new internationalist
issue 169 - March 1987

[image, unknown] a guide to safer sex

Sexual intercourse is the most common way in which the AIDS virus is passed from one person to another. This is because the virus lives in the 'bodily fluids' - semen and vaginal secretions - that are exchanged during intercourse. Does this mean that we have to give up sex altogether, or else stick to just one partner? No. There is an alternative, and that alternative is safer sex. The guidelines are simple, and are the same for both heterosexuals and homosexuals. If you follow these guidelines your chances of contracting the virus are very slim indeed.

Penetrative intercourse, whether anal or vaginal, has been described by one feminist as no more imaginative than squirting jam into a doughnut'. It is also the most efficient method of transmitting AIDS since it involves a copious exchange of body fluids. Therefore, unless you are absolutely certain that both you and your partner are not infected with the AIDS virus, you should make a joint decision from the outset to avoid intercourse and to experiment instead with other forms of sexual play that require more thought and consideration, that carry no risk of transmitting AIDS and that offer the opportunity for both partners to realise themselves more fully as creative, caring and sexual human beings. If, however, you do feel compelled to have intercourse, first check that your partner shares this compulsion. If he/she does, then by all means go ahead but always use a condom. Condoms markedly reduce the likelihood of transmission of the AIDS virus It is important to remember, however, that condoms designed for vaginal intercourse are likely to break if used for anal intercourse - special reinforced varieties are available for this purpose.

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Touching Caressing Massage
Up to now, intercourse has been given a lot more importance by people than it deserves. Many women rarely reach orgasm through intercourse alone and often find the act impersonal and lacking in fulfilment. Given the chance, some women say, they would prefer to spend more time on non-penetrative forms of sexual play. Unfortunately, their partners are usually in a great hurry to squirt jam into the doughnut and, after they have done so, tend to lose interest in the whole business for quite some time. In addition, perhaps because they feel compelled to achieve penetration as quickly as possible, men often suffer from performance anxiety which causes premature ejaculation and other sexual problems. A commitment to safer sex helps to solve these problems for both men and women. Get to know your partners body through gentle caresses, get to know what turns you on and what turns your lover on. Try massaging each other - anywhere, everywhere. It can be enormously stimulating, and carries no risk what so ever of transmitting AIDS. Try rubbing your lover's body with your own (baby oil and talcum powder can add to the pleasure). Take baths and showers together. Experiment. It's fun AND its safe.

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Mutual Masturbation
Although you may have been brought up to regard mutual masturbation as infantile, it can be exciting and, again, it is safe:

AIDS has never been transmitted by a hand-job. The most sensitive part of the penis is the 'frenulum', at the point where the glands joins the shaft. Get your partner to rub you there, and use oil or other lubricants if you find these add to the sensation. The most sensitive part of the female genitalia is the clitoris, a small knob of erectile tissue positioned forward of the vagina. Get your partner to caress your clitoris with his/her fingers and use lubricants if you find these help.

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Oral Sex
Kissing is the most common form of oral sex. The AIDS virus has been found in saliva - however in such minuscule quantities as to present very little risk. If in any doubt about yourself or your partner, however avoid deep kissing where the tongues intertwine and saliva is passed between mouths. Sucking of nipples is a completely safe form of oral sex and can be very fulfilling and stimulating to both partners. However, oral contact with your partner's penis or vagina is much more risky. A man whose penis is sucked by his partner is at little or no risk from her but she is at great risk from him if he is carrying the AIDS virus - particularly if she allows him to come in her mouth. The same rules apply to oral sex between men. Likewise, a woman whose vagina is licked or sucked by her partner is at very little risk, but if she is carrying AIDS her vaginal secretions could pass on the virus to her partner if they enter his - or her - mouth. If in any doubt, don't be a sucker.

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Some general guidelines


  1. Avoid any sex that can tear or break the skin - even the most minute abrasions provide ready points of access to the bloodstream for the virus. This means NO biting, NO sex toys (dildos, vibrators etc.) which might damage sensitive membranes and NO rough or violent sexual practices such as 'fisting' (the insertion of the hand into the anus).
  2. Avoid 'water sports' - peeing on your partner or having your partner pee on you - and avoid contact with faeces. The urine and shit of an infected person both contain large amounts of the AIDS virus. 'Rimming' - oral contact with the anus - is very likely to transmit the AIDS virus.
  3. As far as possible avoid penetrative intercourse of any kind. Anal intercourse of any kind. Anal intercourse is a particularly effective way of transmitting the AIDS virus (probably because the anus is not 'designed' for intercourse and is lined with muscular tissue that is much more easily damaged). This makes anal intercourse very unsafe sex indeed.
  4. Never come in your partner's mouth or let him come in yours.
  5. Genital or mouth sores increase the likelihood of transmission of the AIDS virus. If you have sores, avoid sex until they have cleared up.
  6. Avoid having sex with prostitutes either male or female. Prostitutes, with their large number of sexual contacts are very unlikely to be infected with AIDS - in some African cities as many as 80 per cent of all prostitutes are now carriers of AIDS. In New York and Hamburg the rates of infection amongst female prostitutes are approaching 50 per cent and are far higher among male prostitutes.


  1. Do try out some of the safer sex suggestions on these pages, and DO invent some others of your own. As long as you avoid exchanging body fluids - particularly sperm and vaginal secretions - then you can be confident that what you are doing is safe.
  2. Do try to get to know your partner and to work out what his or her sexual needs are. DO try to meet these needs - as far as possible within the safer sex guidelines - and DO try to communicate to your partner what your own needs are. This kind of mutually caring approach to sexuality is more likely to be possible in a stable relationship that gives itself time to grow and develop than in a series of one-night stands.
  3. DO use a condom if both you and your partner find that you wish to have intercourse. Use of a water-soluble (NOT oil-based) lubricants make it less likely that the condom will break.
  4. If in any doubt, DO get your blood tested for AIDS - and encourage your partner to do so as well - before going on to have unprotected intercourse (i.e. Without a condom). Remember, however, that the test is not always accurate. False positive and false negative results are surprisingly common and it is also probable that existing tests do not 'recognise' all strains of the virus. The psychological impact of a positive result can be very damaging so the decision to have the test should only be taken as a last resort. Since no cure is available, a commitment to safer sex removes much of the point of having the test at all.

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