Young couple kissing
A young couple kissing. © Felix Mizioznikov -

It’s pretty well understood that unprotected vaginal intercourse places the two people involved at a higher risk for spreading HIV, also known as the human immunodeficiency virus. Yet, so do other common sexual behaviors that you may not have thought about.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that African-Americans account for 44 percent of all new HIV infections, despite making up only 14 percent of the population. So with today being National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day, it is a perfect day for young adults to examine their sexual lifestyles and determine whether or not they’re living safely or dangerously on the edge.

HIV risk check #1: Oral Sex

With the risks of vaginal intercourse, some turn to oral sex as an alternative form of sexual gratification. Others engage in oral sex as part of foreplay, but rarely use the same caution or level of protection as vaginal sex. The problem is, doctors say the same cautions apply to the mouth as they do the genitals.

“While oral sex carries less risk than vaginal or anal sex, even with lower-risk behaviors, you need to avoid getting semen, vaginal fluids, or blood into the mouth or on broken skin,” says Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Vice President for External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

That means exploring using condoms or dental dams during oral sex acts, and avoiding altogether if there are any open sores or cuts in the mouth.

HIV risk check #2: Anal Sex

It is widely perceived that homosexual men engage in anal sex, but women engage as well. Some women prefer anal sex due to the low risk of pregnancy or since the anus is very sensitive, they find it to be a pleasurable experience. However, that pleasure may be short-lived for all.

Since the tissue around the anus is very fragile, it can tear and send bacteria and viruses into the bloodstream.  It’s this practice that has led the disproportionately high rates of HIV among black men who have sex with men (MSM).

HIV risk check #3: Spermicides/Microbicides

These are lubricants that are meant to fight against sexually transmitted infections, including, in some cases, HIV. Researchers have even looked into making such microbicides available to women in third world countries whose partners won’t wear condoms and the social structure prevents them from demanding it.

However, one particular spermicide called nonoxynol-9, or N-9, may have the opposite effect. Instead of preventing HIV, some experts worry it could actually increase the risk of contracting HIV.

The chemical itself can be effective in preventing pregnancy, but the widespread recommendation to use N-9 against chlamydia, gonorrhea and HIV was retracted. It is so irritating to the vagina and anus that it actually makes it easier for the bacteria and viruses to get into the body.

Since this news broke in the 1990s, N-9 has not been as popular as it once was. However, there are still some condoms, foams and sponges available for sale with N-9. Read the packaging. Read the warnings.

HIV risk check #4: Sex before both partners have been tested for HIV

“I think at this point the awareness has gone down as a public health issue,” says Dr. Beryl Koblin, Lab Head for the Laboratory of Infectious Disease Prevention at the New York Blood Center. “It’s not on people’s radar.”

That, and one in five people with HIV don’t know they have it.

This is one reason the theme for National Black HIV/Aids Awareness Day is “I Am My Brother’s/Sister’s Keeper.” Cullins believes the best way to do that is for partners to get tested together.

“You cannot know for sure what your partner is involved in,” she adds. “For these reasons, it’s important for you and your partner to be periodically tested and for you to always practice safer sex.”

Cullins understands that, in the heat of the moment, quick decisions are made. But, she urges that all who are sexually active think before that moment can become a lifelong illness.

“Each of us must decide what risks we will take when we decide to have sex. However, that doesn’t mean that we should take unnecessary risks.”

Utilize affordable or free local resources here to detect HIV or other sexually transmitted infections early.