Haven’t heard about STDs since you had “The Talk” from your middle school gym teacher? Don’t remember the ins and outs (wink) of how you can get them? Let’s get back to the basics!
What are STDs and HIV?
Gonorrhea, Chlamydia, Syphilis, HPV
STD stands for “sexually transmitted disease.” Some common STDs include gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, and HPV (human papillomavirus) —you may have also heard people call them “the clap,” “the drip,” or “warts.” Anyone can get these and other STDs. They are very common, especially among young adults. Most people who have chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HPV don’t know it—they often don’t have any symptoms.
You can easily pass STDs even if you don’t have symptoms! If you don’t treat STDs, they can lead to serious health problems.
To understand what HIV is, let’s break it down:
- H – Human – This particular virus can only infect human beings.
- I – Immunodeficiency – HIV weakens your immune system by destroying important cells that fight disease and infection. A “deficient” immune system can’t protect you.
- V – Virus – A virus can only reproduce itself by taking over a cell in the body of its host.
HIV is a lot like other viruses, but there is an important difference – over time, your immune system can clear most viruses out of your body. That isn’t the case with HIV – the human immune system can’t seem to get rid of it. HIV can hide for long periods of time in the cells of your body and attacks a key part of your immune system – your T-cells or CD4 cells. Your body has to have these cells to fight infections and disease, but HIV invades them, uses them to make more copies of itself, and then destroys them.
Over time, HIV can destroy so many of your CD4 cells that your body can’t fight infections and diseases anymore. When that happens, HIV infection can lead to AIDS.
AIDS stands for:
- A – Acquired – AIDS is not something you inherit from your parents. You acquire AIDS after birth.
- I – Immuno – Your body’s immune system includes all the organs and cells that work to fight off infection or disease.
- D – Deficiency – You get AIDS when your immune system is “deficient,” or isn’t working the way it should.
- S – Syndrome – A syndrome is a collection of symptoms and signs of disease. AIDS is a syndrome, rather than a single disease, because it is a complex illness with a wide range of complications and symptoms.
AIDS is the final stage of HIV. People at this stage of HIV disease have badly damaged immune systems, which put them at risk for opportunistic infections (OIs).
How do people get STDs and HIV?
You can get HIV, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis, or HPV from having sex. They are spread when fluids containing HIV or another STD from one person enter the body of another person. These fluids include:
- Semen (cum)
- Pre-seminal fluid (pre-cum)
- Vaginal fluid
- Breast milk (for HIV only)
HIV can enter the body through:
- Lining of the anus or rectum
- Opening to the penis
- Mouth that has sores or bleeding gums
- Cuts and open wounds
- Lining of the vagina and/or cervix
- Needles (syringes)
How do you know if you have an STD or HIV?
The only way to know for sure if you have HIV or another STD is to get tested.
Many STDs don’t have symptoms, but a few things to look out for are:
- Pain or burning when you go pee
- Sores or warts on your penis, mouth, anus, or rectum
- Discharge from your penis
- Painful or swollen testicles
- Body aches
- Feeling really tired
Many people don’t have symptoms when they have HIV, but a few things to look out for are:
- Body aches
- Feeling really tired
- Night sweats
- Sore throat
- Swollen lymph nodes
- Sores in the mouth
Looking for an HIV or other STD testing location near you? Visit: Know your status »
Most people like getting blown, or blowing a guy, or both. But there still some uncertainty about how safe it is. In general, it’s a lot safer than unprotected anal sex (if it weren’t there would be MANY more cases of HIV that we’ve seen to date.) However there are a few things you can do to make oral sex safer, especially if you’re the dude doing the sucking. Don’t brush just before you blow. Brushing can irritate gums or cause bleeding – exposed surfaces that can be a site for infection. Likewise, hold off sucking if you have canker sores or other cuts or wounds in your mouth. These are also sites where HIV can enter the body.
Finally, try not to take cum in your mouth. This is where infection is most likely to happen. Some people use condoms (flavored or not) for oral sex – it all depends on how it feels to you and your partner and how much risk you are willing to accept.
Top or bottom?
We all have our preferences when it comes to sexual positions and behaviors. It’s also good to know that all sexual practices can be made “safer”—meaning you can lower your risk of transmitting/contracting STDs and HIV—but some activities are much safer than others. Here’s a list of sexual activities and the risks they pose for transmitting HIV or other STDs:
Receptive Anal Sex (Bottoming)
- The odds of getting HIV from “bottoming” without a condom are higher than any other sexual behavior.
- HIV has been found in pre-cum (pre-ejaculatory fluid), so having your partner pull out before he cums (ejaculates) may not decrease your risk.
- Do not douche before sex. Douching irritates the lining of your rectum and this can increase your risk for getting HIV. If you are concerned about cleanliness, clean the rectum gently, with a soapy finger and water.
- If you are bottoming, always use plenty of water-based lube with a latex, polyurethane, or polyisoprene condom. Lambskin condoms will NOT protect you from HIV, because the virus is small enough to slip through lambskin. Lubes reduce friction and help keep the condom from breaking. Do NOT use an oil-based lube (like petroleum jelly (Vaseline), hand lotion, or cooking oil). Oil-based lubes can damage condoms and make them less effective. Lube will help to minimize damage to the rectum during sex and to prevent the transmission of STDs (including HIV).
Insertive Anal Sex (Topping)
- “Topping” without a condom is considered a high-risk behavior for transmission of HIV and other STDs.
- Your partner may have sores or other signs of infection in his/her rectum that you can’t see. If you have tears or cuts on your penis, HIV can enter your body this way.
- It is possible for blood and other fluids containing HIV to infect the cells in the urethra of your penis.
Oral-Anal Contact (Rimming)
- The risk of getting HIV by rimming is very low—but this kind of sexual contact comes with a high risk of transmitting hepatitis A and B, parasites, and other bacteria to the partner who is doing the rimming.
- You should use a barrier method (cut-open unlubricated condom, dental dam, or non-microwaveable plastic wrap) over the anus to protect against infection. For more information on dental dams, please see the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Tips For Using Condoms And Dental Dams.
Digital Stimulation (Fingering)
- There is a very small risk of getting HIV from fingering your partner if you have cuts or sores on your fingers and your partner has cuts or sores in the rectum.
- Use medical-grade gloves and lots of water-based lube to eliminate this risk.
- Using sex toys can be a safe practice, as long as you do not share your toys with your partner.
- If you share your toy with your partner, use a condom on the toy, if possible, and change the condom before your partner uses it.
- Clean your toys with soap and water, or a stronger disinfectant if indicated on the cleaning instructions. It is important to do this after each use!
How are gay, bisexual, & other men who have sex with men affected by HIV & other STDs?
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)*:
- Men who have sex with men (MSM) account for nearly half of the more than one million people living with HIV in the U.S. (48%, or an estimated 532,000 total persons).
- MSM account for more than half of all new HIV infections in the U.S. each year (53%, or an estimated 28,700 infections).
- While CDC estimates that MSM account for just 4% of the U.S. male population age 13 and older, the rate of new HIV diagnoses among MSM in the U.S. is more than 44 times that of other men (range: 522–989 per 100,000 MSM vs. 12 per 100,000 other men).
*Statistics from: CDC, HIV and AIDS among Gay and Bisexual Men, Accessed on 7/15/11.