This week's question, via email: "Ignorance is bliss, right? It worked in my 20s. Well now I'm 36 and looking to have some hot, lesbian sex without contracting an STD. How do I stay safe without making everyone I bone (and who they bone and who they bone….) get tested before I put my tongue to their pussy? What's the protocol/best practice here!? I've noticed a serious lack of acknowledgment in the queer lezzie community regarding STDs and testing.' —Oralfixin
As Oralfixin's question points out, the lesbian community has had a complex relationship with STI safety.
For decades lesbians behaved like simply not having sex with men was all the safety that was needed. I think part of this comes from the conflation of sexual safety with avoiding pregnancy and part of it comes from the belief that oral sex is safer sex.
Unfortunately, for all of us that love going down, that's simply not true. The grain of truth that likely gave people that impression is that you're unlikely to to contract HIV from oral sex. Organizations like the CDC have changed their tune a few times when it comes to this risk, and currently land on this statement, "Although oral sex may carry a lower risk for spreading HIV than other forms of sex, repeated unprotected exposures may increase risk of transmission."
One of the problems when it comes to determining exact risk for various sex acts is that there aren't clear studies that differentiate one kind of sex from another when it comes to risk. And as fun as it sounds to be sequestered in a lab performing oral sex for six months, I doubt that study will get funded. So we're left with the self reporting that happens when people go to get tested for STIs, and most people have done a variety of sex acts between each test, so it's difficult to pinpoint how they contracted an STI, if their tests come back positive.
Sex is always political, to one degree or another, and that's doubly true when it comes to STI risk in various sexuality communities. When I was a baby queer, having just come out as bisexual in my teens, I felt the full force of stigma from both gay and straight folks. Lesbians who thought they were immune from STIs by avoidance of men saw the bi girls as a conduit for STIs into their communities. Straight folks felt the same.
I marched in the Long Beach Pride parade in 1998, when I was 17. It was the first year they'd let a bi group march. We had a group of protesters there just for us, yelling that it was our fault that straight people were getting AIDS. Once again, their hatred was based on the theory that the bisexual folks were the conduit between communities.
But here's the thing: No gender or sexuality is immune from STI risk. It's just that different acts carry different levels of risk. And those differences come down to what gets shared between bodies. Blood is the most risky, while sexual fluids and even skin to skin contact have risk of their own.
All of that is to say, no matter who you're having sex with, there's really no way to be safe(er) without having an explicit conversation about safety, risk and testing. I know a lot of people think this is a bummer, but here's the thing—an STI talk is a great testing ground for how someone communicates. If they can't handle that, there's a good chance they'll have a hard time with other conversations about sex.
I reached out to Allison Moon, author of Girl Sex 101, for her perspective. Here's what Moon had to say:
“First, educate yourself about common STDs and how they’re transmitted. (I provide a comprehensive guide for women in my book Girl Sex 101.) The skin-to-skin contact ones are most relevant for lesbians. Use this information to figure out your own needs around safety and risk. For instance, Herpes is a very common STD. Roughly 1 in 6 Americans have genital herpes, and a whopping 50 to 80 percent have oral herpes. Most people never have outbreaks and thus don’t know they’re positive. After understanding what kind of risk you’re willing to take on, have a conversation with your sex partner. Learn about their safer sex needs and how much knowledge they have about safer sex and STIs. You can learn a huge amount about someone’s sexual wherewithal by having this conversation. You might decide, for instance, only to have hand sex using gloves. Or you might decide to use a dental dam for oral. Or you might decide you’d rather take a raincheck.”
Those skin-to-skin STIs Allison mentions are no joke. In addition to Herpes there's HPV, the virus that causes both warts and cancer! Perhaps you remember Michael Douglas making the news a few years ago to blame his case of throat cancer on his passion for cunnilingus? According to the CDC, and as reported in Time Magazine, "About 60% of oropharyngeal cancers—cancers of the throat, tonsils and the base of tongue—are related to HPV. It is estimated that every year in the U.S., more than 2,370 new cases of HPV-related oropharyngeal cancers are diagnosed in women."
Robin Beatch adds toy safety, which doesn't get nearly enough attention and is often an integral part of queer sex. "Silicone dicks can be boiled or put in the dishwasher, though I highly recommend boiling for 10 minutes, cause I don't know if my dishwasher is up to par but I can SEE the water boiling," Robin says.
Are you still with me, Oralfixin? This is a lot of information so I'll summarize: Even if you're only having sex with other women, you're still at risk for just about every STI out there, even if the risks for some of them are a bit lower. In order to stay safe, there's no way around talking to your partner about your testing history and theirs, as well as discussing what safety measures you take with your partners.
If you're feeling deterred, here's the good news: There are lots of fun and sexy things you can do with someone that come with little to no risk. Pretty much every queer play party I go to focuses on gloved-hand sex and sex with condom covered, sanitizable toys. And I've never seen someone act like having fingers or a fist in their cunt and a Magic Wand on their clit is a let down.
So just remember that there are a lot of options for safe play before you're ready to have a testing talk, and that the testing talk itself is a great way to get to know your partner and how they approach their body and their safety.
Have you got a burning question of your own? We're listening! Email firstname.lastname@example.org and keep your eye out for an answer in an upcoming column!