You may think you're taking the right precautions when it comes to avoiding an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, but are your safe-sex strategies really working? There's a chance the answer is no.
“I am always surprised by how many people I see in my practice who’ve had accidents or 'caught something' when then they thought they were having ‘safe sex,'" says Paul Turek, M.D., an expert in men’s reproductive and sexual healthcare. Here are seven of the most common safe-sex slip-ups people — possibly you — are making, as well as tips on how to avoid them.
1. You Aren't Taking the Pill as Directed
If either you or your partner is on a birth control pill, you don’t have to worry about an unplanned pregnancy, right? Not exactly, says Dr. Turek. Just because someone is on the pill, doesn’t mean they're taking it correctly with good compliance.
“Remember that in the real world, birth control pills fail 10 to 20 percent of the time among average users,” he says. “People make mistakes all the time.” If you haven’t been good as you should with the pills — not taking it at the same time every day or accidentally skipping days — or if you just have doubts about your partner’s use, Dr. Turek says you should have a backup plan with barrier (condom or vaginal) contraception.
2. You Self-Calculate Your Ovulation
Some women swear by the calendar method, rhythm method or fertility apps such as Period Tracker, Glow or Natural Cycles to predict when they're ovulating, having unprotected sex on the days when they think it's “safe.” According to Dr. Turek, this is a gamble you might not want to take.
“Sure, you know that you cycle every month, but timing unprotected sex to stay away from the fertile window fails, on average, 25 percent of the time,” he says. Why? “Biology varies widely, and it always wins.” If your dates aren’t clear he suggests using an alternate birth method, such as barrier contraception, to avoid pregnancy.
3. Not Asking Your Partner If They Have Gotten Tested for STDs
Sexually transmitted infections, especially HPV, herpes and Chlamydia, are on the rise across America. The most obvious way to prevent the spread of STDs is to get regularly tested, however, a shocking amount of people don't get tested — and don't talk about it.
According to a 2017 survey conducted by Cosmopolitan, 40 percent of people didn’t know if their partner had gotten tested for STDs, 33 percent confirmed their partner hadn’t been tested and just 25 percent claimed their partner was. Additionally, nearly half — 47 percent — said that none of their past partners had ever asked about their STD testing results before having sex.
Scary, right? “Remember, you and your partner take your entire past sexual history with you into each sex act,” says Dr. Turek. “Respect each other: Tell the truth and get tested regularly.” If you aren’t sure if your partner has been tested, just say no.
4. Using the Pull-Out Method
When done correctly, the pull-out method (also known as withdrawal) can be 96-percent effective in preventing pregnancy. And a surprising amount of people engage in the practice. According to at 2014 study published in Contraception, more than 40 percent of women ages 18 to 24 reported practicing withdrawal.
However, when men don’t pull out on time, every time, the failure rate grows to 27 percent — which is pretty high. “When withdrawal is used, it relies entirely on the male partner to know exactly when to stop the show,” Dr. Turek says. “It’s both a skill issue and a trust issue.” Therefore, it isn’t the safest method if you're trying to avoid a pregnancy. Again, you're better off sticking with condoms.
5. Condom User Error
When it comes to contraception methods, condoms are more than just pregnancy prevention. Unlike all the other methods, they're the only one that can effectively prevent STIs spread through semen and vaginal fluid, including HIV, gonorrhea and chlamydia (herpes and HPV can be spread from skin beyond the area covered by a condom.)
Which is why not just wearing a condom — but making sure it fits correctly — is an important component to safe sex, says Dr. Turek. Ask yourself questions like, “Do they fit right (and tight)?" and "Do they come off too early?” However, keep in mind that when used alone, condoms are only 85-percent effective in preventing pregnancy — meaning 15 couples out of every 100 will still end up pregnant. To be on the safer side, Dr. Turek recommends considering using spermicide along with them.
6. Having Sex While Intoxicated
Drinking alcohol or taking drugs before a romp in the sheets can free up sexual inhibitions, but it also impairs both sexual sensation and of course, overall judgment. This can seriously decrease the probability of engaging in safe sex, says Dr. Turek. “I would estimate that the risk of an unintended outcome with sex is double that if either or both partners are intoxicated,” he says.
In addition to possibly leading you to have sex with someone you wouldn't have sober or engage in risky behavior, it can also result in condom misuse — or having sex with no protection at all. While you're the only person who can determine your limit when it comes to drinking, the National Institutes of Health define "low-risk" drinking as no more than four drinks in a single day for men and three for women.
7. Relying On Your Partner's Word
How well do you know your sexual partner, really? Sure, they might tell you they're on birth control, don’t have STDs or that they'll pull out in time, but are they telling the truth? “Trust is the issue here,” Dr. Turek says.
For example, if your partner is relying on the pull-out method, does he know what he’s doing or when he's supposed to do it? How do you know your partner is really taking her birth control correctly? And when it comes to STIs, how do you know your partner has really been tested. If the trust isn’t there yet, you should definitely proceed with caution instead of just taking a chance. Or just wait until you really know them before you choose to get intimate.
Leah Groth is a writer and editor currently based in Philadelphia. She has covered topics such as entertainment, parenting, health & wellness for xoJane, Babble, Radar, Fit Pregnancy, Mommy Nearest, Living Healthy and PopDust.