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All about Barrier Methods: Condoms and Sex Dams

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One rule of thumb is to use barrier methods like you would if your partner DID have an STD/STI and you didn't want to get it.

Barrier methods protect the exchange of bodily fluids when having sex (that includes oral and anal sex!).

Why is that important? Not only do they reduce the risk of unplanned pregnancy -- they also reduce the risk of STD/STI transmission. 

Two ways barrier methods help make sex "safer":

  • Some barrier methods can reduce the risk of an unplanned pregnancy, 
  • Barrier methods can reduce the risk of getting an STD/STI.

Barrier methods work to reduce STD/STI transmission by preventing body-fluid transmission and reducing the amount of skin-to-skin contact.  Learn more about transmission in STD/STI Basics.

Voices of Experience

It’s hard in the heat of the moment to tell the person you’re having sex with, “Wait, do you have a condom? When is the last time you were tested for HIV?” It kinda kills the mood, but I do it because compared to having an STD, which would REALLY kill the mood, asking a few questions is easier.

More Voices

Know your barrier method options.

There are actually three types of barrier methods: Condoms (insertive and receptive) and Sex Dams.

You may have heard the terms "male" and "female" condoms in the past but we are going to avoid the use of these terms because they are a bit misleading. The truth is, traditional "male" condoms (insertive condoms) can be used to cover a penis during sex but they can also be used to cover sex toys or cut to make a sex dam, so they aren't just for male-bodied individuals. Likewise, traditional "female" condoms (receptive condoms) can certainly be used in the vagina but they can also be used in the rectum for anal sex so they aren't just for female-bodied individuals.

If you want to learn about male-bodied people using condoms, check out our Guys Guide to Condoms

So, we're throwing the gender specific terminology labels for condoms out the window, we're going to use the terms insertive and receptive instead.  Ok, enough with semantics, here's what we are talking about.

Three Types of Barrier Methods.

  • Insertive Condom (aka male condom): The most common type of barrier method is a piece of latex that fits over the top of the penis or a sex toy. Insertive condoms have a big perk as they can reduce the risk of STD/STI transmission as well as prevent pregnancy (if used for vaginal sex). Insertive condoms are widely available without any sort of prescription in drug stores. Many clinics that offer HIV or STD/STI testing give them away for FREE. You can stock up on dozens of free insertive condoms but remember, if you do stock up, watch the expiration dates because condoms do expire!
  • Receptive Condom (aka female condom): A latex pouch with flexible rings at both ends that can be inserted into the vagina or rectum before having sex to reduce the risk the STD/STIs (pregnancy too if used vaginally). The insertive condom is available at family planning clinics, drugstores, online, and in some supermarkets.
  • Barrier methods are like seat belts – you have to use one every time. You can’t buckle up on a Monday and expect that to protect you on Friday.

  • Sex Dam (aka dental dam):  Small, thin, square pieces of latex that provide a barrier during oral sex when it is placed over the vulva or anus. Sex dams aren't as widely available but you can certainly find them online, in some drug stores or at family planning clinics. Insertive or receptive condoms can be turned into sex dams by simply cutting them along their length to create a square (or somewhat square) piece of latex. In a pinch you can use non-microwaveable plastic wrap too! 

For barrier methods to be effective you have to use them CONSISTENTLY.

What does consistently mean? It means that you use a barrier method EVERY time you have sex with EVERY sexual activity that involves the potential for body fluid exchange or skin-to-skin contact.

Mutual sexual monogamy may be the best way to protect yourself, move on to learn more....

 Move On!