Should I use a condom if my girlfriend sleeps with women?
September 30, 2011 8:10 PM   Subscribe

My girlfriend is going to start sleeping with other women. I'm a man, and I'm not. Should we go back to using condoms?

I've looked through the safe-sex and non monogamy literature, and I haven't been able to gauge just how risky it is for me to have unprotected sex with my girlfriend after she's had oral sex with other women.

Some background: we've been monogamous and off condoms for years. She's on the pill, and that suits me just fine. But recently she's wanted to sleep with women. We've talked it over, and I've given it the green light.

At first she had planned to use dental dams, but it turns out that no one really uses those. We've heard that oral sex between women is considered "low risk," but we haven't heard what that means exactly.

Since I have no plans to sleep with anyone else, this question is just for my own sense of security. The easy answer is that I should go back to condoms, but if my risk really is very low, I'd prefer not to. It's only because I don't like how they feel.

Thanks in advance for your help. I set up this throwaway email account in case anyone wants to get in touch:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

Your girlfriend needs to have a frank discussion with her gynecologist and/or regular practitioner. She could also go to planned parenthood or the local GLBT resource for information on same sex safe sex.

Also, if you are personally not comfortable with low risk then go with a condom anyway and decide on a STD checkup schedule.
posted by amanda at 8:15 PM on September 30, 2011

HIV transmission between two women is almost unheard of (I believe 6 cases to date, total).

HPV and herpes, on the other hand, are readily transmissible by women-women contact. The risk of both can be limited by using a dental dam and gloves. I'm not sure why you say that safe sex between women isn't commonly practiced, that isn't true at all in my experience, gloves and saran wrap (works the same as a dental dam, doesn't taste like rubber) are very common. Also common in my experience is a 'no oral sex until you're tested' rule, as an alternative to saran wrap. Maybe the bi swinging crowd doesn't practice safe sex? The majority of lesbians I know do.

It's probably reasonable to ask your girlfriend to practice safe sex, especially since she's the one venturing out.
posted by zug at 8:23 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Absolutely and emphatically yes.

The entire litany of STIs can indeed be contracted through girl on girl action. Micro cuts on a woman's labia (which are a common occurrence) can infect a partner with any manner of bloodborne pathogens including HIV and Hepatitis C. There's also a high risk of herpes and HPV just from oral genital contact.

So yes. Get yourself a box of rubbers, and have Mrs. Anon agree to get tested for STIs at least once every 3 months, depending on how many partners she intends to get down with.
posted by empatterson at 8:26 PM on September 30, 2011 [2 favorites]

Condoms-free sex is for monogamous couples. You guys are no longer monogamous. Yeah, after some education from Planned Parenthood the sex could be relatively safe but the risk is still not zero. And, I would plan on going to PP. LGBT centers can be hit or miss with information for women who sleep with women.
posted by munchingzombie at 8:47 PM on September 30, 2011 [8 favorites]

Try these and that brand specifically!

They aren't latex so they don't have that awful smell, and you totally CAN NOT feel them. At the risk of TMI, we use Jojoba oil as lube - totally all natural.

Changed. Our. Sex. Life.
posted by jbenben at 9:29 PM on September 30, 2011 [5 favorites]

I obviously move in different circles to zug because I've never used dental dams, gloves or saran wrap in any of my relationships and I can't say the subject's ever come up. You can't really control what your girlfriend does in bed with other women but don't assume that she'll be using these things at all.
posted by joannemullen at 11:10 PM on September 30, 2011 [13 favorites]

If you're going back to condoms for PIV you'll need to go back to them for oral too, and consider dental damns for oral on her, otherwise the whole thing doesn't make much sense. Personally, I wouldn't, not because I think the risk is zero, but because it's low enough that it would be within my comfort zone and I'm ok with some risk. The risks are pretty googleable, so I think you need some personal reflection and a frank conversation. FWIW, I'm a bisexual woman who mostly gets around in lesbian circles.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:49 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

From my (apparently marginal but I think not really!) point of view it's still yes on the regular testing For both of you though, because you need to know and get treated if you do pick anything up. And remember that condoms don't protect against herpes or HPV, although her using a dental dam would offer some protection.
posted by crabintheocean at 11:59 PM on September 30, 2011 [1 favorite]

(An aside for anyone tempted to read too much into jbenben's comment, just a note that oils destroy latex. So while jojoba oil is fine with the condom mentioned, because it's latex-free, beware of using it in situations where any latex barrier is involved.)

Get a hold of a copy of The Whole Lesbian Sex Book by Felice Newman. Terrific all around, including detailed discussion of STI transmission and (fun, sexy modes of ) prevention. From p. 182: "...women routinely transmit herpes, HPV, and bacterial infections to each other through cunnilingus." Also, oral contact with menstrual fluids or the anus is high risk for HIV, hepatitis C and hepatitis B.

I move in bi circles, dyke circles, swinger circles, poly circles, sex worker circles, porn actor circles, play party circles, BDSM circles, and misc other circles where monogamy is not a given. (Um. Hi, future employers! Hi, mom!) People certainly do use dams and other barriers. Not everyone; but among all of those circles, barriers are accepted and commonplace. Taking a pause to discuss risks/testing/status/barriers is not easy at first, but people tend to recognize that when the topic is raised it's about respect. Respect for the health of all partners, that is, including those not directly party to the sex act. The really experienced folks even know how to do this part fast and sexy as all-get-out.

If your girlfriend is meeting people who differ substantially from this model, may I suggest that as prospective sex partners these may be insufficiently interested in looking after their own health interests let alone that of someone they've never met (you).

If you two want to continue having condom-free sex with each other, the standard safer sex procedure for non-monogomous committed partners is to maintain fluid-bonding. That included barriers with all outside partners, every time; and a reset of the six month wait/test period any time there's been an exception.

A big second of munchingzombie's rec of LGBT centers for applicable safer sex info. Planned Parenthood is awesome when it comes to reproductive issues, but the staff vary wildly in their knowledge of safe sluttery, especially within queer or bi context. If you don't have an LGBT health center nearby, San Francisco Sex Information hotline is a decent alternate resource.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 12:30 AM on October 1, 2011 [9 favorites]

And after The Whole Lesbian Sex Book, it's on to The Ethical Slut for you.

The thing about "risks" is that they are that; and they range from wildly consequential to almost meaningless. So you need to talk through your risk-outcome tolerance levels. ("I would be okay with getting HPV.") When talking about risks, you have to remember that there are third parties here, over whom you have no control (and with whom you'll have no interaction).

And then there's the practicalities of being human. Most of us live in a world of real practice where anything more than condoms for penis-in-genital-orifices (LOL SORRY) is not really going to happen. (Gloves, maybe, amongst the ladies. Dental dams... I mean, in my sample size of talking to women, I've never spoken to one who's done more than "Haha yeah we tried that once out of a sense of being smart people and NEVER AGAIN.") This ups the likelihood of you wanting to go back on condoms. But returning to condoms, again, in real-life practice, is not something that goes consistently well in long-term relationships.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:22 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

HIV risk approaches zero, but your girlfriend can keep that risk even lower by making sure toys are not shared. (Toy sharing is highest risk for female-to-female HIV transmission.)

However, risk for all other STIs are similar, so condoms and regular screenings are key.
posted by hworth at 5:59 AM on October 1, 2011

short answer: Yes

insure the health and well-being of you, your partner, and her lovers. it's that simple!
posted by kuppajava at 6:59 AM on October 1, 2011

Just came in here to say that my lesbian friends are frequent buyers of latex gloves. They're great because they can be used on your hand or your can cut 'em into a dental dam.
posted by smirkette at 6:59 AM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

She could see if the woman was prepared to go to Planned Parenthood or elsewhere and get tested with her for herpes etc. She could say its your only condition if that would help.
posted by meepmeow at 9:32 AM on October 1, 2011

Just to chime in here, my first thoughts were "What about genital warts? What about herpes? What about hepatitis?"
posted by KokuRyu at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2011

some circles of women who sleep with women use dental dams and some don't. the ones i've been in didn't. sometimes latex gloves were used (tiny hangnails, tiny cuts in the vagina - latex gloves seem like a good idea), but certainly not always. more often than not, outside of a monogamous relationship, condoms were used on toys if toys were shared.

i think if she's having unprotected sex out of the marriage then that means protected sex with you.
posted by nadawi at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah, I have to say, as a queer woman I have never used a dental dam. Ever. Besides for jokes. I'm not saying that's smart, and I have a very (sadly VERY) low number of partners, but still. Never happened. And at least one partner laughed when I offered latex gloves. The lesbian community is fairly blasé about safe sex, in my 14 years of being out and a part of the community So, OP, use protection for *yourself*.
posted by aclevername at 3:18 PM on October 1, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wrote my thesis on barrier method use in lesbian communities and the responses above totally echo my research: barrier use varies wildly from place to place. Mostly, there's a big misconception that women don't transmit infection to one another (not true!) and women in communities where that belief is prevalent are less likely to prioritize safer sex and regular testing.

Because it sounds like you're unsure whether safer sex is considered normal or aberrant amongst women where you live, I think it's wisest to err on the side of caution. Condoms are way less uncomfortable than most STIs.
posted by girlstyle at 11:30 PM on October 1, 2011

Since there's an outdated widespread believe that HPV (very transmissable via cunnilingus) is of little concern for men, perhaps it should be noted that some strains of HPV cause penile cancer and throat cancer. If you're 20s or younger, talk to your doctor about getting one of the HPV vaccines. It's not routinely offered to men, but FDA approved for those who request it.

Herpes risk is one that you and your girlfriend may want to investigate further. It's highly transmissible (highest, in fact, several days before symptoms emerge), mouth and genitals are its favorite locales to hang out, it doesn't care what combination of sexes the participants are, bears excessive stigma that makes people reluctant to disclose that they have it, and most have no idea they've got it anyway because few doctors are willing to do a herpes test unless they're staring at an active outbreak.
posted by nakedcodemonkey at 2:34 AM on October 2, 2011

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