The Myth of "Safe Sex"

There are a number of myths about "safe sex." Let's look at three of them in detail.

Myth #1: If I limit the number of partners with whom I have sex, I'll be safe.
This sounds good, but in reality numbers have very little to do with it. While it's true that having fewer partners means fewer chances for exposure to disease, it only takes one sexual contact to become pregnant or to get a serious or potentially fatal infection.

That's why it's so important to save sex for marriage. If you're married, and you and your spouse abstained from sexual activity until your wedding and you've been completely faithful to each other since then, there is practically no risk. The possibility of getting an STD in an exclusive marital relationship is very small, and pregnancy is a tremendous blessing that draws husband and wife even closer.

Myth #2: If I know something about a potential partner's sexual history and avoid having sex with someone who has had many partners, I'll be safe.
This, too, sounds reasonable, but it's not that easy. Some people are unwilling to tell the whole truth, especially if they think it could damage a romantic relationship or cause their prospective partner to resist all sexual involvement. There's no way to be sure that the other person is being completely honest about previous relationships and sexual behavior. What's more, it's impossible to discover anything about the history of the prospective partner's previous partners, or those partners' partners, and so on. From an infectious-disease standpoint, one has sex not with just one person, but with all of that individual's previous sexual contacts, and all of their contacts' contacts. To complicate matters, a significant number of people who are infected with STDs have no symptoms and don't even know that they're infected.

Myth #3: If we use a condom every time, I'll be safe.
True, using a condom correctly (a multi-step procedure) during each act of intercourse will reduce the risk of pregnancy and some STDs. But condoms are not an effective form of birth control. In fact, the failure rate of condoms is commonly estimated at fifteen percent during the first year of typical use. This means that out of one hundred women who are sexually active, ten to fifteen will become pregnant within a year if condoms are the only form of contraception used. Among teens, these failure rates are generally higher for a variety of reasons. Not only are teens more likely to forget or mismanage some of the fine points of condom use (including having one available in the first place) during the heat of the moment, but many teenagers, and older men as well, simply resist wearing them.

Since condoms have been so widely promoted as a fail-safe defense against the risks of sex outside of marriage, it's worth taking a closer look at this particular aspect of the myth. Even when used correctly and consistently, condoms can break, leak or fall off during intercourse. And while the risk for condom breakage and slippage during a single sexual act may be quite small (one to four percent in most studies), the cumulative risk when condoms are used as a long-term prevention strategy is significant. These failure rates are even more alarming if you remember that intercourse can lead to pregnancy only a few days each month, while STDs can be transmitted every time sexual contact occurs.

Scientific evidence demonstrates that, while condoms can reduce the transmission of STDs to a variable degree, they are far from one hundred percent protective. Against some infections they aren't particularly effective at all. Consistent condom use during every sexual encounter has been shown to reduce the risk of transmitting HIV about 85 percent. For gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis and Chlamydia the numbers are closer to 50 percent. One reason for this incomplete protection is that a number of infections such as syphilis, herpes and especially human papillomavirus (HPV) are often spread through contact between skin surfaces that a condom does not cover. The majority of research on condoms and HPV transmission suggests that the level of protection offered by condoms against the spread of this particular disease is limited at best.

Here's the bottom line: "Safe sex" and "safer sex" presentations send a dangerously mixed and strangely paradoxical message. No one would argue that using filtered cigarettes constitutes safer smoking. Similarly, we don't give lessons in safer driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol. When it comes to sex, however, contemporary culture says, "We know you can't control yourself, so be sure to put on a condom and hope for the best. And by the way, we won't mention that for many STIs condoms aren't very effective, because that could cause you to lose confidence in them and you might not use them at all." That, in a nutshell, is what's so "unsafe" about "safe sex."


Sex 180: The Next Revolution


This information has been approved by the Physicians Resource Council of Focus on the Family.

Excerpted from The Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care published by Tyndale House Publishers. Copyright © 1997, 2007, Focus on the Family.