Sexual Health

Sexual Health

Lesbian sex is not without risk, and many lesbians do have sex with men at some point, so it's important to know the risks and take steps to protect yourself and your health.

If you're just starting out on your sexual journey you might find the LGF web pages on the ins and outs of lesbian sex, masturbation and safer sex a good place to start. They've also published the fantastic Beating about the Bush leaflet.

Lesbians can be at risk of passing thrush, chlamydia, herpes and genital warts during sex with each other. Sexually transmitted diseases can be passed through bodily fluids and touching yourself then your partner with the same hand.

Although lesbians are at low risk of HIV, there are still risks, particularly if you have sex with men, AVERT, the national HIV & AIDS information charity, has specific information on the risks for lesbians.

The NHS has produced an excellent leaflet for women who have sex with women which you can download here.

There is also a US national website out of the Department of health in Washington on lesbians and sexually transmitted diseases.

The best way to reduce your risk is to get tested at your local genito-urinary health clinic, and in some areas there are specific clinics for lesbian and bisexual women.

Safer sex between women

(from the NHS Choices website on lesbian sex)

  • If using sex toys, use a new condom for each partner or between penetration of different orifices. Sex toys should be washed with soap and water between sessions.
  • Avoid oral sex if either of you have any cuts or sores in the mouth or on the lips, or use a dental dam.
  • Be aware of the possibility of transmission of some infections via hands, fingers and mutual vulval rubbing, and wash hands before and after sex.
  • Wear latex gloves and use plenty of water-based lubricant for vaginal and anal fisting.

Safer sex with men
If having vaginal, anal or oral sex with a man, use a condom. When used correctly, condoms protect against unintended pregnancy and STIs. In addition to using condoms, find out about the form of contraception that suits you best.

If you think you may be at risk of unintended pregnancy, emergency hormonal contraception (the 'morning after' pill) is available from pharmacies, your GP, hospital, family planning clinics and some sexual health clinics.

Vaginal health

The vagina is self-cleansing so there's no need to wash inside it (douching). Vaginal soreness and vulval irritation can be caused by over use of perfumed soaps, bubble baths and shower gels.

After going to the toilet, always wipe from front to back (vagina to anus).

STIs and other infections

Thrush is caused by an overgrowth of yeast called candida. Symptoms may include vulval and vaginal itching, pain and soreness on penetration, burning when passing urine, and a thick, white discharge.

Trigger factors for thrush include wearing tight clothing, using perfumed soap/bubble bath, taking antibiotics and (sometimes) sex.

It's possible for women to transmit thrush during sex through touching and sharing sex toys. Thrush can be treated with medicated cream, pessaries and tablets, which can be bought from a chemist. Go to your GP if syptoms persist.

Genital herpes
This is caused by a virus which can spread if you have vaginal, anal and/or oral sex, or share sex toys. It can also cause cold sores on the mouth and nose.

Symptoms include painful blisters and ulcers around the genital area, although some women may have no symptoms. After an episode (ocurrence) the virus becomes dormant but can come back in the future. There's no cure once you've been infected because the virus stays in your body for life, but you can remain symptom-free.

Anti-viral tablets can help the healing process and shorten the length of the episode. For more information, see the Herpes Viruses Association website (see Useful links).

Genital warts
These are fleshy growths in the vulval and anal region. They may be itchy but are usually painless.

They are caused by certain strains of Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), which are usually sexually acquired via skin contact, such as rubbing vulvas together.

Women with genital warts do not need more regular smear tests than those without. There are a variety of treatment options including freezing and medicated creams.

HPV can stay in your body for years and warts can return after being treated.

Trichomonas Vaginalis (TV)
TV can be passed between women during any sexual activity which involves the exchange of vaginal fluid.

Symptoms include a frothy discharge, discomfort when passing urine, vulval soreness, and sometimes an unpleasant vaginal odour. Some women don’t have any symptoms. TV is treated with antibiotics.

Chlamydia and gonorrhoea
These STIs are caused by bacteria which can infect the cervix, rectum, throat and urethra. There may be a discharge but usually there are no symptoms.

If left untreated these bacteria may lead to an infection in the fallopian tubes called Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID). Untreated chlamydia can lead to infertility so it's important to stay protected and get tested.

If you have one of these infections, it can be passed between women through shared sex toys, hands, and by rubbing vulvas together. Treatment is with antibiotics.

Syphilis is a bacterial infection causing a painless ulcer, usually found in the genital area. It will disappear on its own but other symptoms may appear, such as a body rash and swollen glands.

These too will disappear leaving no symptoms, but the bacteria itself will stay present. If left untreated, syphilis can cause serious nerve and body organ damage later in life.

In its early stages syphilis is extremely infectious and can be passed on by close skin contact during sex. Treatment is with antibiotic injections or tablets.

Get tested
If you think you've got any of the symptoms discussed above or are worried you may have an STI, speak to your GP or visit an STI clinic. Getting tested regularly is a good idea to ensure you have a healthy sex life. NHS services are free.