One of the ways in which HIV can be transmitted is through having anal or vaginal sex without using a condom. This is because HIV is found in high quantities in semen, as well as in blood. Vaginal secretions carry lower levels of HIV, but there can still be enough virus for transmission. While the virus cannot pass through intact external skin, it can enter through the delicate skin of the vaginal walls as well as the skin on the head of the penis.
‘Safer Sex’ is a term used to describe all sexual activities that do not allow the HIV partner’s blood, semen or fluid from the vagina to get inside the other partner’s body. A condom can act as a barrier between the penis and the other person’s body, stopping exposure to fluids.
Condoms are not totally safe – they significantly reduce the risks of HIV transmission. However, the main reason why condoms, and femidoms, fail is because they are used wrongly. Some couples, in weighing up the risks, choose to give up penetrative sex in favour of other kinds of sexual activities, eg, massage, mutual masturbation, using sex toys such as vibrators without sharing them, body to body rubbing etc. Others choose to keep on having penetrative sex with careful and consistent condom use.
Basic guidelines for condom use are:
- Practice and be prepared
- Use water-based lubricant not oil-based lubricant
- Look after the condom. Be careful of tearing, using old condoms, leaving space or air in the condom or not using enough lubricant
- Unroll the condom right to the base of the penis after it is hard, and before penetration
- When pulling out, hold the condom tight to the base of the penis to avoid leaks
- Never re-use a condom
Although oral sex is less risky than anal or vaginal sex without a condom, there are some factors which could increase the likelihood of HIV transmission:
- Taking semen or vaginal fluids, including menstrual fluid, into the mouth
- Bleeding gums, cuts or sores in the mouth
- Inflammation caused by throat allergies, infections etc.
- For oral sex, some people prefer to use condoms or dental dams (a small square of rubber placed between the vulva or anus and mouth).