When people talk about “risky” sex, usually they’re talking about how likely it is to have consequences you might not want, such as STIs or pregnancy. You might hear terms like “low risk” or “high risk” used to talk about specific sex acts and the things that can happen with them. For example, anal sex without a condom is considered “high risk” for giving or getting many types of STIs, including HIV. Anal sex with a condom is considered not as risky, because condoms help protect against STIs. Masturbating yourself is “no risk” for STIs because there’s no direct genital contact or exchange of fluids with another person!
Talking about risk can be helpful when it comes to sex because not everyone has the same priorities. People can be comfortable with some risks, but not with others, and everyone is different! For example, while one person might not want to get pregnant, another person might want that very much. Those two people will feel differently about sex where there’s a risk for pregnancy, because they want different things. That’s okay! You get to decide what risk means to you, what risks you want to take, and what risks you don’t.
What can make sex risky?
There are some things that are risks for some people and not for others. For example, pregnancy is a risk for people who have uteruses and are sexually active with people who have penises. But not everyone has a uterus, and not everyone with a uterus can get pregnant. For that matter, not everyone with a penis can get someone pregnant!
Everyone’s bodies, needs, and wants are different, even when it comes to sex. Someone with a disability like epilepsy might need to consider physical dangers during sex that other people might not. Someone who is HIV positive might need to consider social stigma and discrimination as risks before telling someone their status or having sex. There are lots of things that may factor into the decisions a person makes about sex!
Risk can also depend on what kind of sex someone is having. Certain sex acts are considered higher risk for giving or getting certain STIs, so someone who has a lot of penetrative sex might need to think about that differently than someone who doesn’t.
What are some of the risks that can come with having sex?
When you’re trying to understand what risk means for you, it can help to think about the kind of sex you like, and what you want from sex and from sexual partners. You might decide that “risk” to you includes things like:
- Giving or getting an STI
- Getting pregnant or getting someone else pregnant
- Physical injuries you might get during sex (like rope burn from bondage or bruises from spanking)
- Hurting a partner’s feelings or getting your feelings hurt by a partner
Some things that can make sex riskier include:
- Not using a condom when you have sex
- Having sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol
- Not knowing your own STI status
- Not talking about these things with your partner(s) before you have sex
What risks you feel okay with taking is always up to you. But it’s important to know about and understand them and what they could mean for you before you make that decision!
How can I reduce risk during sex?
If there are certain risks you want to avoid, the first step is knowing what they are and how they might happen. For example, if you know you don’t want to give or get an STI, it helps to know which sex acts are high-risk for that and which aren’t. You can also learn how to make activities that might be risky safer for everyone. Some ways of doing this include:
- Talking about your limits and needs before you have sex
- Using protection like condoms and birth control
- Getting tested regularly for STIs and telling your partner your status, if you’re comfortable with that
- Using drugs and alcohol in moderation or not at all if you’re going to have sex, or talking about it with your partner beforehand and making sure you have a safe supply if you want to have sex under the influence
- Reading up on new techniques before you try them, especially if they involve restraining a partner, or strenuous physical activity
- Taking time before, during, and after sex to talk to your partner and make sure you both feel good and excited about what’s happening!
Sex, risk, and harm reduction
When it comes to risk and sex, it’s not uncommon to hear people say that the only way to have zero risk is to not have sex at all. But that’s not realistic for everyone! At SextEd, we follow principles of harm reduction. Harm reduction means that it’s not always possible to avoid all risks, but people can use accurate information and their own judgment to make choices about risk that are right for them. It might not always be possible to do every single thing in the list above that can lower your risk, and that’s okay! The important thing is that you’re able to make informed choices for yourself that you feel good about.