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Safe Sex Information

What is a Sexually Transmitted Disease?

Alternative Name: STD

A contagious disease that can be transferred to another person through sexual intercourse or other sexual contact.

Transmission of Infection:

Many of the organisms that cause sexually-transmitted diseases live on the mucous membranes that line the urethra, vagina, anus, and mouth. Some also live on the skin.

Most of the infectious organisms are transferred by direct contact with a sore or lesion on the genitals or mouth. However, some organisms can live in body fluids without causing a visible lesion and are transferred by contact with the body fluid.

Sexually-transmitted diseases are transmitted by both heterosexual and homosexual practices. They can be transferred to another person during oral, vaginal, or anal intercourse. Some sexual practices, such as anal intercourse, carry higher risk of transmission of certain diseases than other sexual practices.

Many sexually-transmitted diseases (STDs) invade the host and reside for long periods of time without killing the host. A good example is syphilis, which may reside in its host for 30 to 50 years. HIV also can take 10 or more years to kill its host, allowing plenty of time to spread the infection.

Some STDs can also be transferred by direct, nonsexual contact with infected tissues or fluids. A common mode of nonsexual transmission is by contact with infected blood. For example, sharing needles when using IV drugs is a major cause of HIV and Hepatitis B transmission.

Other nonsexual means of transmission include contaminated blood transfusions and blood products, through the placenta from the mother to the fetus, and sometimes through breast feeding.

High Risk Behaviors

High risk behaviors are those practices that increase the risk of acquiring a sexually-transmitted disease (STD). These include:

  • having multiple sexual partners (or changing sexual partners)
  • having (yourself) a past history of any STD
  • having a partner with a past history of any STD
  • having a partner with an unknown history of STDs
  • using drugs or alcohol in a situation where sex might occur having a partner who is an IV drug user
  • anal intercourse
  • having unprotected intercourse (sex without the use of a male or female condom) with an unknown partner

Drinking alcohol or using drugs increases the risk. These behaviors increase the likelihood that a person will participate in high-risk sexual activity. In addition, some diseases can be transferred through the sharing of used needles or other drug paraphernalia.

High risk groups include people that engage in sexual relations with multiple partners, intravenous drug users who share needles, the sexual partners of those in high risk groups, infants born to mothers with an STD, and people who received blood transfusions or clotting products between 1977 and 1985 (prior to standard screening for the HIV virus in the blood).

Safer Sex Behaviors

Taking precautions, when participating in sexual relationships, that decrease the potential for transmitting or acquiring sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

Specific Examples of Safer Sex Behaviors:

Abstinence is an absolute answer to preventing STDs, although it is not always practical or desirable.

A monogamous sexual relationship with an individual known to be free of any STD is probably the least risky approach that sexually active people can take. Know your partner. Before having sex with a new partner, it is prudent for each potential sexual partner to be screened for the presence of STDs, especially HIV and Hepatitis B, and share the results of such evaluations with one another.

The use of CONDOMS, both male and female types, markedly decrease the likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted disease but condoms must be used properly. The condom should be in place from the beginning to end of sexual activity and should be used EVERY time an individual engages in sexual activity with a nonmonogamous partner or other suspect partner.

Other Measures:

  • Know your partner. 

    Many people engage in sexual activity without first establishing a committed relationship that allows for trust and open communication. You should be able to discuss past sexual histories and any previous STD exposures or IV drug use, as well as current health status, with the sexual partner. There should be opportunities for either partner to initiate or terminate sexual activity, without feeling coerced or forced into having sex.

  • Use barriers to avoid contact with semen, vaginal fluids, or blood.  

    CORRECT AND CONSISTENT USE OF A CONDOM (male or female condoms) is imperative. The additional use of lubricants may decrease the chance of barrier breakage. However, use only water-based lubricants because oil-based or petroleum-type lubricants can cause latex to weaken and eventually tear. The use of latex condoms is recommended for vaginal, anal, and oral intercourse.

  • Stay sober.  

    The use of alcohol or drugs may impair judgment, communication abilities, and the coordination required to properly use barrier devises or lubricants. Alcohol and drugs can impair the ability to make appropriate choices about sex.

  • Be considerate of your partner. 

    People with AIDS or HIV infection should not donate blood, plasma, body organs, or sperm. From a legal, ethical, and moral standpoint, they should warn any prospective sexual partner of their HIV positive status. They should not exchange body fluids during sexual activity and must use whatever preventative measures (such as a latex condom) that will afford the partner the most protection.

  • If pregnant, take precautions.  

    Women with an STD should be counseled before becoming pregnant about the risk to their infant. She should ask about medical care which may help prevent the fetus from becoming infected. HIV positive women should not breast feed their infant.


The implementation of safer sexual behaviors requires accurate information, prior planning, and optimal communication between partners.

With such measures in place, couples can enjoy the pleasures of a sexual relationship while minimizing the potential risks involved.

Note: Some individuals may also choose to extend the definition of safer sex behaviors to include precautions to avoid undesired pregnancy. However, this text applies only to the prevention of disease.