When you think of self-care, candlelit bubble baths, a refreshing hot (or cold) shower, morning yoga, or cooking your favorite meal may come to mind. But did you know that safer sex can be a form of self-care, too?
No matter how you approach it, practicing self-care ultimately serves as a way to restore and improve our well-being. This includes our mental, emotional, physical, and sexual health.
Self-care is what it sounds like: It's about taking care of yourself. "Self-care is a way of navigating life with your own wellness - including sexual health and wellness - as a priority," says Dr. Sara C. Flowers, the vice president of education and training at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.
Self-care comes in many forms and looks different for everyone. "But at its core, it's really about making an intentional effort to take care of yourself by engaging in thoughts, behaviors, and practices that build you up," she explains.
How we take care of ourselves - inside and outside the bedroom - can affect how we care for our partners as well. So, how can we use healthier sex practices to help us have safer sex and achieve more pleasure?
Protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs) is a key part of practicing safer sex. According to Flowers, one of the best forms of protection is using a barrier method, like condoms or dental dams, every time you have oral, vaginal, or anal sex.
"Barriers cover parts of your genitals, protecting you and your partner(s) from body fluids and some skin-to-skin contact, both of which can spread STIs," she explains. "Internal and external condoms also help prevent pregnancy, so it's double protection if you're having penis-in-vagina sex."
Still, it's good to keep in mind that it's not recommended to use internal and external condoms together. These products are designed to be used independently, and using both won't offer your more protection.
Certified sex therapist Indigo Stray Conger, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Denver, adds that not fluid bonding can help to protect the vagina's sensitive pH balance. "[Its pH] can be easily disrupted by sperm and bacteria, causing yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, or general discomfort. It can be a wonderful self-care policy to use barriers and keep your vulva happy."
Safer sex benefits go beyond the physical - healthier sex practices can positively impact your emotions, too. "[They] support your emotional health by making sexual experiences even more enjoyable and stress-free," says Flowers.
Safer sex takes on a whole new meaning during a pandemic. Some examples of how COVID-19 impacted our sex lives and relationships include but are not limited to the ways we:
- talk about sex
- navigate partnered sex
- approach relationships
- discuss sexual and non-sexual health
- establish boundaries
- choose partners
It's important to note that access to sexual healthcare has been limited during the pandemic. This directly impacts people's ability to have safer sex.
A indicates this is especially true in marginalized groups, like the Latinx community. LGBTQIA+ people, who already face healthcare inequality, are also heavily affected - 38% of queer households experienced difficulty accessing health services and resources during the pandemic, compared with 19% of non-LGBTQIA+ households.
Telemedicine plays a crucial part in bridging that gap. A on sexual health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic points out that virtual healthcare can be linked to supporting physical, mental, and sexual health for folks of all genders, sexualities, and ethnicities.
According to Flowers, another silver lining of the pandemic is that we've become more comfortable talking about how our behaviors can impact others' health. "We've also seen COVID conversations modeled in public discourse in a way that sexual safety rarely is, which has helped to normalize all discussions about personal safety, " adds Stray Conger.
Although the pandemic challenged how we navigate sex and intimacy, there are many ways to safely pursue pleasure and connection.
Want to take better care of yourself and your partners, build more intimate relationships, and protect everyone's health? In addition to using barrier methods, consider trying these safer sex tips.
Have sex with yourself
Solo sex is safer sex. Research suggests that masturbation also offers health benefits, like stress relief and strengthening the pelvic floor muscles.
"Whether we're in a pandemic or not, it's always a good time for a solo mission to explore your own sexual likes, wants, and desires," says Flowers. She suggests using your hands and/or sex toys to get more familiar with your body while exploring self-pleasure.
She also recommends using condoms on sex toys. This can help to reduce STI transmission and fluid bonding, especially when sharing products with partners.
Explore your sensual side
Pleasure comes in many forms - not only through sex. Flowers reminds that exploring your sensuality can be just as exciting as exploring your sexuality.
"In some ways, [increased alone time during quarantine] has given us more space to get in touch with ourselves as individual sensual and sexual beings," she says. "You may have had more opportunities to explore what brings you pleasure outside of partnered sex."
She recommends thinking about what makes you feel confident and sexy, even when you're alone. Whether it's a silky robe, a delicious dessert, or an erotic novel, you can find pleasure in enjoying these things by yourself or with your partner.
Communication is essential for creating safer, more pleasurable sexual environments. "The more open and honest you and your partner are with each other about risks, boundaries, and how to stay close, the more fulfilling it'll all be," says Flowers.
"Being open about sexual health is sexy," adds Stray Conger. "A partner who doesn't seem to know when they were last tested is a red flag." Having these conversations with potential partners as early as possible will help you align with those who share similar values (e.g., sexual health).
Honor and respect boundaries
Feeling uneasy about having partnered sex again after the last year and a half? Trust you're not alone.
If this is your experience, Flowers says knowing your boundaries and communicating them can go a long way. "And of course, the same goes for listening to and respecting others' boundaries. Give yourself and others grace."
Voicing your hesitations and comfort levels can relieve anxiety and ensure you're on the same page with your partner, no matter the outcome. Even if your needs don't align, at least they've been expressed so you can agree on how to move forward.
Ask for test results
Before having sex, it's strongly recommended that all partners get tested and share their results. This is an important step so that everyone is well informed about any potential risks and can grant informed consent. Ultimately, it's up to you to know and disclose your status and request your partner's as well.
Even if one or more partner(s) receive a positive STI diagnosis, try not to stress. There are ways to engage in safer sex with STIs so that the risk of transmission is decreased, like using barrier methods, taking medications or suppressive treatments, disclosing outbreak episodes, etc.
You can also consider turning the testing experience into a date. This can help to reduce the stigma attached to STI and COVID testing. "Sometimes it can be intimidating to talk to a partner about STI testing, but linking it to COVID testing and framing it as something you can support each other in by doing it together can help build intimacy and closeness," says Flowers.
To avoid COVID-19 exposure, some folks have leaned into connecting virtually via texting and apps. Video platforms like FaceTime, Zoom, and Skype allow you to connect with partners however you want safely - sexually or not.
If you'd rather not have sex IRL just yet, consider trying a virtual mutual masturbation session. This option is great for safer connection during and after the pandemic. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it.
Phone sex may not be for everyone, though. "But for people who have been hyper-vigilant about COVID for any reason, [it] might be the most relaxing option," says Stray Conger. "You can feel [safer] about anything transmissible, and your partner gets a chance to see what kind of verbal, visual, or touch stimulation you enjoy."
Self-care comes in many forms, including safer sex. Caring for yourself and your partners is a great way to build intimacy, protect your sexual health, and create more pleasurable experiences.
Some healthier sex practices include using barrier methods, sharing STI and COVID-19 test results, and consulting healthcare professionals. Accessibility may vary depending on your identity, location, and other factors. But you can have safer sex even with limited resources, through open communication with partners, virtual sex, telehealth services, and other self-care methods that feel best to you.
"Everyone deserves to have a healthy and pleasurable sex life," says Flowers. "Sex - with yourself or a partner - can lift your mood, improve sleep, and increase endorphins, making you feel good. And practicing safer sex helps you be physically well, too."Morgan Mandriota is a New York-based writer who is passionate about exploring the intersection of pleasure, healing, and holistic well-being. She currently works as a staff writer with Psych Central where she specializes in creating content about sex, relationships, mental health, and alternative approaches to wellness. Her work has been published in notable publications, including Betches, Bumble, Bustle, Cosmopolitan, Health, mindbodygreen, Shape, Tinder, Verywell Mind, and Well+Good. In her free time, she enjoys chasing sunsets, playing video games, spending time in nature, swimming in a sea of CBD salve, trying different therapy practices, and working on her passion project Highly Untamed. Connect with Morgan on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website here to learn more.