. Use that as a pathway to ask them about the last time they were tested for STIs and if they’ve ever had any.

If you or your partner has an STI, the best way to prevent its spread is to avoid sexual activity or use safe sex practices. Use condoms or dental dams for vaginal, anal, and oral sex (whether or not there’s a known STI). If you have an incurable STI, such as HIV or herpes, talk to your doctor about what you can do to lower your chances of spreading it to your partner, and be sure to stay current on any treatments.

Outercourse, like dry humping and mutual masturbation, is another option that can lower your chance of getting an STI. Dry humping doesn’t require you to remove your clothes, keeping you safe from genital contact. It is possible for clothes to become soaked with fluid, which can make this barrier less effective than dental dams and condoms.

Mutual masturbation involves touching or stroking your partner's genitals with your hand. If you touch someone’s genitals with your bare hands who has or may have an STI, be sure to wash them thoroughly with soap and water before touching your own body as this contact could otherwise potentially result in infection.

Visually scan your partner’s body

Look for any sores, blisters, rashes, warts, or bumps, especially around the mouth, genitalia, or rectal areas. This can be a symptom of an STI, and if you notice one, it’s best to refrain from intercourse or use a condom, although condoms aren’t fully protective since there can still be skin to skin contact. Learn more about protecting yourself from STIs here.

Use condoms

Using a latex barrier is one of the best ways to prevent STIs. Be sure to use a condom, female condom, or dental dam for any vaginal, anal, or oral intercourse. If you use lubricant, always use one that’s water-based. Never use food oils, like coconut oil, which can damage the condom and be a skin irritant. Lubricants that are alcohol-based, like baby oil, are also a bad option, as they can make the condom more prone to tearing or breaking.


Sex is normal and healthy, but it can lead to STIs and pregnancy. Here are some ways to prevent both.


Pregnancy can occur from unprotected penis-in-vagina sex. If an egg has already been released from the ovary, it could be fertilized by sperm ejaculated from a penis. If that fertilized egg lands on the uterus and grows, a pregnancy has begun. Both condoms and birth control can help prevent pregnancy. Regular birth control can come in a variety of forms: oral pill, injection, implant, ring, or intrauterine device (IUD). But sometimes, accidents can happen. Condoms can break, you might forget to take your pill, or unprotected sex occurs. To prevent pregnancy, take emergency contraception like Julie as soon as possible. Julie is 89% effective when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but can safely be taken up to 5 days after. Read more about how Julie works here.

Preventing STIs

Sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), often used interchangeably with STDs (or sexually-transmitted diseases), are infections that you can contract during sex, especially during unprotected sex. The bacteria, viruses, and parasites that cause STIs pass from person to person through skin-to-skin contact, blood, semen, vaginal fluid, and other body fluids.

The best way to prevent STIs is to avoid sexual intercourse, but that doesn’t always happen. If you’re sexually active, you can protect yourself from STIs by

  • Using a latex barrier, such as a condom or dental dam
  • Doing a body check on both yourself and your partner
  • Experimenting with mutual masturbation and dry humping instead of intercourse
  • Getting vaccinated for HPV and hepatitis

It’s important to remember that condoms aren’t 100% safe; it’s still possible to get an STI from a tear in the condom or from skin to skin contact that the condom doesn’t cover. For more on STIs and how to prevent them, check out our article here.

What to do if you have unprotected sex

Unsafe or unprotected sex happens. But knowing what to do and why is the first step to making healthier sex decisions in the future. If you recently had unprotected sex, here are some steps you can take.

Use emergency contraception

Emergency contraception is a safe, effective way to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. The “morning-after” pill, like Julie, is the most common type of emergency contraception because it’s 89% effective when taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex and is very easy to find and use. You can get Julie online or at a Walmart near you without a prescription, ID, or credit card!

If your BMI is over 30, you might consider the copper IUD. While Julie is still safe, FDA-approved, and effective at any weight, there have been studies that have shown a decrease in efficacy. Research is still behind in this area so we don’t know enough about why this occurs. You can read more about Julie’s effectiveness with people who have higher BMIs here. While the copper IUD can be more effective, it does require an appointment with a healthcare professional, which can take weeks. The copper IUD needs to be inserted within 5 days of unprotected sex for it to be effective.

Take a pregnancy test

It’s no surprise that the best way to know if you’re pregnant is by taking a pregnancy test. But if you take a pregnancy test too early, like right after sex, you may get a false negative. If you’re trying to avoid pregnancy, take emergency contraception, or the morning-after pill, as soon as possible after unprotected sex. If your period is a week late or hasn’t arrived within three weeks after taking Julie or another morning-after pill, take a pregnancy test. If it comes back negative, your cycle is just disrupted and should return to normal the following month. Check out our side effects article here.

Get free contraception if you can’t afford it

If you’d like to have safe sex, but you don’t have access to protection, consider reaching out to a clinic or nonprofit that offers free contraception and/or emergency contraception. At Julie, we believe everyone deserves access to protection and emergency contraception, which is why we donate a box pack of Julie for every box sold. You can find out more about our program here. You can also check out Planned Parenthood, your local health department, Title X clinics, and LGBTQIA+ centers to get free or subsidized contraception.

Safe oral sex

Just as you can practice safe vaginal and anal sex, you can practice safe oral sex as well. Even though oral sex doesn’t pose any pregnancy risks, you’re still at risk of contracting an STI. Gonorrhea, hepatitis, herpes, and HPV are common STIs that can be transferred via oral sex. Condoms and dental dams can often be overlooked when practicing safe sex, but they’re effective barriers against the spread of STIs through the mouth. You can cut open a condom and use that in place of a dental dam.

Safe anal sex

Anal sex is a common form of intercourse. Like oral sex, it doesn’t pose any pregnancy risks, but you’re at a higher risk of getting an STI because the delicate skin in this area is more prone to tiny skin tears. It can also lead to urinary tract infections (UTIs) or gastrointestinal illnesses. But with a plan in place, it can be just as pleasurable as vaginal sex. And with the right tools, like lubricant, condoms, or clean sex toys, you can have safe anal sex.

Make a plan with your partner to ensure it's safe and pleasurable for the two of you. Unlike the vagina, the anus doesn’t have any natural lubrication. But like the vagina, it needs to be relaxed for safe penetration. First, decide whether to use a condom-wrapped penis, sex toy, or finger for insertion. For safe anal sex that avoids tearing the skin, be sure to use plenty of lubricant, no matter what method of insertion you choose.

A common myth is that you’ll immediately defecate or poop when something is inserted, this isn’t entirely true. You may see poop on the finger, penis, or toy, but it does not work like an enema. If you’re concerned about this, use the toilet or shower before anal sex, and talk about it with your partner.

It’s not possible to become pregnant from anal sex, so you don’t need to use emergency contraception. However, if you decide on penile penetration for anal sex, be sure to use a condom and lube for protection against STIs.

Have questions about sex and preventing pregnancy? Join our After Sex Space on Quora to get real answers from real doctors. It’s time for the Sex Ed we always wanted.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. The information contained herein is not a substitute for and should never be relied upon for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment. Learn more about our editorial standards here.