Question: My question is about oral sex. One thing which is bothering me and my girlfriend is that both men’s and women’s genitals have to be cleaned first, so what are the ways and means available to clean them? And is semen harmful? Are a woman’s fluids harmful? Thanks.
Great question! Many women and men are interested in oral sex, and although it is a sexual activity that many couples enjoy, not everyone does and it is certainly not something that a couple ‘has’ to do in order to have a satisfying sexual life.
Cleanliness of Genitals
Couples often have different questions about sexual play, and the cleanliness of the genitals is one issue that is commonly asked about. After all, in addition to serving sensual and reproductive functions, the genitals and anal opening serve an excretory function – that is, they are responsible for getting rid of bodily waste.
And since people often associate urine and feces with being ‘dirty’, then what does that say about the genitals?
Fortunately, very little. A man’s penis and scrotum are covered in skin that is similar to the skin found on other parts of the body and it is therefore relatively easy to keep clean.
Cleaning Mens’ Genitals*
It is slightly different for men whose penis has not been circumcised, as they pull back the foreskin to wash, but that’s a simple enough process that they have likely been doing since childhood. If an uncircumcised man does not regularly retract his foreskin for washing, then a substance called smegma may build up beneath the foreskin and cause what some consider to be an unpleasant smell. Other than basic cleansing with a mild soap or body wash (as one would do with other non-genital body parts), nothing else is needed to keep men’s genitals clean.
The urethra is the tube that carries urine out of man’s body through his penis. The urethra also carries ejaculate out of the body. Fortunately, it only does one job at a time – that is to say that when a man is erect, his bladder valve closes the passageway from the bladder to the urethra so that when he ejaculates, only ejaculate will be emitted from his penis (e.g., he will not urinate when he means to ejaculate; if he does – which happens rarely – he might mention this to his healthcare provider).
Cleaning Womens’ Genitals
Women’s genitals* are slightly different. For starters, there is a wider variety of skin and mucosal tissue that makes it more sensitive than the penis and scrotum.
A vulva (the outside parts of female genitals) can be easily irritated by soaps, laundry detergents and feminine hygiene products such as feminine deodorizers and douches. Many vulvovaginal health experts generally recommend that water and one’s hand are all that are needed to wash a woman’s genitals.
If a woman insists on using a cleansing product, some dermatologists recommend very mild cleansers such as Cetaphil rather than harsh soaps or feminine hygiene products.
Unlike male genitals, female genitals have more than one opening. The urethral opening on a woman is located underneath the clitoris and its only “job” is to carry urine out of the body.
That said, there is some evidence that women may sometimes emit fluid from the urethra during sexual excitement or orgasm (this can include “female ejaculation”, which is often small in amount; and “squirting” which newer research, published years after this original post was written, suggests may be diluted urine).
The vagina has several functions: it allows menstrual blood and tissue to flow out of the body and it also serves as the birth canal and as the site of penile-vaginal intercourse and some other sexual activities (e.g., fingering, penetration with some sex toys, some oral sex play). The vagina is considered by some to be ‘self-cleaning’; thanks to vaginal discharge which comes from the vaginal walls as well as from the cervix (the opening to the uterus).
Neither semen (ejaculate) nor vaginal fluids are dangerous in and of themselves. It is generally safe to ingest ejaculate or vaginal fluids provided that they do not carry infections such as chlamydia, gonorrhea, or HIV.
If you are not sure whether your partner has an infection, it is best to either avoid the risk of infection entirely (e.g., abstain from oral sex, vaginal sex or anal sex, or other activities that might pose an infection risk) or to take safer sex measures.
In the case of oral sex, a person can wear a male condom (also called an external condom) over their penis or a female condom (also called an external condom) vulva while receiving oral sex and dental dams or condoms cut in half (length-wise) can be used as barriers in between the vulva and her partner’s mouth. Because not everyone enjoys the taste of latex, some condom companies sell flavored condoms or lubricants to apply to standard condoms (see www.condomania.com or local adult stores).
For additional information about sexually transmissible infections and safer sex practices, visit our sexual health resource pages or www.plannedparenthood.org or www.cdc.gov. For further information about sexual sharing, check out The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex.
*Since this 2007 post, it has become more common to note that not all men have a penis and scrotum and not all women have a vulva and vagina. We recognize and honor the many different ways our bodies and genitals and genders go together. Our post response keeps with the language of the question-asker, and also preserves this earlier history as an archive, but we felt it important to note this change in the way many of us talk and teach about sex, bodies, and gender these days. We did make some edits in order to de-gender genitals in some sentences (e.g., “vulvas” rather than “women’s vulvas”).
Reviewed and updated on May 2, 2017.