Safer Sex For Queer Women: What You Didn’t Learn in Health Class

We all learn how to put a condom on a banana but we don’t even know that dental dams are a thing that exist!

Your resident sex educator chiming in this week to talk about safer sex for queer women. Most sex education models that exist today completely leave us out of the narrative. If you received any type of sex ed in high school, it probably had a lot to do with avoiding pregnancy and STIs. However, when they teach safer sex models the focus remains super heteronormative. Meaning, we all learn how to put a condom on a banana but we don’t even know that dental dams are a thing that exists! What happens when young queer people are only taught safer sex practices that are focused around penises is that they often think there are no precautions to take. And that’s just not true.

First (as with most things related to sex and women), we’ve got to break the stigma.

For some reason, society upholds this narrative that queer women don’t have one night stands or random hook-ups. I’m here to tell you that we do. You know we do. We all know it.

It’s hot and amazing to have a sexy fling with the girl you just met at the bar! But it’s also risky and I care about your sexual health.

Along with this stigma comes an assumption that queer women are at a lower risk for STIs. I’ve learned from the Internet and through talking to queer friends that a lot of us don’t practice safer sex. Like at all. Since there aren’t very many studies done on sexual health that document sexuality—ahem, patriarchal system, I blame you for assuming we’re all straight—we don’t have exact numbers on STIs rates for lesbian, queer, bisexual or trans women.

We’ve already talked about how to talk about STIs with your sexual partners, but I want to dive a little deeper this week and talk about safer sex practices we can all use. While we’re talking about the V, it’s important to remember that no two vaginas are the same. Some women don’t prefer their parts to be referred to as a vulva or vagina. And some women don’t have a vulva or vagina. Some women refer to other body parts as their vulva or vagina. This sex advice is for all women and we recognize that words are subjective.

Laverne Cox (Sophia) on OITNB
Laverne Cox (Sophia) on OITNBPhoto by Netflix

Barrier options

Though your heteronormative high school health teacher would never want you to know this (for reasons completely unbeknownst to me), there are barrier options other than condoms you can use to practice safer sex.

For one, there are dental dams.

I know the worst name possible for something you’re going to use during sex, but the actual product is great! You can get dental dams in so many different flavors and colors to spice things up when you’re going down on your partner.

They’re also super easy to use. You just put down the rubber barrier on your partner’s vulva or anus and go to town! Be sure to check the product for any tears or holes when you open the packaging. STIs can be shared through all sorts of sexy activity so it’s important to use for all oral sex, including analingus.

Pro tip: You can play around with your dental dam and really have fun with safer sex! Try tugging, blowing or snapping the dam against your partner’s vulva or anus for different sensations.

You can also get yourself a sexy box of gloves to keep in your nightside table.  My favorite are dark purple or black gloves that fit perfectly to my hand, I feel like a sexy doctor when I snap them on. The added plus to gloves is that we femmes can keep our nails extra long and still get down and dirty. They also help keep lube extra lubey for even longer! Gloves are great for vaginal or anal penetration, especially fisting as it will help you hand glide right in there for added pleasure.

Also, condoms!

It’s important to keep some condoms around for many reasons: 1. You should use them if you’re sharing sex toys with different partners (even if you clean your toys, as you should). 2. You can cut a condom down the middle to create a makeshift dental dam. It’s important to note that this is not ideal, but good to have as a backup. I say it’s not ideal because dental dams taste way better than condoms. 3. Some queer women may have penises, so it’s important to have condoms on deck for any type of play.

A lot of people feel turned off by barriers because they can change the way you feel sexual sensations. If you really don’t want to use barriers, then make sure you get tested regularly and talk about your status with your sexual partners. If you’ve both been tested recently and decide that you don’t want to use barriers—that’s okay. All sex has some sort of risk tied to it, whether emotional, physical or health wise, be sure to talk about what kind of sex you want to be having with your partner(s). Communication is key.

Two women having an intimate moment
Photo by Shutterstock

Get the answers you need

Anytime you are rubbing parts with another human, you should either both be consenting to fluid-bonded sex or you should probably use a barrier or some sort. Since there is a huge lack of sexual health resources for LGBTQ people, we often don’t have all the information we need. LGBTQ people are less likely to go for regular health checkups and many queer women have had negative experiences with their OBGYN. Meaning, we don’t go as often as we should and when we do go, we’re afraid to ask the questions we desperately need answers to.

Skin to skin

Some queer women have penises or may be having sex with people with penises and that adds different kinds of risks. The reality is that queer women are at the same risk as anyone else for any kind of STI. Get tested and know your status!

Women who engage in vulva to vulva sex are at a higher risk of transmitting bacterial vaginosis (BV). This one is so annoying, trust me I know from horrible personal experience. Vulvas have a very fragile ecosystem and once something rocks the boat to cause your bacteria to get ~a tiny~ bit off, it’s hard to find the right balance again. It’s especially hard for vulva to vulva sexual partners because we can pass BV back and forth to each other’s parts. If you see any sign of white, lumpy discharge that smells a bit fishy, you should get tested by your OBGYN. It’s easy to get rid of once they get you on the right meds. Do not self-medicate for a yeast infection with over the counter products as that can actually make BV much worse.

People with vulvas should be most aware of STIs spread through skin-to-skin contact, like HSV1 or 2 (also known as herpes). While the majority of women who have HSV1/2 have an outbreak of blisters and get tested right away, sometimes this infection lays dormant for years. The carrier is still contagious and can spread from mouth to genital or genital to genital contact. The only way to know for sure whether or not you have HSV1/2 is to get a blood test. Most doctors won’t do this test without your request, so be sure to advocate for yourself the next time you get tested!

The most common STI is the human papillomavirus (HPV). Nearly all sexually active people have had it at some point in their lives! Most cases go away on their own, but severe cases can cause warts or cervical cancer. The good news is that there are vaccines for HPV, just ask your doctor.

STIs can be shared by touching genitals together, sharing toys or using your hands/mouths on one another. Safer sex practices should be practiced in all of these instances. Besides the usual STI tests, you should get a regular pap smear every year starting in your 20s or when you start having sex.

Really all I want as a sex educator is for all of you to have amazing sex if that’s what you want! The most important thing to remember is that communication is key in all of your sexual relationships. Talk about how you’re feeling and what you want out of your sexual relationship! Go forth and have deliciously good queer sex, hopefully, you now feel more empowered to do it with safer sex practices.

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Corinne Werder is a writer, sex educator, and girl on the move currently residing in Brooklyn, NY. She looks at the world through the lens of a pleasure activist, femme-of-center queer woman. Her background in sex education comes from her volunteer work with RAINN, her work as a sexual assault/domestic violence advocate and she is currently a student at the Institute for Sexuality and Enlightenment. 

Have more sex questions? Leave a comment below or email webeditor@gomag.com and come back for more every Friday! 

The advice offered in this column is intended for informational purposes only and should not replace or substitute for any medical, or other professional advice or help. For concerns requiring psychological or medical advice, please consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist This column, its author, the magazine, and publisher are not responsible for the outcome or results of following any advice contained within this column.