Sex Question Friday: Is “Rimming” Safe?

Every Friday on the blog, I answer people’s questions about sex, love, and relationships. This week’s question comes from a reader who wanted to know:

“Is rimming safe?”

In case anyone reading this is unfamiliar with the term “rimming,” what we’re talking about here is oral stimulation of the anus (also known as anilingus). This is a behavior that is most commonly associated with gay and bisexual men—and, indeed, many of them practice it. For instance, consider a recent survey study in which nearly 25,000 men who have sex with men from an online hookup site were asked what they did during their most recent sexual event [1]. The researchers found that 25% reported performing anilingus, while 26% reported receiving it (please note that these percentages likely overlap to some degree because participants could select one or both options). However, these results should not be taken to mean that all or even most gay and bisexual guys are necessarily into this behavior—after all, this was a single survey of men who are into hooking-up and who do so through one specific website.

It is also important to note that this isn’t a behavior limited to men who have sex with men. For instance, a survey of 803 lesbian and bisexual women found that 29% reported rimming occasionally, and 10% reported doing it often [2]. I couldn’t find much data on heterosexuals who are into anilingus. However, I suspect that this isn’t because heterosexuals are inherently opposed to this activity; rather, it probably has more to do with the fact that researchers just haven’t bothered to ask them about it! For some reason, this behavior generally isn't included on national sex surveys. That said, a recent article published in Playboy suggests that many straight guys enjoy rimming as well. Thus, contrary to popular belief, this is a behavior that appears to cross gender and sexual orientation lines.

So is rimming safe? Like any other sexual activity, it carries some degree of risk. For instance, oral-anal contact is associated with increased risk of certain STIs, such as herpes [3]. Herpes and other viruses that are transmitted through skin-to-skin contact (e.g., HPV) have the potential to be spread and contracted through any form of oral-genital stimulation. Of course, anilingus increases risk for contracting other STIs too, including (but not limited to) chlamydia and gonorrhea--you may or may not realize this, but these and other STIs have been known to take hold in the anus and in the throat.

In addition to sexual infections, there is also some risk of spreading intestinal infections as well. Studies have found elevated rates of various intestinal infections among persons who practice anilingus [4].

So what can be done to decrease infection risk? Many people seem to be under the impression that a thorough cleaning of the anal area makes it “safe,” but that’s not exactly true. While this is likely to provide some degree of risk reduction, it certainly doesn’t eliminate it. Consider this: even after cleansing the skin, a herpes or HPV infection will still be present.

The greatest risk reduction can be obtained by using some type of barrier. One possibility would be to use a dental dam, which is a thin, latex barrier that is placed over the anus (or vulva) prior to performing oral sex. You can buy dental dams at some sex shops and pharmacies, or online through places like Amazon.

One last note: if you don’t have a dental dam handy, you can also make one from a regular male condom--just cut off the tip, cut down one side, and unroll. Alternatively, you can do the same thing with a latex glove--just cut off the fingers and slit it down the side.

For previous editions of Sex Question Friday, click here. To send in a question for a future edition, click here.

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[1] Rosenberger, J. G., Reece, M., Schick, V., Herbenick, D., Novak, D. S., Van Der Pol, B., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2011). Sexual Behaviors and Situational Characteristics of Most Recent MalePartnered Sexual Event among Gay and Bisexually Identified Men in the United States. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 8, 3040-3050.

[2] Bailey, J. V., Farquhar, C., Owen, C., & Whittaker, D. (2003). Sexual behaviour of lesbians and bisexual women. Sexually Transmitted Infections, 79, 147-150.

[3] Jin, F., Prestage, G. P., Mao, L., Kippax, S. C., Pell, C. M., Donovan, B., ... & Grulich, A. E. (2006). Transmission of herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 in a prospective cohort of HIV-negative gay men: The health in men study. Journal of Infectious Diseases, 194, 561-570.

[4] Escobedo, A. A., Almirall, P., Alfonso, M., Cimerman, S., & Chacín-Bonilla, L. (in press). Sexual transmission of giardiasis: A neglected route of spread? Acta Tropica.

Thumbnail Image On Main Blog Page: inga via Wikimedia Commons

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