SummaryRead the full fact sheet
- Safe sex is sexual contact that doesn't involve the exchange of semen, vaginal fluids or blood between partners. Learn how to practise safer sex.
- If used correctly, condoms can dramatically reduce the risk of most sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and unintended pregnancy.
- Having regular STI screening and reducing the number of sexual partners also reduces the transmission risk of STIs.
- Safe sex is sometimes referred to as ‘safer sex’ because condoms and other barrier methods may not be 100% effective in preventing STIs. It’s important when using condoms that you fit them correctly.
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What is safe sex?
Safe sex is any sexual contact that protects you and your sexual partner/s against sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancy. It doesn’t involve the exchange of body fluids like semen, vaginal fluids or blood with anyone you have sex with.
Unprotected sex may put you at risk of STIs
Unsafe sex may put you or your sexual partners at risk of STIs. This does not just mean genital sex but any form of sexual contact (this includes anal, oral, vaginal and some skin-to-skin contact).
Certain STIs (such as syphilis and genital warts) can spread by having sex with an infected partner when a sore or rash is present.
Unborn babies are also at risk too, because some STIs like congenital syphilis and HIV, can pass from mother to baby during pregnancy and at birth.
If left untreated, STIs can cause serious illness and have long term impacts on your health (including pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) and infertility in men and women.
STIs are common. Some types of STIs include:
- genital warts
- genital herpes
- hepatitis A, B and C
- mycoplasma genitalium.
Not all STIs have obvious symptoms so you and your sexual partners may not be aware that you have an STI. That’s why practising safe sex is important. Use condoms for safer sex.
Condoms (also called sheaths or rubbers) provide the best protection against STIs. They act as a physical barrier to prevent the exchange of body fluids.
Although there is no guarantee that condoms and other barrier methods provide 100% protection against STIs, they help sex to be safer when used correctly.
Types of condoms
Condoms are a form of barrier contraception – basically their job is to stop sperm from entering the vagina, mouth or anus and lessen our risk of getting STIs.
Types of barrier methods include:
- male (or external) condoms – a thin strong latex (rubber) pouch that come in different sizes and styles. (Not one size fits all.) Non-latex condoms are available for people who are allergic to latex.
- female (or internal) condoms – a soft pouch made of synthetic rubber (looks a little like an external condom) with 2 flexible rings at each end. These condoms come in one size and are already lubricated, they are designed to fit inside the vagina or anus.
- diaphragm – a soft, shallow cup made of silicone that fits inside the vagina and covers the cervix (entrance to the uterus or womb). Diaphragms provide good protection against pregnancy, but they do not protect you from STIs.
Condoms are available from supermarkets, pharmacies (or chemists), sexual health clinics and family planning clinics. They can also be purchased from vending machines at some nightclubs, pubs, colleges and universities.
How to have safer sex with condoms and other barrier methods
Follow these simple tips when using condoms and other barrier methods:
- Always use a new, lubricated condom every time you have sex.
- Check the use-by date – don’t use a condom past its expiry date.
- When opening the packet, be careful not to tear the condom with fingernails, jewellery or teeth.
- If you need extra lubricant, use only water-based lubricants. Other lubricants can damage the condom.
- Condoms should be used from the start of sex to the very end. STIs can be transmitted when your partner pre-ejaculates (‘pre-cums’) on arousal.
- Use condoms on vibrators and sex toys you share with partners.
- Latex gloves can be worn during ’fingering’ of the vagina or anus.
- Use dental dams (a sheet of latex worn over the female genitals) during oral sex.
- Remember that a diaphragm (a cap worn high in the vagina to cover the cervix) provides low protection against STIs.
How to use condoms effectively
Condoms, even when used correctly, don’t guarantee 100% protection against STIs or unplanned pregnancy.
Keep in mind that condoms:
- may break, especially if they are not stored properly or a water-based lubricant is not used
- do not cover the entire genital skin area so you may still get an STI (such as pubic lice, scabies, genital warts and genital herpes) through skin-to-skin contact
- work best with water-based lubricant – oil-based lubricant tends to cause breakage
- can be damaged in heat – especially if they have been stored in hot places, (such as in vehicle glove boxes) for long periods
- have an expiry date and cannot be used past their use-by date
- are for single use only and cannot be reused.
Other tips for safer sex
Sex should be enjoyable. Safer sex means sexual contact when you and your partner/s are ready. Any form of sex needs to be consensual, and you should feel respected and protected. This includes:
- vaginal sex – inserting a penis into a vagina
- anal sex – inserting your penis or other objects, (such as sex toys, dildos, fingers) into your partner’s anus
- oral sex – using your mouth, lips or tongue to stimulate your partner’s genitals or anus.
Ways that you can practise safer sex include:
- Talk with your partner openly about your sexual health. Communicate your sexual needs and what you want to explore sexually.
- Limit your number of sexual partners.
- Get tested for STIs.
- If you have an STI, get treated. Avoid sexual contact until you receive medical advice that you are no longer infectious.
- If someone is pressuring you to have sex or makes you feel uncomfortable, tell them. By law, sex must be consensual, which also means respecting others’ decisions when they say ‘no’ or if they are too out of it to consent.
- Avoid sex if you are affected by drugs and alcohol. It can cloud your judgement and you might do things you later regret.
- Use other types of contraception in addition to a condom to avoid getting pregnant.
It’s a good idea to avoid sex if your sexual partner/s:
- has sores, cuts, ulcers, blisters, warts or rashes around their genitals, mouth or anus (such as haemorrhoids and anal fissures)
- has unhealed or inflamed piercings in their mouth or genitals
- has a throat infection
- is a woman and has her period.
Other safer sexual practices
Just because you have safer sex, doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Remember, creating intimacy in a relationship takes time.
Having sex is only one part of sexual intimacy and there are other ways to gain sexual pleasure including foreplay and physical contact.
Some other forms of sexual conduct that can reduce your risk of STIs include:
- masturbation (individually or with sexual partners) ejaculating on unbroken skin
- sexual intercourse using barrier contraception – such as a condoms.
Remember, it’s better to avoid sexual contact if you or your partner have any sores, rashes or ulcers.
Avoiding risky situations
Some situations can increase your risk of unsafe sex. It’s better to avoid situations where you can reduce your risk of getting an STI. These include:
- being drunk or out of it on drugs can lead to impaired decision making
- feeling pressured to have sex
- thinking that it’s okay ‘just this once’
- believing you can tell someone has an STI because they will have symptoms.
If you don’t feel comfortable in any situation, it’s okay to say no.
Any sex that occurs without your consent is sexual assault, and it is a crime. Call the Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 806 292.
Overcoming barriers to safe sex
Remember, practising safe sex doesn’t have to be a drag and is enjoyed by lots of people. If you are finding it difficult to know how to start, you may find some of these suggestions useful:
- Be prepared. Always carry condoms with you and keep them handy at home, so that you don’t have to interrupt having sex to look for one.
- If you find condoms reduce your sexual pleasure, put some water-based lubricant on the tip for extra feeling and sensitivity.
- Learn how to use condoms. They may take a little getting used to, but it’s better than catching an STI.
- Involve condoms in foreplay.
- If you are uncomfortable buying condoms over the counter in shops, they are available from vending machines, online or from community health or sexual health clinics.
- Hormonal contraception such as the pill, mini pill, vaginal ring and long-acting reverse contraception or LARC (including implants, IUDs, injections) only provide protection against unplanned pregnancy and not against STIs.
- Prioritise your sexual health – it is important. Educate yourself about STIs. Anyone who has sex or has sex in the past is at risk.
- Don’t think you can tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them. Many STIs don’t have any obvious signs.
- Be mindful that STIs are common – they do not mean that you are ‘dirty’ or ‘cheap’.
- Get tested for STIs if you are sexually active, especially if you have sex without a condom. All partners should be tested.
What to do if you have unsafe sex
If you have had unprotected sex:
- Don’t douche (wash out the vagina or rectal areas with water or other fluids). It may irritate delicate tissues and increase the risk of infection.
- Take emergency contraception as soon as possible (up to 4 days is best, but it can occur no later than 5 days (120 hours).
- See your GP or sexual health clinic and get tested for STIs.
- If you think you may have been exposed to HIV, see your GP or call the Victorian PEP information line on 1800 889 887 to assess whether you need post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) – a course of antiviral medication used to prevent HIV. It must be taken within 72 hours (4 days).
What do I do if I suspect I have an STI?
STIs are common and most people will get an STI in their lifetime. Most STIs are curable, and all can be treated.
The best advice if you are sexually active is to get tested regularly – at least once a year.
Get tested more frequently if you:
- are a gay man or a man who has sex with other men – at least once every year
- have multiple sexual partners over a short period (for example, more than 10 partners in 3 months) – every 3 months.
Usually, a simple blood or urine test is all that is needed.
It’s important to get tested if:
- you notice symptoms after having sex without a condom
- the condom broke or slipped off during sex
- you start a new relationship (including casual partners)
- you are planning on starting a family, or you are pregnant.
If you think you may have or have been exposed to an STI, go and talk with your local doctor, nurse or health worker, who can help you get the tests you need to put your mind at ease. Testing, and treatment where necessary, together with condoms, take the worry out of sex.
Where to get help
- Your GP (doctor)
- Your school nurse or school welfare coordinator
- Some secondary schools provide access to an adolescent health trained GP on site
- Your local community health service
- Your pharmacist (including Victorian Supercare Pharmacies)
- 1800MyOptions Tel:1800 696 784 is a statewide phone service for information about sexual health as well as contraception and pregnancy options
- Sexual Health Victoria (SHV) – book an appointment online or call Melbourne CBD Clinic: (03) 9660 4700 or Box Hill Clinic: (03) 9257 0100 or (free call) Tel. 1800 013 952. (Monday-Friday 9 am to 5 pm) Confidential services are available for young people under 23
- Melbourne Sexual Health Centre (Monday to Friday 8:30 am - 5 pm)Tel. (03) 9341 6200 or 1800 032 017 or National Relay Service (for the hearing impaired) (03) 9341 6200
- Thorne Harbour Health (formerly Victorian AIDS Council) Tel. (03) 9865 6700 or 1800 134 840 (toll free)
- The Centre Clinic, St Kilda Tel. (03) 9525 5866
- Equinox Gender Diverse Health Centre (Monday to Friday 9 am - 5 pm) Tel. (03) 9416 2889 or email. email@example.com
- PRONTO! Clinic for men who have sex with men. Book online or Tel. (03) 9416 2889
- Ballarat Community Health Sexual Health Clinic – book online or Tel. (03) 5338 4541
- Bendigo Community Health Sexual Health Clinic – book online or Tel. (03) 5406 1200 Or (03) 5448 1600
- Gateway Health Sexual and Reproductive Health Clinic 35, Wodonga (Monday to Friday 9 am - 5 pm) Tel. (02) 6022 8888 and Wangaratta Tel. (03) 502 5444 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Sunraysia Community Health Services, Mildura (Monday to Friday 8:30 am - 5 pm) Tel. (03) 5022 5444 or email: email@example.com
- Barwon Health Sexual Health Clinic (no referral, walk-in service on Tuesdays 2 pm - 6:30 pm) Tel. (03) 5226 7489
- Victorian Aboriginal Health Service Fitzroy: Tel. (03) 9419 3000 and Preston Tel. (03) 9403 3300 (Monday to Friday 10 am – 4 pm) and after-hours locum service Tel. 132 660 or Tel. Epping: (03) 8592 3920 (Monday to Thursday 9am-5pm, Friday 9am-4pm)
- Sexual Assault Crisis Line Tel.1800 806 292
- Let Them Know – free and anonymous online partner notification service
- Partner Notification Officers can help you anonymously notify your sexual partners. They can be contacted on Tel. (03) 9096 3367
- Australian STI Management Guidelines for use in primary care, Australian Society for HIV, Viral Hepatitis and Sexual Health Medicine (ASHM)
- About STIs, Victoria Sexual Health Network, Australia
- Contraception - internal condom, Sexual Health Victoria, Australia
- Contraception – external condom, Sexual Health Victoria, Australia
- Safe sex – easy English, Sexual Health Victoria (formerly Family Planning Victoria), Australia
- What is sex? Sexual Health Victoria (formerly Family Planning Victoria), Australia