These are probably what springs to mind when you first hear the word “condom”. They are worn on the penis or on similarly shaped sex toys and dildos. Condoms are made from very thin latex, polyisoprene or polyurethane, and are designed to stop semen from coming into contact with your sexual partner, as well as preventing some skin to skin contact. You may or may not have had one tucked into the back of your wallet or shoved into the bottom of your bag for god knows how long, but a word to the wise: condoms do have an expiration date on the box and on each individual packet, and become much less effective at preventing STIs/ pregnancy. So, don’t use one if it’s expired.
Condoms are 98% effective at protecting against most common STIs like chlamydia and gonorrhoea. We would recommend changing condoms if you’re intending to give oral after anal sex, and washing hands/bottom/groin/toys with mild soap and water before and after any sexual contact can help to prevent the spread of any bacteria, too. Don’t wash the vulva or vagina with soap and water, as this can upset the natural PH balance of the body and lead to yeast infections.
There’s a huge variety of condoms on offer: flavoured condoms, textured condoms (the famous “ribbed and dotted” as well as other varieties), glow in the dark condoms, lambskin condoms, latex free condoms (latex-free and lambskin condoms are good options for those with a latex allergy). There are many options in condom sizes, too. There’s even great websites that tell you what size condom you should use (once you’ve measured the penis erect, or the strap on/dildo you intend to use). Here’s a condom size chart that gives you a detailed description of width/ length across different brands, with a handy link to buy them. Don’t say we don’t treat you!
How to put on a condom
Try to build putting the condom on into foreplay. It can be a really fun (and sexy) part of getting intimate with someone, so don’t shy away from it.
- Take the condom out of the jacket. Do not open it with your teeth, no matter how many times you’ve seen it done in American movies. Same goes for opening it with fingernails or jewellery. Simply pinch with your fingers to move the condom to one side, then tear it.
- Hold the condom by the tip, and let it hang, like a small hat, in front of you. See if the roll at the base of the condom is on the outside (and can easily roll down) or if it is tucked inside the condom (and is not easy to roll down). If they are tucked inside of the condom, the condom is inside out, and you can gently push the tip of the condom through itself to quickly flip it, and get it facing the right way around.
- Squeeze any air out of the top of it by pinching the air bubble on the tip.
- Place the condom over the erect shaft, strap on or toy.
- Roll the condom down to the base of the penis, strap on or toy. If it won’t roll down, it could be on the wrong way round. If you’re playing with a toy or strap on that’s clean, you can turn the condom around and try again. If you’re putting the condom onto a penis, throw it away and start again with a new one, as it could have semen, or bacteria or residue from an STI (if your partner has one) on it already.
- After sex, hold the condom on the penis or toy at the base of the shaft.
- Remove the condom, ensuring you don’t spill any semen that may now be inside.
- Throw the condom in the bin (not down the toilet).
If any of this makes you nervous, we recommend practice! Experiment with putting a condom on yourself or a toy to get used to the mechanics of it. This should make it feel less daunting if and when you use a condom with a partner.
STIs can be transmitted from any kind of sexual contact whether it be oral, fingering, sharing sex toys etc. So sometimes internal condoms are a great way to cover all bases. These used to be called “female condoms”, but we like to use gender neutral language over here, so we’ll be referring to them as internal condoms. They’re made from soft, thin synthetic latex (or similar) and are used inside the vagina. If used correctly, they’re 95% effective in preventing pregnancy and STIs.
An internal condom needs to be placed inside the vagina before there’s any contact with the penis, fingers or toy in question. Often, they’re not as readily available from GP’s and sexual health clinics (and tend to be a more expensive option if purchasing one commercially), so definitely do your research before trying to procure them. It should also be noted that internal condoms are not designed for use in the anus: it’s best to stick to external condoms on the penetrating object, gloves or finger cots and dental dams for this area.
The dental dam
What is a dental dam?
Dental dams are essentially a little rectangle of latex material (or latex-free alternatives) used between the mouth and vulva or anus during oral sex. It’s actually possible to make a dental dam from a condom (nifty, I know). If you cut off both ends of the condom, then cut down one side you can create your own little rectangle of material to lay over the vulva or anus. Simples. Infections can be spread by hands, fingers and mutual vulval rubbing, so dental dams could be a great solution for sex between two people with vulvas.
How to use a dental dam?
Remove the dental dam from the packaging, place the dental dam flat to cover the vulva or anus, use with abundant joy, then throw it away once you’ve finished. Don’t reuse or reverse a dental dam, as then the side that came into contact with one person may be switched over.
If you’re worried about a dental dam slipping, or if you find getting things out of a packet in the heat of the moment particularly tricky, you might want to investigate wearable latex.
Lorals offer a range of different styles, and some are designed specifically with longer wear in mind. So you can pop those pants on pre-date night, knowing that later you won’t have the faff of fiddly packets to contend with.
The thin layer of latex protects against STI transmission, whilst ensuring that sensations can be felt and enjoyed. These are another great option for couples where both people have vulvas, as, unlike a dental dam, they don’t have to be kept in place with hands whilst enjoying mutual vulval rubbing or grinding. They’re also good for people who might prefer to remain more covered up whilst still exploring and enjoying sexual pleasure.
Lorals are single-use, stretch to fit US sizes 0 – 20, and can be worn by people with any genital anatomy.
What is Spermicide?
Spermicide is a pretty impressive substance that destroys sperm and stops it from getting to an egg. It’s inserted into the vagina before penis in vagina sex occurs to prevent pregnancy and can be a cream, gel, foam, film or suppository. It does not offer any STI protection though, and should not be used during anal intercourse as it can in fact destroy the protective lining of the rectum and increase the possibility of HIV transmission.
As a contraceptive for P-in-V sex, spermicide *can* be used alone. However, pregnancy rates for heterosexual couples using only spermicide is much higher than that of couples using other methods (it’s only 72% effective.) So we would definitely recommend using it in conjunction with another form of contraceptive. Some condoms actually come coated with spermicide, which adds another layer of protection.
Timing is the most important aspect here. Some products take around fifteen minutes to become fully effective, and many only remain effective for around one hour after insertion. Make sure to read the small print of whatever you are using!
Finger condoms and gloves
Finger condoms (or finger cots) and gloves are made of a latex material and are used to cover the fingers during sexual play. They offer a super safe and sanitary way to engage in everyone’s favourite pastime – fingering. They also act as a protective barrier, and could prevent scratches from a fingernail occurring inside a partner’s anus or vagina, lessening the potential for discomfort as well as preventing the transmission of STIs and bacteria.
Making use of the glove over the finger cot, in our opinion, seems the more sensible option as they’re far less likely to slip off during penetration. And if a finger condom comes off during use, it might be tricky to recover. We would definitely suggest using lube with these ones. They are *single use*, and if you’ve used one inside the anus it should not then be used inside the vagina or mouth.
Continuous Safe Sex Solutions: For Pregnancy Prevention
Aside from “day of the deed” contraception, there are other more long term solutions which are always worth exploring, especially if you’re going to be having more regular sex. It can take out some of the stress from the situation and allow you to fully get wrapped up in the anticipation and excitement of the moment, however it is important to remember that these forms of contraception do not prevent STIs and bacteria. Only barrier methods (such as gloves, dental dams and condoms) can prevent the transmission of STIs.
One golden rule for all bodies is that sex toys should be washed with soap and water between sessions to prevent the spread of STIs and maintain a high level of sanitation! Best practice would be to wash them immediately after use. Some sex toys are porous, and it is important to check what your toy is made out of to ensure that you are using it with the correct form of lube (water-based with silicone toys for example) to prevent disintegration and deterioration.
Birth control pill
The pill is a daily medication which contains progesterone or progesterone and oestrogen to stop ovulation and is 99% effective in stopping pregnancy. Varying from person to person, it can sometimes wreck havoc on your period/moods etc. so listen to your body if you’re not feeling great on it, and discuss other options with your doctor. The pill does not offer protection against STIs.
Birth control implant
This is a matchstick-shaped rod which gets inserted under the skin of the arm and releases ovulation stopping progesterone. Again, responses differ from body to body, so trust your instincts and try out different methods until you’ve found one where you feel good. It does not however protect against STIs.
Birth control ring
The ring is a two-inch band that gradually releases pregnancy-stopping hormones. It is inserted into the vagina and left there for three weeks at a time. Once again it does not prevent STIs.
Birth control patch
The contraceptive patch is a small sticky patch that releases hormones into your body through your skin to prevent pregnancy. Every patch only lasts for a week but is 99% effective at preventing pregnancy, but we would recommend using some other form of contraceptive alongside the patch to lessen the risk of STIs.
This is a remarkable copper device, shaped like a tiny pogo stick and inserted into the uterus where it can stay for up to 10 years (!). Copper impacts the way sperm swim and survive, so keeps them from making their way to an egg, but likewise does not stop the spread of STIs.
Similar to the IUD (which stands for intrauterine device), an IUS is an intrauterine system. These similarly T-shaped devices work by releasing hormones from within the uterus, where they are placed for between three and five years. Again, these are not able to prevent contraction of STIs.
Lifestyle (pull out method)
This involves pulling out before ejaculation, where you must cum away from your partner’s genitals. It’s only about 80% effective in preventing pregnancy though, as most people struggle to predict exactly when they will cum or find it difficult to stop. It also doesn’t account for pre-cum or pre-ejaculate, which can contain sperm and therefore cause pregnancy long before you actually ejaculate.
Go forth and multiply (or ya know, don’t), but do get clued up on all of the condoms and contraception on offer for the kind of sex you want to be having. It always pays to be prepared, so the next time you’re wanting to get down to it, you’ve got exactly what you need to have a good time without worrying about pregnancy (if that’s relevant) or STIs.
Tiffany Black (she/her) is a writer and comedian based in London. She loves love, but please don’t make her say it out loud. Currently, writing a one woman show in development for the Edinburgh Fringe 2023. The creator of 40 days and 40 nights un/satisfied, she writes on love, food, sex and power and also works as a brand and strategy consultant in tech (you know, to make actual money). Reach out to flirt, commission her, or to help you give your brand an actual personality. At the moment, she’s open to everything. In a really feminist way though, ok.
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