If you got any kind of sex ed as kid, you were lucky if the “safe sex” part even included putting a condom on a banana. But if you were a teenager with a vagina sitting there thinking about the fact that you had no interest in penises — or maybe only a part-time interest — you probably didn’t get much info about safer sex that actually related to your sex life. That’s because safer sex for couples with vulvas and vaginas just isn’t something that’s talked about in most sex ed classes. So let’s talk about it here.
If you’re concerned about STIs, the very first thing you should do is get tested with your new partner — either together or separately — before you go anywhere near their vulva. That’s because you can’t get an STI if the person you’re having sex with doesn’t have an STI, and vice versa. I know that sounds obvious, but it’s really worth saying! Sometimes the way we talk about STIs in our culture makes it seem like you’re going to get an STI if you go anywhere near anyone’s genitals, but it’s just not true. So if you both get tested and you both don’t have any STIs, and you’re monogamous, you can basically skip the rest of this article.
Another thing to know is that oral sex on a vulva is not a high-risk activity for STI transmission. For example, it’s extremely difficult (not impossible, but there are no documented cases yet) to transmit HIV this way, probably because the skin on the vulva is more like other skin on the outside of your body (like, I don’t know, the skin on your inner arm) than it is like the mucous membranes inside the vagina and on the penis. You can also transmit herpes, chlamydia, and gonorrhea via oral sex on a vulva, but it’s still a low-risk activity.
Probably the highest risk activity for couples with vulvas and vaginas is “tribbing,” which is when you rub vulvas together. That’s because there’s a risk of friction leading to tearing, which creates little holes for STIs to slip through. Herpes, HPV, syphilis, trichomoniasis, chlamydia, and gonorrhea can all be transmitted this way.
So what do you do about it? One good move is to make sure to use lots of lube, whether you’re tribbing or having penetrative sex with toys or fingers. Lube reduces friction, which reduces the risk of tearing, which reduces the risk of STI transmission. You can also use condoms on sex toys, making sure to change the condom when you switch to using it on your own body or on another partner’s body.
If you’re super concerned and you don’t know your partner’s STI status, you can also use a dental dam, which is a piece of latex or polyurethane that can be placed over the vulva and the surrounding area. The person giving the oral sex can then stimulate the person receiving through the latex, similar to how a condom is used on a penis. While not a lot of people use dental dams, some people feel more secure with them — and that’s a totally valid feeling.
Finally, if you have any symptoms of oral herpes, don’t have oral sex. Despite the name, oral herpes can be transmitted to someone’s genitals. So if you’re having an outbreak? Just do something else for a while. Maybe try out mutual masturbation!
Ultimately, though, human beings give each other infections and sometimes we give them to each other with our genitals. It can be annoying, but an STI diagnosis isn’t the end of the world. Remember: All STIs are treatable and most are curable.
Emma McGowan is a veteran writer, editor, and SFSI-endorsed sex educator with upwards of 1000 articles on her byline. Emma is a sex/relationships/dating writer at Bustle and a senior writer at Startups.com. Her work has appeared on Buzzfeed, Broadly, Bedsider, Mashable, The Daily Dot, Mic, and The Bold Italic, among others. She’s the Editor in Chief of the sex positive sexual health site Sexual + Being and the sex tech website Kink&Code.