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Sexual health for women who have sex with women

How to have safer sex between women


Written by SpunOut | View this authors Twitter page and posted in health


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When it comes to sexual health, sexual health for women who have sex with women is often overlooked and many people assume that sex between two women is risk free. Like all sexual activity, it still carries sexual health risks.

What STIs can be passed from females to females?

All STIs can be passed on during female to female sexual contact. Some of the most common STIs that affect lesbian, gay and bisexual women are:

Herpes

Herpes is a virus that causes blisters around the vulva and vagina. Since it is a virus, it never leaves the body and a person may need to take medication regularly to prevent frequent outbreaks. Generally however, the outbreaks lessen over time. It is contagious, even when a person is not having an outbreak.

Bacterial vaginosis (BV)

This infection is more common in lesbian and bisexual women and depends on the type of sex they are having. If you go through a long period of time without having sex that involves penetration and then go through a period of time when you do have sex with penetration, this can sometimes lead to BV. When a woman has BV, it means that there is too much bad bacteria and not enough good bacteria in the vagina. The main symptom of BV is a bad vaginal odour. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Trichomoniasis

This is an STI that is caused by a small parasite. It can be spread by sexual contact and contact with damp towels. It can cause genital soreness and itching, as well as urinary tract symptoms. It can be treated with antibiotics.

Chlamydia

This STI is caused by bacteria. If left untreated, it can cause infertility and gynaecological problems such as Pelvic Inflammatory Disease. Unfortunately, it causes very mild symptoms, while doing serious damage to areas such as the uterus, ovaries and fallopian tubes. So it's important to be tested for it regularly and to practice safer sex. It can be treated with antibiotics.

HPV

This is a type of virus that is sexually transmitted and may cause changes in the cervix that may eventually lead to cervical cancer. There are over 150 strains of the HPV virus and not all are related to cervical cancer. However, many types can raise your risk of other cancers. The HPV virus is contagious even if a person doesn’t have any symptoms.

Genital warts

These are warts that develop in the genital region. They are caused by the HPV virus. Treatment is with ointment from your doctor.

STIs that are less common in lesbians, but that still occur, include:

Gonorrhea

This STI is fairly common, but there is a lower risk of transmission amongst women who have sex exclusively with women. It is caused by bacteria and can cause bladder pain, bleeding between periods and vaginal discharge.

Syphilis

Syphilis is a bacterial STI. When a person is infected with syphilis they will develop a small painless ulcer (usually in their genital region). This will be followed by a rash and perhaps swollen glands. If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious organ and nerve damage. It is very contagious.

HIV and AIDS

This is a virus that can be spread through semen, blood, vaginal fluids and breast milk. However, it is rare for women who only have sex with women. If a women has sex with both men and women then the risk is slightly higher.

How can STIs be transmitted?

They can be transmitted through:

  • The sharing of sex toys.
  • Skin to skin contact.
  • Genital to genital contact.
  • Mouth to genital contact.
  • Through menstrual (period) blood.
  • Through vaginal discharge.

Why wasn’t I aware of any of this?

  • Many doctors are simply not aware of these issues and assume that lesbians do not need to be tested for STIs.
  • Some people do not feel comfortable discussing their relationships or their sexuality with doctors, so docs never get a chance to inform their patients of the risks.

What steps should I take to protect myself?

  • Be aware that though STIs can be transmitted at any time, you are more vulnerable to acquiring one when you are having your period, even more so if you are both having your periods at the same time.
  • STIs can be transmitted via oral sex and mutual masturbation, as well as genital to genital contact and through the use of sex toys.
  • Protect your general health.
  • Get regular smear tests. These can detect pre-cancerous changes on the cervix.
  • Find a doctor that you feel comfortable with. You may be able to get a recommendation from other LGBT persons or organisations. If you feel comfortable with your doc, you are more likely to go to him/her for general health care, as well as for screening tools such as smear tests.
  • If you are bisexual, make sure to use protection such as a condom when having sex with men.
  • Always use condoms on sex toys. For more information of safe sex-toy use, check out our article here.
  • Use dental dams for oral sex. You can get these online or sometimes in chemists or Local LGBT organisations.

Get tested

All sexually active people should get regularly tested for STIs. STIs tests are quick, painless, and usually free. Check out our list here of free STI testing clinics in Ireland.

Remember: The age of sexual consent in Ireland is 17. If you're over 16, you can consent to medical treatment including any treatment or tests needed.

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Published October 21st, 2014
Last updated October 28th, 2015
Tags sexual health lesbian sex
Can this be improved? Contact editor@spunout.ie if you have any suggestions for this article.

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