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Women who have sex can get HIV

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Women have a higher risk of getting HIV from vaginal sex

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.

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Women can pass HIV to their partners

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.

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Women who have sex with women

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.

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Men on the "down low"

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.

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

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Content last updated: July 01, 2011.

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