Hesperian Health Guides

Safer sex requires good communication

Every day 20,000 people visit the HealthWiki for lifesaving health information. A gift of just $5 helps make this possible!

Make a giftMake a gift to support this essential health information people depend on.

HealthWiki > Health Actions for Women > Chapter 5: Preventing Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) > Safer sex requires good communication

Practicing safer sex means having sex in ways that prevent or decrease the likelihood of STIs from passing between partners. In general, this means having as little contact as possible with the skin of your partner’s genitals, and not letting fluids from your partner’s penis or vagina touch your genitals or mouth. For more information, see Safer sex can increase pleasure for women and men.

Because it takes 2 to practice safer sex, a couple will need to communicate their concerns to each other and come to an agreement. If one partner wants to practice safer sex one way, and the other partner does not, or wants to do something different, they will need to negotiate. Negotiating about sex can be difficult, but you can learn to do it. For ways to practice and become more comfortable and skilled at communicating about sex with a partner, see Communicating for healthier relationships, and Practice talking about birth control.

Safer sex is easier to practice when more people in the community are doing it. The more people talk about safer sex and encourage others to learn about and practice it, the easier safer sex will be for everyone.

Comfort with condoms

Using a condom every time a couple has intercourse is one of the most effective ways to prevent the spread of HIV and other STIs. And more people than ever are using them. Men and women who once rejected the idea of using condoms are now comfortable discussing, buying, and using them.

People can learn to make condoms a normal part of sex and even sexy. Women can learn to put a condom on a man’s penis in ways that give him pleasure. Since this is something a woman can give and a man can receive, it can help men accept a woman having more control over what the couple does during sex. If a man accepts that, then a woman often feels freer to do things in ways that give her the most pleasure, and the sexual relationship may be more enjoyable for both of them. Some men can also stay erect longer using a condom, and many women enjoy that.

Before people can become comfortable using condoms, they need to learn how to use them, think about how to make them more fun, and get over any embarrassment about using them. The activities mentioned above can also be adapted to help a woman become more comfortable asking her partner to use a condom.

Many women and men have never seen or touched a condom. Looking at condoms, feeling them, unrolling them, and stretching them are all part of making condoms more familiar. It may sound silly, but playing with condoms is a great way to help people be less shy about them.

ActivityPlaying with condoms

To do this activity, you need plenty of condoms and some things to put the condoms on. It is good to have things that are shaped like a penis, such as bananas or cucumbers, and also some larger things, like squashes, to show how much condoms can stretch.

  1. First give everyone a few condoms. Ask them to open one, take it out of the package and see how it feels. Have them unroll it and stretch it out. What do they think could fit into the condom?
  2. Ask them to pull it over 2 of their fingers. Will more fingers fit? A whole hand?
  3. You can also have a contest to see how many fruits or objects people can stuff inside different condoms. This will also make people laugh, which helps them relax and have fun with the activity.

    Putting a gourd or melon in a condom — or stretching a condom over a person’s head — shows that a man will rarely be "too big" for a condom. However, some condoms are bigger than others, so people can see this too. People can also blow them up like balloons to see how much they stretch.
  4. a group of women playing with condoms.
    Using a banana (or some other model), you can show how to put a condom on correctly. Let people try it themselves. Have a contest for how fast people can put them on, or ask people to do it with one hand, with their eyes closed, or with their mouths.
  5. Keep encouraging people to play creatively with the condoms. As they do, you can explain how to use condoms most effectively.

    You might also ask people what worries they have about using condoms, and reassure them that condoms are safe to use. You can also explain that condoms are less effective for preventing STIs that cause sores, such as herpes, syphilis, and HPV, unless the condom fully covers the sores.

    You can also play with female condoms. A woman will be more comfortable using female condoms if she can first practice alone. After putting one in a few times, it will not be difficult to do when she wants to have sex.

1 woman speaking in a group of 3; another woman answers.
My husband says it will not feel as good with a condom.
You can say he will last longer and you will both feel good.

Important information about condoms

  • Condoms should be kept in a cool, dry place and used before their expiration date. After that date, they are more likely to tear or break when used.
  • Do not put condoms in trouser pockets or anywhere they will get warm, because they will become more likely to break.
  • Only saliva (spit) or a water-based lubrication is safe to use with condoms. Oils, butter, and Vaseline damage condoms and make them more likely to tear.
  • Condoms will be more comfortable for the man with a drop of lubrication put inside the condom, near the tip, before it is unrolled.
  • Condoms will be more comfortable for the woman — and less likely to tear — if the woman is fully aroused (wet) before the man enters her. Using a water-based lubricant is especially important for anal sex.
  • Condoms for women (female condoms) are larger than condoms made for men and are less likely to break. The female condom should not be used with a male condom.

For instructions about using male and female condoms, see Where Women Have No Doctor.

HAW Ch5-Page 132-2.png
Condom for men Condom for women HAW Ch5-Page 132-3.png

Change — it’s a process

It takes more than knowing how STIs spread and how they harm health to change the ways we act and communicate in our sexual relationships. People also have to change long-time habits. But women and men of all ages and in all kinds of relationships do change and practice safer sex in one way or another.

Changing any behavior is a long process. It is helpful to start by thinking about the desired goal — in this case, safer sex. Then think about the gradual steps needed to make that change. Finding ways to recognize progress and to see the steps towards change can help people feel that change is possible.

Most changes in behavior involve 4 stages. First people think about changing their behavior and explore their options. They might then accept the need to change and decide on a goal. They would then try to change, and reinforce the change by doing things that make them feel good about their decision. Remember that the process of creating change is not usually a straight line to the goal. Sometimes people might backtrack or get stuck. Keep encouraging them anyway. It is a big achievement to set the goal in the first place!

a woman pointing to a blackboard that shows the 4 stages of change.
1. Think about change
Concern about health risks. Talk with a health worker to learn more.
2. Accept need to change
Decide to use condoms. Practice to prepare to ask partner to use condom.
3. Try to make change
Talk with partner and
begin to negotiate
change. Try out different
kinds of condoms.
4. Reinforce change
Encourage each other about condom use. Be proud of the advances you have made.