What Should Women Know About HIV and Sexual Health?
Fortunately, HIV diagnoses for women have declined in recent years, but it is still important for women to be aware of the risks and prevention strategies for this sexually transmitted infection (STI) so that they can stay safe during sexual activity. Here are some things that women should know about HIV and their sexual health.
Who can get HIV, and how is it passed from one person to another?
It is a common and harmful misconception that only men who have sex with men can contract HIV, and that HIV is only transmitted through anal sex. In reality, people of all genders and sexual orientations can become infected with HIV through vaginal or anal sex, or by sharing drug injection equipment such as needles. Although men who have sex with men are at the highest risk of HIV infection and account for an estimated 69% of new HIV infections in the United States, heterosexual individuals accounted for 23% of new HIV infections in 2019, and two-thirds of these cases were women (HIV.gov, 2021). Furthermore, some populations of women, including Black/African American and transgender women, are disproportionately impacted by HIV. Therefore, it is important that all women have access to information and resources on HIV so that they can make informed decisions and maintain their health and well-being.
What steps can women take to protect against contracting HIV during sexual activity?
Using a condom for the entirety of every vaginal and anal sex experience can help protect women (and all individuals) from HIV infection. Condoms function by creating a physical barrier to prevent the transmission of body fluids that may contain HIV or other STIs from one partner to another during sexual intercourse.
Applying a personal lubricant is also advisable, especially before anal sex. Lubricants facilitate easier penetration and may reduce the risk of tears or minor cuts that can make the body more susceptible to viral transmission. However, one should avoid using oil-based lubricants at the same time as latex condoms because oil-based lubricants can damage/diminish the protective effect of the latex condoms.
Nonoxynol-9 is a spermicide that can be used as a form of birth control. Spermicides are usually creams, gels, or suppositories that are inserted into the vagina before sex that function by paralyzing the sperm to keep it from reaching the egg. However, frequent nonoxynol-9 use and/or using a spermicide for anal sex can impact the integrity of the vaginal/anal mucosa, so this is not recommended for individuals who are at risk for HIV.
Individuals who are aware of their HIV status and the status of their sexual partner(s) are better equipped to make decisions when it comes to their sexual and overall health. Approximately 13% of the individuals who have HIV in the U.S. are unaware of it and would benefit from being tested. Often, people put off being tested for HIV due to fear, shame, and/or the stigma surrounding it. However, when a person becomes aware of their HIV status, they can seek medical care that can keep HIV from progressing to AIDS and improve their quality of life.
Women who are at risk for contracting HIV (e.g., women with an HIV-positive sexual partner, or women with a partner whose HIV status is unknown) may benefit from taking pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP. PrEP is a medication that can reduce the risk of contracting HIV during sex by 99% when it is taken daily. If a woman suspects that she might have been exposed to HIV and is not using PrEP, she should see a medical professional as soon as possible to have the option of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP). Refer to this article for more information on how a person can practice safe sex and prevent the spread of HIV.
What resources are available for women who are HIV-positive?
Advances in medical care have made it possible for HIV-positive individuals to live long and healthy lives. Nevertheless, an HIV diagnosis can be a traumatic and life-changing event for anyone. Women who are HIV-positive may feel alone and unprepared for what lies ahead. Mental health professionals can offer support and coping strategies for difficult times. There are also online resources available for women about HIV and AIDS. Visit https://www.womenshealth.gov/hiv-and-aids/hiv-and-aids-resources for a list of available resources and a comprehensive directory of PrEP providers.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, October 15). HIV and Gay and Bisexual Men. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gay-bisexual-men/index.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, September 20). HIV and Transgender People. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/transgender/index.html
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2021, September 22). HIV and Women. https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/group/gender/women/index.html
- HIV.gov. (2021, June 2). U.S. Statistics. https://www.hiv.gov/hiv-basics/overview/data-and-trends/statistics
- HIVinfo.NIH.gov. (2021, August 10). Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP). https://hivinfo.nih.gov/understanding-hiv/fact-sheets/pre-exposure-prophylaxis-prep
- Office on Women’s Health. (2021, March 5). National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. https://www.womenshealth.gov/nwghaad