Using barriers when you’re engaging sexually with another person is a great way to make sex safer and reduce the risk of passing sexually transmitted infections (STIs) from one partner to another.
A barrier is any impermeable material that prevents bodily fluids like semen, vaginal fluid, saliva, or blood from being passed from one person’s body to another person’s body.
You probably learned some stuff about barriers, like condoms, in high school sex ed. But when it comes to barriers, you have a lot of options! Here is some information to get you started.
External condoms (condoms that are used on penises) tend to be the most well-known barrier. During penetrative, vaginal sex, Americans are using external condoms 25% of the time. And teens are using condoms more than their adult counterparts. Go youth making sex safer!
Condoms can be used to prevent the transmission of STIs and to prevent pregnancy during penis-in-vagina sex. To find free condoms near you, use this map.
Condoms are better at preventing STIs that are transmitted through bodily fluids (semen, vaginal fluid, and blood), such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, and HIV. They are less effective at protecting against STIs that are transmitted via skin to skin contact, such as HPV and herpes, because condoms do not cover 100% of the skin in genital areas. Talking to your partner about their STI status is the best way to know what type of protection you will want to use during sexual activity.
Using condoms during anal sex can be especially helpful in protecting against STI transmission. The anus does not self lubricate, so when it is penetrated, there is often significant friction against the inner anal tissues. This can result in microtears of the anal tissue that can allow viruses or bacteria into the bloodstream. Using condoms can help protect from unwanted fluid transmission. Using tons of lube helps too!
As for pregnancy prevention, condoms are about 85% effective. This means that the average person using condoms during penis-in-vagina sex has a 15% chance of getting pregnant within one year of use. If you’re interested in birth controls that are better at preventing pregnancy, intrauterine devices (IUDs) and the implant have effectiveness rates of over 99%.
Now that we’ve talked about all the things condoms can do, did you know how many different types of condoms there are to choose from!
This is likely the most commonly known type of condom. Latex is a durable material that has a low incidence of breakage. Some drawbacks are that latex has a strong smell and taste that can bother some people. Latex can also feel too constrictive or tight to some wearers. Finally, if you or your partner have a latex allergy, you’ll have to use a condom or barrier made from another material. Luckily, there are many other options!
Polyurethane condoms protect against pregnancy and STIs. Polyurethane is less stretchy than latex which gives it a slightly higher breakage and slippage rate than latex condoms. However, the upside of polyurethane condoms are that more users report that they fit comfortably and allow for increased sensitivity during sex compared to latex condoms.
Polyisoprene is a form of synthetic latex that does not trigger latex allergies so it is safe for use by those with latex sensitivities. Because it’s like latex, these condoms are also stretchy and durable.
Lambskin or Animal Membrane
A lambskin barrier works as an effective method of birth control but they do not protect against STIs! Animal membranes are too porous to properly protect against the transmission of STIs like HIV and Hepatitis B.
Internal Condoms (Female Condoms)
If you have a vagina, there are condoms for you too! These are called ‘female condoms’ or internal condoms. These condoms are placed inside the vagina and you can insert them well before you have sexual contact with a partner. FC2 is the only brand of internal condoms in the USA that is FDA approved. You can sometimes get them at Planned Parenthood or a local health center. You can also order them online or buy them at places like WalMart or a drug store. Internal condoms are about 79% effective with average use.
Ok that was a lot about condoms…
But they are not the only barrier out there! Here are a few more to add to your barrier repertoire.
Dental dams are thin rectangles of latex or polyurethane that protect against STI transmission during oral sex by covering the vagina or anus and their surrounding genital area. For example, Herpes can occasionally be transmitted during vaginal oral sex and Hepatitis A, Shigella, and a few other STIs can be transmitted during anal oral sex. Using a dental dam can help to reduce the risk of transmission.
You can buy dental dams or you can make a dental dam by cutting off the top of a condom and then cutting up the length of the condom so that you can roll the latex out into a flat rectangle. Fun fact, dental dams really are something that dentists use to isolate teeth they are working on in a patient’s mouth. However, these actual dentist dental dams are not as thin and flexible as the ones now made specifically for use during oral sex.
Finger Cots and Latex Gloves
Research has not yet been able to tell us if it is very likely to contract an STI from sticking your fingers into someone’s vagina or anus. However, if you or your partner have an STI, using finger cots or gloves during sexual activity can be a good way to prevent bodily fluids from being exchanged from genitals to fingers to other genitals or mouth. You’re probably familiar with latex gloves (feel free to indulge any doctor fantasies consensually with your partner here). Finger cots are mostly made for protecting your fingers when you’ve got a cut on them. They’re mainly made for medical uses, not sexual uses specifically. Look for finger cots made of latex from a drug store if you’d like to use them.
By now, your head is spinning with barriers and I hope you feel more empowered to choose the barriers that work best for you and complement the sex acts you enjoy most. If you have any further questions, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll help you get an accurate answer.
Louise Head is an queer-identified associate marriage and family therapist in Sacramento. She blogs at The Spot every 2nd and 4th Wednesday of the month. For more evidence-based, intersectional sex-educational fun, follow her on Instagram @swoon.sex.ed