Casual sex. Hooking up. Getting lucky. Whatever you choose to call it, sex that happens between people who are not in a monogamous relationship can be a natural, healthy form of sexual expression. But as with any type of sexual activity, it’s important to take steps to protect your physical and emotional health. Here’s a step-by-step guide to staying safe when you’re getting lucky.
1. Commit to safer sex—not “safe” sex
A sexually transmitted infection (STI) is an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or parasites, which can be passed between partners during sexual activity.
The truth is, no form of sex that involves another person is 100% safe, including sex that does not involve penetration (1).
But while you may not be able to completely eliminate your chances of contracting an STI, practicing “safer sex” through the use of barrier methods (like condoms, gloves, and dental dams) can significantly lower this risk (2).
2. Use a barrier method
While there are many contraceptive options for reducing risk of pregnancy, barrier methods are the only contraceptive options that also reduce risk for STIs (3).
Barrier methods include:
external condoms (sometimes called “male condoms”)
internal condoms (sometimes called “female” condoms)
latex or nitrile gloves
Internal and external condoms work by providing a physical barrier that prevents each partner’s genitals and body fluids from coming into contact with the other partner’s body (4).
It’s especially important to use a barrier method to protect yourself and your partner against STIs if either of you is unsure of your STI status, or if one or both partners are also having sex with someone else (1,3).
3. Be prepared
When you’re having sex with a new partner, barrier methods need to be used consistently and correctly to maximize your protection against STIs—so it’s smart to have some with you at all times (4).
4. Get regular sexual health check-ups—at least every year
While barrier methods do provide protection against most STIs, they provide only limited protection against STIs that are spread via skin-to-skin contact, such as the herpes virus and human papillomavirus (HPV). This is because the condom (or glove or dental dam) may not completely cover all of the skin that contains infection (4).
That’s one reason why it’s important to have regular sexual health check-ups and STI screenings—try to get tested for gonorrhea or chlamydia every year (5). Another reason to get checked, is that it’s possible to have an STI but not notice any symptoms. STIs with no noticeable symptoms can still be passed on to sexual partners, and if left untreated, they can pose a long-term risk to your health and fertility.
STIs that are often without symptoms in women and people with cycles:
Visiting a healthcare provider and getting tested allows you to quickly identify any issues and get appropriate treatment if needed.
5. Get vaccinations for hep A, hep B, and HPV
Vaccinations are available to protect against hepatitis A, hepatitis B, and HPV (6). Hepatitis A and hepatitis B are viral infections of the liver that can be transmitted via sexual activity. The CDC recommends that all infants (7), as well as people with certain risk factors, be vaccinated against hepatitis A and hepatitis B (6).
HPV is the most common STI worldwide, affecting more than 290 million people each year (8). There are many strains of HPV, and some strains can cause genital warts or lead to cancer. In the United States, a vaccine is available that protects against nine strains of HPV which can cause harm. Ideally, this vaccine should be administered to adolescents aged 11 to 12, but can be given to adults if they haven’t had it already, or people with certain risk factors (9,10).
6. Check in with your partner
You can’t tell if a person has an STI just by looking at them (or even just by looking at their genitals). In fact, it’s possible to have an STI without having symptoms, so be aware that you or your potential sexual partner could have an STI—and pass it on—without knowing (4).
This is why communication is key when it comes to safer sex. If you’re planning to have sex with someone (even if it’s just once), it’s important to have a conversation about your sexual health. This may seem unsexy or embarrassing, but it doesn’t have to be awkward.
One idea is to begin the conversation by sharing your own sexual health history, which can help your partner feel comfortable enough to share their details. This is also a good time to set up expectations about contraceptive use.
Sexual health questions to ask your partner:
Have you had any STIs before? If yes, which ones? Did you get them treated?
When were you last tested for STIs?
Do you usually use a condom when you have sex?
Have you ever shared needles with someone for tattoos, piercings, or shooting drugs?
Are you having (unprotected) sex with anyone else?
Do any of your other current partners have any STIs?
Tip: it’s usually easier to have this conversation before things get hot and heavy.
7. Have a back-up plan for contraception and STI exposure
In a perfect world of casual sex, we’d all use a barrier method correctly, consistently, every single time. But sex doesn’t always go exactly as planned—sometimes the condom breaks, sometimes people neglect to use a condom altogether. It’s a good idea to make a back-up plan ahead of time, so that you’ll know what to do if things do go awry.
If pregnancy is a possibility for you and you do not want to become pregnant, your back-up plan should include emergency contraception. The most commonly used option is the emergency contraception pill, that can be taken either up to 72 hours or up to 120 hours after having unprotected sex, depending on the dose and active ingredient (12). This option is also known as the “morning after pill”.
The copper intrauterine device, or copper IUD can also be used as emergency contraception. This option has been shown to be a highly effective form of emergency contraception, and can be left in place long-term for continued use as a contraceptive (13). The downside is that the IUD must be placed by healthcare provider, so this option may not be easily accessible to everyone.
Post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) refers to taking medications to prevent HIV after possible exposure to the virus (such as unprotected sex with a person who is HIV-positive). PEP must be started within 72 hours of possible exposure, requires a prescription from a healthcare provider, and must be taken for 28 days. While PEP is effective at preventing HIV, it is not 100% effective, so it should be reserved for emergency situations and should not be used in place of a barrier method (14).
A healthcare provider can help you decide if PEP is right for you. If you are planning on having sex with someone who is HIV-positive, consider taking pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) medications, which can be taken daily to decrease the risk of contracting HIV if exposed (14).
8. Check in with your emotions and mental state
Finally, know that taking care of your emotional health is just as important as your physical health. Non-committed sex can be a great way to learn about your own wants and needs. Some people find that they enjoy this form of sexual expression, while other people may find that they don’t.
Remember to check in with yourself before, during, and after sex. Make sure that you are making decisions that are right for you—those that are consensual and make you feel confident, happy, and fulfilled.