understanding sex and sexual health

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Let’s talk about sex and sexual health. If you’re having sex or just thinking about it, you might have lots of questions. Am I ready for sex? What is sexual health? What is safe sex? What is consent? Among lots of others...

Sex can be an awkward topic to have conversations about. Having conversations and learning about sex and sexual health can help you to feel ready for sex and help make sure your sexual relationships are positive and healthy. Learning about sex and your body can build help build confidence.

Download our factsheet on sex and sexual health

 

Thinking about having sex for the first time?

Sex and sexual relationships are a normal part of life. Thinking about, or having sex for the first time can feel exciting, awkward, or even a little bit overwhelming...Even if it’s not your first time it’s normal to experience all sorts of emotions about having sex.

It’s important that you feel confident and ready for sex, so it might be helpful to ask yourself these questions:

  • am I doing this because I want to?
  • do I feel safe? 
  • do I feel comfortable talking about sex and contraception?
  • do I feel comfortable having sex with someone sober?
  • do I know how to have sex safely? 
  • what is the law about sex where I live?

 

When it comes to having sex you might have heard of things like safe sex, consent, contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and having ‘the talk’. Learning about these things can help you to answer the above questions and to feel ready for sex.

Sometimes it can help to talk it through with someone first. You may want to get advice from someone you trust, like a family member, Elder, teacher or counsellor.

Your general practitioner (GP) can also give you information to help make sex enjoyable, and help you maintain your sexual health.

What is sexual health?

Sexual health is an important part of your general health and wellbeing. Good sexual health means having a respectful and positive attitude around the decisions you make about sexual activity. It’s also about having the right information so you can enjoy yourself and prevent things like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and unplanned pregnancies.

Sexual health is something that we all need to think and talk about, regardless of our gender or sexuality.

 

What is sexuality?

Sexuality is an important part of who we are, it’s who we are attracted to romantically (who you love or emotional attraction) and sexually (who we have sexual feelings for or physical attraction). If you want to learn more about sexuality check out this article about understanding sexuality.

If you have any questions about your sexuality you may like to talk to someone you trust, like a family member, Elder, teacher or counsellor.

 

Planning on having sex?

Knowing the facts about STIs, their prevention, sexual health checks, consent and having conversations about sexual health can help make sex safe.

We have put together some information below to help you make informed decisions when it comes to sex. The following can help if you:

  • are planning to have sex
  • want to know about safe sex
  • want to practice safe sex

What is sexual consent?

Sexual consent is an ongoing and freely given agreement between people who are engaging in sexual activity together.  

  • consent to any sexual act needs to be stated clearly – this means there is no confusion or doubt that someone has given consent, don’t just assume they’re into it

 

  • setting physical/sexual boundaries means continuously checking in with each other about what is and isn’t OK. If someone consents to one sexual act, it doesn’t mean they consent to another. Ongoing communication is one of the key steps to healthy boundaries

 

  • people can change their minds anytime. If you feel uncomfortable at any stage it’s perfectly OK to let the other person know that you want to slow down or stop

 

  • alcohol and other drugs can impact our ability to give consent, say no to sexual activity or recognise when someone isn’t giving consent. It can be helpful to limit alcohol and other drug use before sexual activity

 

  • discussing and agreeing on contraception and actions to prevent sexually transmitted infections is another way you can maintain your boundaries by practising consent

 

  • the age that someone can consent to any kind of sexual activity varies slightly between states and territories in Australia. Check out Youth Law Australia for more information about the age of consent in your state and territory.

 

If you want more information on sexual consent, check out the handy guide we put together about understanding sexual consent.

 

What are Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)?

STIs can get passed on during sexual contact (kissing, touching, oral, anal and vaginal) through blood, saliva, semen or vaginal fluids. Not all types are curable. While medical treatment can cure some STIs, it may only help provide relief for others.

Some STIs include:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhoea
  • herpes/cold sores
  • genital warts
  • hepatitis
  • HIV.

 

Some symptoms of STIs include:

  • unusual discharge
  • pain during urination/sex
  • sores, blisters, ulcers, warts or rashes
  • pain in the scrotum or testicles

Other times, signs or symptoms of having an STI are not obvious – a person can have an STI without knowing it. The best way to detect an STI is to get tested. This can be done through a doctor or at a sexual health clinic.

You might feel embarrassed going to see someone, but just remember they do this all the time and are there to help you. Take a trusted friend or family member with you for support if you want.

Using barrier protection like condoms, diaphragms and dental dams are methods that can reduce the risk of most STIs, but they need to be used correctly. it’s good to remember that if not treated some STIs can lead to infertility. For more information on STIs, check out HealthDirect’s articles.

 

How to start a conversation about sexual health

Being on the same page as your partner/s when it comes to having sex is extremely important. Talk with your partner/s about whether you, or they:

  • have had an STI before, and whether it has been treated
  • have had a sexual health check and when
  • are in agreement about safe sex practices, like types of protection and contraception.

 

It might feel hard or awkward at first, but learning how to communicate about sexual health stuff is important.

 

How to prevent pregnancy and STIs

Contraception is using methods to prevent unintended pregnancy. There are lots of different forms of contraception. When used properly, they can be very effective.

The most well-known method of contraception is the contraceptive pill. This can prevent pregnancy, but it doesn’t protect against STIs.

Other contraceptive options include:

  • condoms
  • diaphragms
  • contraceptive intrauterine device (IUD)
  • contraceptive injections
  • contraceptive implants

 

For more information on contraception, check out HealthDirect's articles.

Condoms are the only form of contraception that can protect against both pregnancy and STIs.

There are many different types of the same contraception too. If you’re considering your options, your GP, eheadspace or a headspace centre is a safe place to start discussing your choices.

It’s important to remember that contraception is not 100% effective. There’s always a very small chance of pregnancy.

If you’re worried that you may be pregnant because you recently had unprotected sex, you can speak to a health professional about the emergency contraceptive pill (ECP). This is sometimes called the ‘morning after pill’. It’s important to take it as soon as possible after you had unprotected sex. 

If you’re sexually active, it’s recommended to get tested for STIs once a year, even if you use protection. This can be done as part of a routine visit to the GP or at a headspace centre – just say that you want an STI test.

Testing is confidential (it’s only between you and the health professional) and is often at low or no cost to young people.

Getting tested may involve testing some of your blood or urine, or examining your sexual organs if you’re experiencing any problems. After a test, you’ll know your results a few weeks later.

Remember that a GP can’t do any sort of examination without getting your permission, explaining why it’s necessary and what will happen.

The headspace Content Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 15 February 2023

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