“Safe sex” implies a clear division between sexual activities that are high risk and ones that are risk free. But most sexual activity has some risk, and the amount of risk for different activities varies along a continuum.
Penetrative sex with condoms is safer than penetrative sex without condoms, but mutual masturbation is safer than penetration.
“Safer sex” is preferable because it emphasizes that practices like condoms lessen risk rather than eliminate it entirely. And you can take precautions that make sex safer even if you know you have or think you might have an STI.
Sometimes “safe sex” is used as a synonym for “sex with condoms.” While condoms are one important tool for reducing sexual risks, they are not the only tool.
Conversations about “safe sex” may also imply that “sex” refers only to penetration or even specifically to penis-in-vagina penetration. Yet many other sexual activities also have risk that should be considered.
“Safer sex” draws attention to a broader assortment of practices used for a wide variety of sexual activities. Barriers like dentals dams and gloves can be used for non-penetrative activities like oral sex and fingering. Preventative measures like testing, treatment, and vaccines can reduce risk for many kinds of sex.
Penetrative sex without condoms is often called “unprotected sex,” but it’s more accurate to call this “condomless sex.” There are other forms of protection that can be used without or in additional to condoms, like pre-exposure prophylaxis and serosorting.
While we want to encourage safety in our communities, it’s also important to recognize that people have a right to determine for themselves how much risk and what kinds of risks they want to take.
While some people will always want to use condoms, others may choose not to. Decisions like these about safer sex practices should be made mutually by the people having sex.
Those outside a sexual relationship might provide information about risk, but they shouldn’t judge how that risk is handle. “Risk aware sex” emphasizes that quality education about sexual health is necessary for people to make informed decisions.