At first heteronormative blush, there’s something that seems slightly juvenile about fingering. It’s a sexual act that harkens back images of Friday nights in the shopping mall parking lot, of capping off a Bacardi-soaked evening by hooking up on a trampoline (at least, for me). But whether through foreplay, accessibility, or as a form of sex all its own, fingering is part of our adult sex lives. Lives in which we hopefully, in true doctorian fashion, attempt to do no harm.
So why do so few people think about the filthiness of their fingers before popping them into another person/ourselves? As Dr. Vanessa Cullins, Vice President for External Medical Affairs at Planned Parenthood, told me, “When it comes to sexual intimacy, people tend not to prepare for it.” While many of us do prep for the acts we consider “real sex,” fingering can often seem so….spur of the moment.
To hear it from the source, I spoke with several men on the subject of why they do or do not wash their hands beforehand…
1. “I think in all these years of living in New York City, I have evolved to handle the dirty hands problem by unconsciously training my body: I always have to pee upon arriving at a place (particularly after climbing my five flights of apartment stairs), which means I always end up washing my hands not too long after arriving somewhere. This is a good way to avoid gunking up your food, your body, your own eyes or mouth, or a lady friend’s parts with the accumulated grime of the city. But for those times that I’m just too drunk to consider it…well, I’d rather not put that interaction under one of the those super-microscopes they use on exposé shows.” —Martin, 30
2. “No. I do not wash my hands immediately before. Much like I don’t run to the bathroom to brush my teeth immediately before kissing her, or interrupt a spontaneous couch session to sterilize my dick with Purell. ‘Hang on a sec, gurl—let me boil this D real quick.’ I find this to be unromantic, impractical, and generally useless given the realities of sterile technique. That said, as a sort of responsible adult male, I do wash my hands and other bits with some frequency, and am rarely blindsided by a surprise fingering. Thus, I make all reasonable efforts to ensure clean junk, hands, and brushed teeth shortly before probable vaginal contact. Wine-soaked movie night? Probably should clean up before Act 3. It’s not like I’m snaking a toilet, cleaning an engine block, cutting up raw chicken breasts, and then diving into a vagina without a thorough cleansing first.”—Chris, 32
3. “It never occurred to me to wash my hands and now I’m faintly mortified. I wash my hands every time I enter a house so I feel sooooort of covered. Sex just feels like a magic world where germs don’t exist and nothing is disgusting.” —Scott, 29
4. “I never thought about it, so no, I don’t. Unless I’m particularly gross from being outside or handling something gnarly, but then it’s probably more of a ‘I’m going to take a shower before we get naked’ versus ‘I’m going to wash my hands before fingerblasting you long enough for one of us to go down on the other one.’” —Dale, 30
5. “Personally, I like to wash my hands kinda regularly throughout the day. I tend to think of myself as a clean person, but hand-washing before sex is not something I think of as vitally necessary, like a condom. I guess I tend to operate with a blind faith in the natural cleaning powers of a vagina. The best I can say for myself is that I make sure my nails are trimmed.”—Steven, 35
6. “Normally this takes care of itself in that I always have to pee, meaning that I’m very likely to make a stop in the restroom before things get intimate, because it seems like ladies don’t love it when you need to take a pee break right in the middle of the action. And if you’re in the bathroom you can swig some mouthwash or whatever as well. Anyway, all this means that I typically wash my hands before fingering by dint of having just washed my hands after peeing, but now I realize there are vanishingly rare cases where I haven’t washed my hands before fingering, though never just after spicy hot wings or unclogging a drain or something. I guess there’s probably been a time when I introduced subway pole germs directly into a vagina, which is horrifying. Then again, not sure how dirty some of the hands to touch my dick have been, so I’m not going to beat myself up too much.” —Mike, 31
7. “I had a post-jalapeño incident a long time ago that seemed like a real game-changer, but in general I am maybe a little ashamed to admit that I don’t go wash my hands beforehand. It will sometimes end up that I have indeed just washed my hands, but not due to a concerted effort that I can remember. It has also never been requested.” —Jon, 34
8. “Sad to say, I’m probably not overly thoughtful about that. I think I have a general sense of like, ‘Oh I just trailed my fingers through a bunch of rain puddles outside, I should probably scrub up before getting intimate.’ And I usually wash up before coming out of the bathroom, or after cooking, or after anything with obvious dirt/germ ramifications. But I’ve never isolated the finger(s) for special sanitizing or treated the act with particular care, like a surgeon in the surgery room putting on gloves, etc. So the general muck from handling a computer or phone or a remote could be a problem.”—Thomas, 36
Is it really a problem, though? According to Dr. Cullins, rarely (phew!). “When you think about the commonality of fingering, it’s sort of remarkable that we don’t have more infections and problems with women’s vaginas [caused by it].” Dr. Cullins explains that the vagina is self-cleansing—which many of us know—but the thing is, it needs time to cleanse after being introduced to foreign entities. Bombarding vaginas, which have an acidic pH balance, with alkaline substances like spit, antibacterial soap, certain lubricants, and semen, can throw off the balance and introduce the risk of abnormal discharge, vaginitis, and even cervical and tubal infections.
“When you think about the commonality of fingering, it’s sort of remarkable that we don’t have more infections and problems with women’s vaginas.”
So it would seem a freshly-washed hand, in addition to vigorous fingerbanging or vigorous anything, is just as likely to introduce an infection-causing pH imbalance than just washing your hands whenever the mood strikes. If a vaginal infection does occur post-fingering, there are plenty of alkaline-based substances to place the blame on, but you’ll need to head to your gyno to be sure.