We sometimes think of protection – things that make it less likely to pass infections from person to person during sex- as synonymous with contraception – things that stop people from getting pregnant.
But when we think about it, we know that not all types of sex can lead to pregnancy…
Condoms are, of course, are both. They create a barrier between a penis and a vagina during penetrative PIV sex. This means that sperm can’t get in to the vagina, the uterus and ultimately can’t meet an egg. In this way, condoms that go over the penis can reduce the chance of pregnant.
In creating a barrier between one person’s body parts and another during sex, it also means that there’s less chance of passing infections from person to person too! That’s because there’s less direct contact, as well as less fluids (like semen, blood or mucus) from one person touching another. This greatly reduces the chance of an STI (sexually transmitted infection) from being transferred. So condoms are also protection.
When we think of condoms, we often think only of external condoms – ones that fit over the penis like the ones in the image above. But you can get internal condoms too. These are made of the same thin material, but are inserted into a vagina.
They act as contraception for penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex, preventing sperm from getting in to the vagina. But they can also be used as protection in PIV and other types of sex involving the vagina, creating a barrier between the vagina and fingers, mouths, tongues, sex toys used by another person, or anything else that might potentially transfer an STI from one person to another.
Similarly, external condoms are also a type of contraception, but can also be used as protection in other types of sex involving a penis – such as anal or oral sex.
Condoms are often made from latex, but some people have allergies to this material. So lots of brands make condoms that are latex-free. This includes condoms made from animal products – but it’s worth noting that although these act as contraception, they are known to be less effective as protection. That’s because they contain microscopic holes, too small for sperm to pass through, but not for some STIs to cross.
One type of protection that is not a form of contraception is a dental dam. This is a sheet of plastic, similar to that condoms are made of, that can be placed over a vulva for oral sex. Again, it’s creating a barrier between one person’s body parts and another’s during sex.
Dental dams can be a bit trickier than condoms to get hold of, at least in the UK. They tend not to be available in supermarkets and chemists like external condoms. They can sometimes be picked up at sexual health clinics, or ordered online. Because they can be harder to get hold of, sometimes people make their own using an external condom and cutting it to create one flat sheet.
Protection is designed around genitals because those are the bits of our bodies that are good at passing on STIs. Bits of our bodies like our hands are covered in relatively tough skin that makes a strong barrier against fluids. Some people use protection like plastic gloves or finger cots (‘finger condoms’) if there is a break in their skin from things like eczema though, or if they have cuts and they are using their hands in sex.
We can see that just as sex isn’t limited to PIV sex, protection isn’t just limited to condoms for penises!