What’s risky and what’s not?

Some sexual activity can put you more at risk of catching HIV and STIs than others.

Choose an activity and click the risk-o-meter to see how risky it is.

Anal sex is HIGH RISK

Having unprotected anal sex is a high risk activity for HIV and almost every sexually transmitted infection.

You can reduce the risks during anal sex if you:

  • always use a condom
  • use extra condom-friendly lube
  • never share anal toys without a fresh condom.

Find out more about safer anal sex.

If you've had unprotected anal sex, you should get tested regularly.

Cyber sex is LOW RISK

As there is no physical contact during cyber sex (also called 'virtual sex' or 'online sex') there is no risk of HIV or sexually transmitted infections to either partner.

However, there are other risks:

  • someone may make your sexually explicit posts, pictures, chat or video public
  • your real life relationships could be put in jeopardy if you're 'cybering' with someone other than your regular partner
  • sexual predators could use online information to find you in the real world

Find out more about safer cyber sex.

A burst condom is HIGH RISK

A burst condom puts both partners at risk of HIV and sexually transmitted infections.

Reduce the risk of a condom bursting by:

  • making sure it's properly unrolled
  • squeezing the air out of the 'teat' before putting it on
  • using extra lube suitable for use with condoms
  • put water-based lubricant all over the condom and inside the anus, but not inside the condom before anal sex
  • never using oils, oil-based lubricants, or oily foodstuffs during sex.

Find out more about safer condom usage.

Group sex is HIGH RISK

Having sex with lots of partners increases the risk of catching HIV or a sexually transmitted infection.

You can reduce the risks if everyone:

  • always uses a condom
  • use condom-friendly lube
  • gets tested regularly
  • never shares toys without a fresh condom.

Find out more about safer group sex.

Masturbation is LOW RISK

When practised between partners, masturbation is a medium risk activity for HIV and sexually transmitted infections, but is a no-risk activity if you do it alone.

If you masturbate by touching or being touched by a partner, you can reduce the risks by:

  • being careful not to spill any semen
  • using plenty of condom-friendly lubrication
  • avoiding touching the eyes, mouth, nose or any broken skin after ejaculation.

Find out more about safer masturbation.

Oral sex is MEDIUM RISK.

Oral sex is low risk for HIV but higher risk for some STIs. It can be lower risk if you use a condom. Receptive oral sex with ejaculation in the mouth (giving oral sex) represents the highest exposure risk, especially if the insertive partner is HIV positive.

Oral anal sex (rimming) is low risk.

The risks from oral sex can be reduced if you:

  • always use a fresh condom
  • avoid oral sex with ejaculation in the mouth
  • avoid oral sex if there are any signs of infection
  • avoid oral sex if the person giving it has any cuts or sores in their mouth.

Find out more about safer oral sex.

Phone sex is LOW RISK

As there is no physical contact during phone sex (also called 'virtual sex' or 'online sex') there is no risk of sexually transmitted infections to either partner.

However, there are other risks:

  • someone may make your sexually explicit chat, pictures or video public
  • your real life relationships could be put in jeopardy if you have phone sex with someone other than your regular partner
  • sexual predators could use information from your sex chat to find you in the real world.

Find out more about safer phone sex.

Using sex toys is MEDIUM RISK

Using sex toys is a medium-risk activity for HIV and most sexually transmitted infections if you share them with a partner. There's no risk if you use them alone.

The health risks from using sex toys can be reduced if you:

  • always cover the toy with a fresh condom before use
  • change condoms before swapping toys with a partner
  • use plenty of condom-friendly water-based or silicon-based lube
  • only use well-made toys displaying the European safety CE mark.

Find out more about safer sex toys.

Sex in public is HIGH RISK

Meeting strangers for sex in public is risky. Unless you know someone’s status, you could catch HIV or sexually transmitted infections. Learn more about how to stay safe.

It is always vital to practise safer sex in order to protect yourself against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

  • always use a condom
  • use condom-friendly lube
  • change the condom after 30 minutes.

There’s also the danger of becoming a victim of crime or being arrested. The common law offence of ‘public indecency’ makes it an offence to engage in ‘indecent conduct’ in a public place or so as to be seen from a public place.

Enemas or ‘douches’ are HIGH RISK

Flushing out (douching) your anus with water before sex can irritate the lining so it gets infected more easily. This can increase your risk of getting HIV.

Rough stuff is HIGH RISK

The rougher the sex, and the longer the session, the more chance condoms will split and your penis or anus will get sore and bleed. This makes it easier for HIV to get into the bloodstream.

A burst condom can also cause a high risk of catching a sexually transmitted infection.

Change condoms every 30 minutes and use plenty of condom-friendly lube during rough sex.

Learn more about using condoms and lube properly.

Fisting and fingering is LOW RISK

There’s more risk of getting HIV or STIs if you are penetrated after being fingered because of bleeding inside the anus. Watch out for cuts or rashes on the hand.

The health risks from fisting and fingering can be reduced if you:

  • file finger nails, remove jewellery and use latex gloves with plenty of lube to reduce the risk of tearing the anal lining
  • leave fisting or fingering until after sex, as there’s less chance of bleeding in the anus
  • keep it gentle. It's best to use gloves for rougher stuff.

Water sports is LOW RISK

Infectious levels of HIV have never been found in urine, so ‘water sports’ are pretty safe, unless there is a significant amount of blood in your urine that gets into broken skin.

If there is blood in your urine, see a doctor.

The more people you have sex with, the greater the risks are of catching HIV or a sexually transmitted infection, especially if you don’t use a condom and lube.

Whether it is mutual group masturbation (which carries no HIV risk) or group sex, it is still important to practise safer sex.

With group sex sessions, the chances that someone will forget to practise safer sex techniques are greatly increased. Even practising safer sex, a condom could slip or split and allow infectious bacteria or viruses through.

In a group sex session, it's possible that just one person with HIV could infect the rest of the group. If sessions are anonymous, anyone who does find they have HIV will not be able to contact others in the group to let them know they should get a test.

Some ways to reduce the risks from group sex include:

  • Always insist on using condoms and lube and change condoms every 30 minutes
  • Keep group sizes as small as possible
  • Make sure everyone agrees to practise safer sex techniques, such as the ones on these web pages

There is no risk of catching a sexually transmitted infection if you masturbate alone. If you masturbate your partner, there is a risk that any viruses or bacteria on your hands could be passed to your partner. Similarly, any viruses or bacteria on their genitals or in their semen might be passed on to you. Mutual masturbation carries no risk for HIV (unless there is broken skin, where it can be low risk).

The longer masturbation goes on, the greater the risk that the skin on or around the genitals will become damaged. This makes it easier for infections to enter the bloodstream.

Some ways to reduce the risks from masturbation include:

  • Avoid masturbation if there are open sores or cuts on the skin
  • Use plenty of condom-friendly lubrication
  • Wash your hands carefully with soap before touching your genitals, mouth or eyes if you've been masturbating your partner, or touching your partner's genitals, mouth or eyes if you've been masturbating yourself
  • Use safer sex alternatives to mutual masturbation, such as cyber sex, sex toys and phone sex

Most sexually transmitted infections can be passed on through unprotected oral sex, and some – such as gonorrhoea, genital herpes, genital warts, chlamydia and syphilis - are easily caught through unprotected oral and anal sex.

Though the risk is lower, HIV can also be passed on from a man during oral sex if his semen enters the bloodstream. This can happen if there are small cuts or sores in the mouth of the person giving him oral sex. Oral sex is low risk for HIV. However, using a condom would eliminate this low risk.

Some ways to reduce the risks from oral sex include:

  • Always use a fresh condom
  • Change the condom every 30 minutes if in use for a long time
  • Perform oral sex without ejaculation
  • Refrain from oral sex if there are any signs of infection
  • Refrain from oral sex if the person giving it has any cuts or sores in their mouth.

Online chatrooms, dating websites and now smartphone applications such as Grindr are a popular and instant way to connect with other men for chat, friendship or sex. Although there's no risk of HIV or sexually transmitted infections online or on your phone, there are other personal risks from cruising for sex on your phone and dating websites on the internet. If you agree to meet up for sex, personal safety should be your main concern. The NHS Lothian ROAM website has some helpful information on personal safety, especially if you meet somewhere public for sex.

Sex outside runs the risk of being arrested for public indecency or a breach of the peace but remember that the police will be there to protect you, not to harass you. ROAM also offer advice on how to contact the police if you have been a victim of a hate crime. If you feel threatened or unsafe dial 999. All police services in Scotland have LBGT liaison officers where concerns can also be reported confidentially via telephone or email.

It's hard to judge character just by talking or messaging someone - they could turn out to be malicious. Someone could also record your sessions and make your sexy chat, pictures or video public or track you down in real life. This could be highly embarrassing and could impact on your job and your other relationships.

Some ways to reduce the risks from phone and cyber sex include:

  • Never use your real name
  • Don’t post any photos or videos showing your face
  • Don’t show any tattoos or other unique body marks

To stop phone or online sex partners tracking you down in real life:

  • Don't give out your contact details
  • Don't give details of where you are in the real world
  • Don't give details of real world places you visit
  • Avoid giving details of your job, friends or leisure activities

If you don't share sex toys, they carry no risk for HIV or STIs. They can be fun for you and your partner but there are a few risks to easily avoid.

Some ways to reduce the risks from sex toys include:

  • Don't share sex toys, as bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause sexually transmitted infections can easily be passed between partners.
  • Always wash sex toys before and after use.
  • Always cover the toy with a fresh condom before use
  • Change condoms before swapping toys with a partner
  • Use plenty of condom-friendly lubrication
  • Only use well-made toys displaying the European safety CE mark
  • Avoid squishy, gel type toys, as there is some evidence that they contain chemicals that may cause cancers
  • For anal use, always use toys with a cord or plug on the end that can't pass inside

When using sex toys, you also need to be careful not to hurt yourself or your partner with them.

If you use something that's too big, you could rip or tear the skin inside the anus. Sex toys can also break during use and damage the genitals or become stuck deep inside the body.

Prolonged use can also damage the skin of the penis (if using a 'fleshlight' for example) or around or inside the anus if using a plug or dildo.

Have fun but take your time and play safe!

Condoms & lube

Find out how to stay healthy and still enjoy your sex life: