The Oral Sex Risk You’re Not Thinking About

  ·  Allure   ·   Link to Article

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No one wants an infection of any kind. I get it. Even while living with one incurable infection — I have had herpes for 18 years — I’d still prefer not to contract anything else. But at the end of the day, I recognize that infections aren't always 100 percent avoidable. They're part of the human experience. I’m sexually active, and I’m aware that might mean I contract another sexually transmitted infection. And honestly, I’m okay with that risk, at the same time as I take precautions to reduce it.

One STI risk factor that few people consider is having oral sex. If you say you use protection "all the time" but you have unprotected oral, you don't use protection "all the time" — simple as that. And statistically, you’re probably not using protection during oral sex. I know, I know: Condoms (obviously) taste like latex. And there is relatively little understanding of what a dental dam even is (for the record, it's a latex or polyurethane sheet that acts as a barrier during cunnilingus or anilingus).

But while the risk of contracting an STI from oral is lower than the risk of contracting one from penetrative sex — whether vaginal or anal — it's not zero. STIs that can be transmitted during oral include chlamydia, herpes, genital warts, gonorrhea, hepatitis, HIV, and syphilis. Herpes simplex virus type 1, or HSV-1, usually causes cold sores in the mouth area, while HSV-2 leads to genital sores. The thing is, both HSV-1 and HSV-2 can cause sores in both areas, and oral sex can spread them from one region to the other.

If you have a vulva, then you have an even higher risk of contracting an infection from oral sex than someone with a penis, because the vulva has more mucous membranes. Mucous membranes — located in your eyes, ears, mouth, nose, urethra, vulva, vagina, and anus — are porous tissues designed to trap unwanted pathogens so your immune system can attack them before they enter your body. However, your body often can’t attack and kill the pathogens that lead to STIs. Other areas of your skin, like your arms or legs, act as a natural barrier to infection, but porous mucous membranes provide points of entry.

The bottom line is that no (partnered) sex is safe. There is unsafe sex, and safer sex, but all sex with a partner carries a level of risk. That shouldn't scare you, but it should inform you. Many people freak out when they get diagnosed with an STI, and it's not just because of the burden of treating the infection itself. They may feel like STIs only happen to certain kinds of people, for example those who are promiscuous or unfaithful to their partners. They don't realize contracting an STI is highly likely — or that having one says nothing about what "kind" of person you are.

Many false beliefs about STIs stem from education designed to scare you into abstinence. That's a shame. Sex of all kinds can be awesome, rewarding, and healthy, but it can be risky too. Knowing the risks equips you to make decisions for yourself based on facts rather than fear.

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