People often refer to safe sex methods simply as birth control or contraception. Many contraceptive methods do a great job of preventing pregnancy, but don't offer any protection against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). Before you make a choice about the right protection for you, it’s important to understand all the options available for safe sex, how contraception works, and if your chosen method of safe sex also protects against STDs.

Consider the four basic types of contraception:

  • Sterilization: Sterilization methods come in two basic types: one for women (tubal ligation) and one for men (the vasectomy). The advantages are that these are one-time, effective operations without side effects. The disadvantages are that sterilization is permanent and does not protect against STDs.

  • Hormonal methods: There are many hormonal methods, including the Pill, Depo-Provera, Implanon, Nuva Ring, the Patch (Ortho Evra), and IUDs. These methods control the hormones that affect the sex and reproductive organs, thus inhibiting pregnancy. Hormonal methods come with a variety of advantages and disadvantages, depending on the method chosen. For example, the Pill is taken daily (so you must remember to take it!); Implanon is an implanted device that works for three years. If used properly, hormonal methods are extremely effective against pregnancy but don't protect against STDs.

  • Barrier methods: Barrier methods are the most straightforward: they use a physical barrier to prevent sperm from reaching the egg. Women can use a diaphragm, cervical cap, sponge, or female condom. Men can use condoms. These are not usually considered the most effective methods of birth control, although the risks are significantly reduced by using them in combination with spermicide. Latex condoms, if used correctly, are the best protection against STDs.

  • Natural family planning: Natural family planning is based on the regular patterns of fertility that most women have, and thus choosing not to have sex during the time of month when the woman is fertile and can become pregnant. There are different methods to determine the most fertile time, including the calendar method, basal body temperature, cervical mucus, and sympto-thermal method. A woman whose periods are very regular will be most likely to benefit from this version of birth control. Natural family planning does not protect against STDs.

Remember, only one of these methods of birth control, the condom, significantly reduces your risk of catching a sexually transmitted disease. The condom isn't the most effective method of birth control (although it’s certainly better than nothing), but it is a vital piece of equipment in the war against AIDS and other STDs. So if you’re not with one steady partner, or if your one partner has more partners than just you, you should always have some condoms on hand — and use them!

No matter what, don't let the abundance of options and information overwhelm you. Too many people just don’t bother to use any form of protection, at least from time to time. That’s one of the reasons there are so many unintended pregnancies and why STDs are so rampant. So if you’re going to engage in sexual intercourse, make the effort to learn how to prevent pregnancies and STDs, and you’ll enjoy sex a lot more.

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