Purple umbrella with rain drops emoji against an orange background

What is safe sex?

Great question! “Safe sex” means sex where both partners have taken steps to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs, sometimes called STDs). Often, people use “safe sex” to mean sex with a condom, but that’s far from the only safer sex tool at your disposal!

Keep in mind that no matter how many precautions you take, there’s always some risk when you have sex with a partner. Condoms and other barrier methods don’t protect against every STI, and they can break or slip off. Plus, your partner’s actions are ultimately out of your control. We use the term “safer sex” to reflect that sex is never 100% risk-free.

Ultimately, it’s up to you and your partner to decide what level of risk you’re willing to take.

Making these decisions is easier when you understand how STIs are transmitted, and how you can prevent them from spreading. Here are some safer sex tools you can use to make partnered sex safer.

Looking for info on specific sex acts? Learn how to have safer anal sex and how to have safer oral sex (going down on, eating out, blow job).

Barrier methods

Barrier methods are physical barriers that prevent STIs from spreading between partners. They include:

  • External condoms are usually just called “condoms.” External condoms are sheaths, usually made of latex, that roll over the penis or dildo for safer penetrative sex.
  • Internal condoms, sometimes called “female condoms,” are pouches made of synthetic nitrile that can be inserted into the vagina or anus for safer penetrative sex.
  • Dental dams are thin sheets of latex used for oral sex performed on a vulva or anus. If you want, you can make one out of a condom by cutting off the tip, and cutting it lengthwise to create a square.
  • Latex gloves are (ahem) handy for safer manual sex (fingering, hand jobs or other contact between hands and your partner’s vagina, penis or anus). The risk of getting or passing on an STI from manual sex is pretty small, but some STIs like HPV can still be spread this way.
  • Finger cots are sheaths that fit over your finger (just like a tiny condom!) for safer manual sex. You can use more than one at a time, if you want. These are most effective if you’re only using your fingers, and not your whole hand.

Keep in mind that it’s NEVER a good idea to use two condoms at the same time! This only creates friction and makes it more likely that the condoms will break.


The most common STI symptom is no symptom at all. Getting tested is the only way to know for sure that you’re STI-free. Getting regularly tested for STIs is an important part of safer sex, and taking care of your health. Talk to your health care provider about how often you should get tested, and ask your partner about when they were last tested. Condoms don’t protect against every STI, so testing is important even if you use condoms.

Avoid Alcohol and Other Drugs

Using alcohol or other drugs makes it harder to remember all your safer sex tools. It also makes using them more difficult.

Mutual monogamy

If you and your partner are both STI-free (and have gotten tested to confirm it) and only have sex with each other, the risk of getting or passing on an STI is extremely low.

HIV prevention tools

PrEP (sometimes called by its brand name Truvada) is a daily pill that reduces the risk of getting HIV from sex. However, PrEP doesn’t protect against other STIs.

PEP is a pill taken after you think you may have been exposed to HIV.

Of course, there’s more to think about when it comes to sex than just STI prevention!

You and your partner should both understand and respect the importance of consent. Sex should always be about both partners’ pleasure, rather than just what one person wants.

If you have different genitals than your partner (you have a vagina and they have a penis, or you have a penis and they have a vagina) and you don’t want to have a baby, birth control is also important.

Keep in mind that your understanding of safer sex may be different from someone else’s. It’s important to not make assumptions about your partners. Instead, have open, honest conversations about your boundaries and sexual health.

If you’re 10-22 years old in NYC and have more questions about safer sex, need STI testing or treatment, or are interested in birth control, stop by the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center! We provide comprehensive, confidential health care at no cost to you. No immigration restrictions, no insurance needed.