understanding sex and sexual health

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Sexual relationships are a normal part of life. It’s important to feel in control and make the decisions that are right for you to make sure that your sexual relationships are positive and healthy.

Download our factsheet on sex and sexual health


Thinking about having sex?

If you’re thinking about having sex you might feel a number of things including nervous and excited. Even if it’s not your first time it’s normal to experience all sorts of emotions.

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, teacher or counsellor.

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

It’s important that you feel confident and ready, 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 in my state


What is sexual health?

Good sexual health requires 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, what we feel and how we respond to others. It’s about how we feel sexual pleasure and who we’re attracted to. It’s important to remember that not everyone is straight or heterosexual and that this is completely natural and normal. A person may identify as:

  • gay
  • lesbian
  • straight
  • bisexual
  • heterosexual
  • pansexual
  • queer
  • asexual
  • something else (or not yet sure).

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


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.


Check out the handy guide we put together for more information on 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 relieve 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
  • infertility.

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.

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. Learning how to communicate about sexual health stuff is important.

For more on STIs, check out HealthDirect’s articles.

How to start a conversation about sexual health

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.

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).

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 or 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. You may want to discuss also using a hormonal contraceptive (the pill) with your doctor.

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. Find more information on HealthDirect.


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 Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

 Last reviewed 2 August 2021

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