Sex activities and risk

Find out about the risks of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) from different sexual activities.

In nearly every case, condoms will help protect you against this risk.

You can read this whole article about the types of sexual activity and the risks associated with them, or you can go straight to the relevant section:

Vaginal penetrative sex
Anal penetrative sex
Oral sex 
Fingering 
Sex toys 
Urine and faeces 
Cutting

Vaginal penetrative sex

This is when a man's penis enters a woman's vagina. If a condom is not used, there's a risk of pregnancy and of getting or passing on STIs, including:

Infections can be passed on even if the penis doesn't fully enter the vagina or the man doesn't ejaculate (come). This is because infections can be present in pre-ejaculate fluid (pre-come).

Even shallow insertion of the penis into the vagina (sometimes called dipping) carries risks for both partners. Using a condom can help protect against infections.

Preventing pregnancy

There are many methods of contraception to prevent pregnancy, including the contraceptive injection, contraceptive patch contraceptive implant and combined pill. Bear in mind that condoms are the only method of contraception that protect against both pregnancy and STIs, so always use a condom as well as your chosen method of contraception.

Find out about the 15 methods of contraception.

Anal penetrative sex

This is when a man's penis enters (penetrates) his partner's anus. Some people choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don't. Men and women can choose to have anal sex whether they're gay or straight.

According to the second National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, taken in 2000, 12.3% of men and 11.3% of women had had anal sex in the past year.

Anal sex has a higher risk of spreading STIs than many other types of sexual activity. This is because the lining of the anus is thin and can easily be damaged, which makes it more vulnerable to infection. STIs that can be passed on include: 

Using condoms helps protect you against STIs when you have anal sex.

Use water-based lubricants, which are available from pharmacies. Oil-based lubricants such as lotion and moisturiser can cause latex condoms to break or fail. Get tips on using condoms properly.

Oral sex

Oral sex involves sucking or licking the vagina, penis or anus. Some men and women (gay and straight) choose to do this as part of their sex life, and others don't.

According to the second National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, taken in 2000, more than 75% of men and women had had oral sex in the last year.

There's a risk of getting or passing on STIs if you're giving or receiving oral sex. 

If you or your partner has an infection, the risk of passing it on increases if either of you has sores or cuts around the mouth, genitals or anus. This is because viruses and bacteria, which may be present in semen, vaginal fluid or blood, can travel more easily into a partner's body through breaks in the skin.

It's believed that the risk of infection is lower when you receive oral sex than when you give someone oral sex. This is because when someone gives you oral sex, you don't come into contact with your partner's genital fluid (semen or vaginal fluid). However, there's still a risk of infection.

STIs that can be passed on through oral sex include:

If you have a cold sore and you give your partner oral sex, you can infect them with the herpes virus and they may get genital sores. Similarly, herpes can pass from genitals to the mouth.

It's thought that the risk of passing on or getting HIV during oral sex is low. The risk is higher if there are any cuts or sores in the mouth, genitals or anus.

You can make oral sex safer by using a condom, because it acts as a barrier between the mouth and the genitals. A dam (a square of very thin soft plastic) across the anus or female genitals can protect against infection.

Condoms are available in different flavours, but you can use any kind of condom during oral sex. Make sure that it has the European CE standard mark, which means that the condom meets high safety standards.

Fingering

This is when someone inserts one or more fingers into their partner's vagina or anus. It's not common for fingering to spread STIs, but there are still risks.

If there are any cuts or sores on the fingers, no matter how small, the risk of passing on or getting HIV or other blood-borne infections such as hepatitis B or C increases.

Some people gradually insert the whole hand into a partner's vagina or anus (called fisting). Not everyone chooses to do this. Again, the risk of infection is higher if either person has any cuts or broken skin that come into contact with their partner. You can lower the risk by wearing surgical gloves.

Sex toys

This covers a wide range of items, including vibrators and sex dolls. Any object used in sex can be called a sex toy whether it's designed for this use or not.

It's important to keep sex toys clean. If you're sharing sex toys, make sure you wash them between users and put a new condom on them. 

Sharing sex toys has risks, including getting and passing on infections such as chlamydia, syphilis and herpes. If there are any cuts or sores around the vagina, anus or penis and there's blood, there's an increased risk of passing on hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV.

Urine and faeces

Some people choose to urinate on a partner as part of their sex life, and others don't. There's a relatively low risk of passing on an infection if the person who's being urinated on has no broken skin.

Faeces (poo) carry more of a risk. They contain organisms that can cause illness or infection. Although faeces doesn't usually contain HIV, they can contain the hepatitis A virus. There's a chance of infection when faeces comes into contact with broken skin, the mouth or the eyes.

Cutting

Cutting the skin (called scarification) as part of sex carries risks. Infections such as HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C can pass from person to person through broken skin. No sexual contact is needed. Simply getting blood on a partner may transmit these infections.

To lower the chances of infection, cutting and piercing equipment should be sterilised and not shared.

Further information

Are sex toys safe?

How soon do STI symptoms appear?

What should I do if I think I've got an STI?

Page last reviewed: 20/11/2013

Next review due: 20/11/2015

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