A teen writes to the GLBT teens forum:
"I know that there is still an AIDS problem in the gay community, but how big of a risk do lesbians have? I mean, we can't really put anything of ours except our fingers in our partners, so how would AIDS get transfered from one woman to another during sex? Is it able to transfer through saliva?"
That's a really good question! Basically, anyone who is sexually active can contract a sexually transmitted disease (STD or STI). Infections are spread through sexual activity and they aren't too concerned with a person's sexual orientation.
That being said, the riskiest sexual activities for HIV transmission are not things that two women typically do in bed. So what are they? Primarily, unprotected vaginal sex, anal sex, and occasionally, oral sex performed on a man. Manual stimulation and oral sex performed on a woman are considered low risk activities.
Still, there has been at least one documented case of female-to-female transmission of HIV. The Guide to Lesbian Life reports that in 2003 a 20-year-old lesbian from Philadelphia contracted HIV from her female partner.
"Most likely she was infected from the use of sex toys, used vigorously enough to cause exchange of blood-tinged body fluids, according to the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. This young woman had no other risk factors: she did not use intravenous drugs, had never had sex with a man, never had a blood transfusion, had no tattoos or piercings and only had sex with her partner for the previous two years."
So while this case is rare, it is a reminder that, such a thing is possible.
The Question of Kissing
The fluids that transmit HIV include, blood, semen, vaginal fluids and breast milk. Saliva is not on that list. As a result, kissing is considered a really low risk activity for HIV transmission.
But low risk doesn't mean absolutely no risk. As the Centers for Disease Control explains:
"There are extremely rare cases of HIV being transmitted via deep “French” kissing but in each case, infected blood was exchanged due to bleeding gums or sores in the mouth. Because of this remote risk, it is recommended that individuals who are HIV-infected avoid deep, open-mouth “French” kissing with a non-infected partner, as there is a potential risk of transferring infected blood."
Though women who only have sex with women are generally at lower risk for HIV, it is still wise to take precautions, get tested, and always practice safer sex.
Women who are concerned about practicing safe sex with a female partner have a few options. Some lesbians or women who have sex with women (WSW) use dental dams for oral sex to help reduce the risk of STDs.
As one lesbian teen writes:
"You should always use a dental dam, while performing oral sex. Did you know you could make one from a condom? Condoms are more common and way cheap. Oh and rubber gloves. Wear them, make dams out of them: they're a lesbian's best friend."
It is also important to be careful with any sex toys you use. Your best bet is to avoid sharing toys. If you must share, make sure to cover toys with a condom between partners.
The Matter of Lesbian Identities Versus Women's Realities
It is also important to keep in mind that just because someone identifies as a lesbian, that doesn't mean that she has never, or will never, have sex with a man, which could expose her to HIV. Sadly, it is also possible for a lesbian to have been raped and to contract HIV in this way.