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Women who have sex can get HIV
- Women have a higher risk of getting HIV from vaginal sex
- Women can pass HIV to their partners
- Women who have sex with women
- Men on the "down low"
- More information on how women who have sex can get HIV
Women are more likely to get HIV during vaginal sex than men are for several reasons.
- The vagina has a larger area (compared to the penis), that can be exposed to HIV-infected semen.
- Semen can stay in the vagina for days after sex, while men are only exposed to HIV-infected fluids during sex. Semen left in the vagina means a longer exposure to the virus for women.
- Having untreated sexually transmitted infections (STIs) makes it more likely for a person to get HIV. This is especially true for women. Small cuts on the skin of the vagina are hard to notice but may allow HIV to pass into a woman's body.
Many HIV-positive women with HIV-negative partners worry about passing HIV. Research shows in the United States, men pass HIV more easily than women do. But women can still pass HIV to uninfected partners — both male and female — through all kinds of sex. This is because HIV is in blood (including menstrual blood), vaginal fluids, and in cells in the vaginal and anal walls.
If you are HIV-positive, you can pass the virus at any time, even if you are getting treatment. But you may be more likely to pass the virus if:
- You have a vaginal yeast infection or STIs
- You have recently been treated for a vaginal yeast infection or STIs
- You were recently infected with HIV
- Your partner has an infection or inflammation
The surest way to avoid passing any STI, including HIV, is to not have sex. If you do have sex, it's important to always use a male condom correctly and every time you have sex.
Women who only have sex with women (lesbians) might think they are safe from HIV. To get HIV in this way would be very rare. But it is possible for a woman to get HIV through sexual contact with an HIV-positive woman. Experts think this could happen if soft tissues, such as those in the mouth, come in contact with the vaginal fluid or menstrual blood of a woman infected with HIV. Women who have sex with women also can get infected with HIV by injecting drugs or by having sex with a man who has HIV.
A lesbian or bisexual woman should know her HIV status as well as her partner's. That way, she can take steps to protect herself or others from HIV. You can lower your risk of getting HIV by using condoms correctly and every time you have sex with men, or when using sex toys. Experts suggest using dental dams to lower the risk of getting or spreading HIV through oral sex. However, not much research has been done to prove that they are effective.
The term "down low" or "DL" means to keep something private. Being "on the down low," "on the DL," or "on the low low," are terms often used to describe men who have sex with men as well as with women. However, these men do not call themselves gay or bisexual. Female partners of men who are "on the down low" do not know that their partner is also having sex with one or more men. These women have a higher risk of getting HIV, especially if the male partner had unprotected sex with HIV-positive men.
The term "DL" has most often been used among African-American men, but it also describes the lives of some white and Latino men. Yet because being on the DL is defined by secrecy, very little is known about these men. It is not known how many of these men:
- Have HIV or AIDS
- Practice unsafe sex with any partner
- Do other actions that put them at risk of HIV, such as injecting drugs
Explore other publications and websites
Health Issues for Lesbians: Tips to Stay Healthy (Copyright © Mayo Clinic) — This Web page answers questions about how women who have sex with women can engage in safer sex practices.
HIV Among Gay, Bisexual and Other Men Who Have Sex with Men (MSM) — This publication discusses the increase of HIV among men who have sex with men, the risks, and ways to protect yourself.
HIV/AIDS Surveillance in Women — HIV and AIDS is a growing problem among women of all ages. This series of slides tracks the occurrence of HIV and AIDS in women from 1985–2007.
Lesbians, Bisexual Women and Safe Sex (Copyright © AVERT) — This fact sheet talks about health concerns that apply to lesbians and bisexual women and offers tips for staying healthy.
Prevention Challenges — This fact sheet outlines the major biological and social factors that make women more vulnerable to becoming infected with HIV.
Questions and Answers: Men on the Down Low — This publication provides a definition for the term "down low" and explains how it is related to risk of HIV/AIDS.
Women and HIV (Copyright © AIDS InfoNet) — This publication explains the biological and social factors that put women at risk of getting HIV. It talks about the rise in HIV infection in women and gives strategies for HIV prevention.
Women and HIV/AIDS in the United States (Copyright © Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation) — HIV is affecting more women than ever before. This report provides statistics as well as an explanation for the high rate of HIV/AIDS among women and minorities.
Connect with other organizations
American Social Health Association
Gay and Lesbian Medical Association
HIV/AIDS Programs, HRSA, HHS
The National Coalition for LGBT Health
Content last updated July 1, 2011.
Resources last updated July 1, 2011.
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