what is sex: risks, health & contraception?

+ Save to your Spaces
Everyone thinks differently about sex so it’s important to know stuff about it to make the decisions that are right for you.

Download our factsheet on sex and sexual health

Sex can a big step. Some people like sex and others don’t, and that’s OK. Everyone will experience it differently. That’s why it’s important to feel in control and make the decisions that are right for you.


Thinking about having sex?

If you’re thinking about having sex you probably feel nervous and excited. Even if it’s not your first time it’s normal to experience these 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.


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.

Am I ready for sex?

Deciding to have sex for the first time can be a big decision.

It’s important that you feel confident and ready, so it’s helpful to think about these things:

  • ‘Am I doing this because I want to?’ Be sure that it’s something that you want to do. You should not have sex because someone wants you to or because your friends are encouraging you to.

  • ‘Do I feel safe?’ Having sex with someone you trust is going to make it a much better experience. And if you do feel vulnerable you need to be able to talk about your feelings with a sense of safety.

  • ‘Do I feel comfortable talking about sex and contraception?’ It’s important that you feel safe talking about sex, sexual health and contraception. Being prepared is smart. It shows you have respect for the person you’re having sex with and yourself.

  • ‘Do I feel comfortable having sex with someone sober?’ If you feel like you might need to use alcohol or other drugs before sex, then it’s probably not the right time. Young people who mix alcohol and other drugs and sex are more likely to regret their decisions and engage in risky sexual behaviours, like not using appropriate protection.

  • ‘Do I know how to have sex safely?’ Making an informed choice is really important. Get some information, speak to your GP, a counsellor or someone you trust about how to keep safe and protect yourself from STIs and unintended pregnancy.

  • ‘What is the law about sex in my state?’ Legally you aren’t allowed to have sex with anyone until you’re over the age of consent and each state will have different laws. But it takes more than just being a legal age to make you ready for sex. You can find out more about the law in your state and the age of consent by checking out Lawstuff.

You need to be emotionally ready and sex needs to be consensual – in other words, you both need to want to have sex. Keep yourself out of trouble by checking that you both feel comfortable with and understand the decisions you have made.


Sexual consent is a verbal, physical and emotional agreement to engage in sexual activity. It happens without manipulation or threats and involves paying attention to what a partner is saying, their body language and their facial expressions.

It’s important to be clear about consent because any non-consensual activity is harmful and against the law – even kissing and touching. Don’t ever pressure anyone to do something if they’re not sure.

Here are some thing to consider to make sure you and who you’re having sex with are consenting to what you’re doing:

Sexual consent must be explicit

This means that there is no confusion or doubt that someone has given consent. Don’t just assume that they’re into it. Ask and make sure they tell you that they’re OK with what you’re doing. Asking for consent doesn’t have to be awkward, it can be sexy. It’s a way to find out more about what you and your partner/s enjoy, and what things feel good physically and emotionally.

It’s OK to stop, slow down or put things on hold

If things feel like they’re moving too fast, or like it’s getting out of control you can say something like ‘let’s slow down’, ‘let’s do more of…’ or ‘let’s get our breath back and take a break’.

You can always change your mind

Consent can change throughout sex, too. You might realise you feel uncomfortable with some things you decide to do together. This is perfectly OK and needs to be respected. You and your partner/s can decide at any time, even while you’re having sex, that you don’t want to keep going. If this happens, sex should stop.

Keep checking in with each other

You can check in verbally and ask if what you’re doing feels OK, or if they want to stop, but you should also pay attention to your partner’s body language. Do they seem uncomfortable or tense? Do they seem as into it as they were to start with?

Speak up and say how you’re feeling

Don’t rely on others to interpret your body language, if you’re uncomfortable tell them and let them know you want to slow down or stop.

Alcohol and other drugs affect consent

Someone who is affected by alcohol or other drugs may not be able to give consent.

If you engage in any sexual activity with someone who is unable to give consent it is sexual assault or rape.

What are Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)?

STIs 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.

Being prepared, having supplies, and knowing how to use them is the just start of preventing STIs. What’s also important is knowing how to talk about safer sex before you start sexual activities.

Types of barrier protection:

  • The condom. This is a fine rubber or synthetic balloon-like sheath that is worn on an erect penis. It’s designed to collect semen to prevent STIs (and pregnancy). You must use a new one every time and take care to put it on and take it off correctly. It’s also important to check the expiry date because it will start to break down and become much less effective at preventing STDs and pregnancy.

  • The vaginal condom. This is a pre-lubricated balloon-like sheath that fits loosely into the vagina. A large flexible ring remains on the outside of the vagina, covering the vulva, providing extra protection. It’s designed to protect against STIs (and pregnancy). You must use a new one every time and do not use both types of condom at once (they won’t work together).

  • Dental dams. This is a rectangular sheet of latex used to cover the vulva during oral sex. It’s designed to protect against STIs. If you don’t have a dental dam available you can cut a condom open to use as a dental dam.

Carrying a condom and knowing how to use it doesn’t mean you’re ‘easy’ or necessarily an expert at sex. It just means you respect yourself and others. If you’re unsure about how to correctly put on a condom, don’t be afraid to search online or ask someone you trust.

You may want to think (and practise) how you would have a conversation about condom use.

There are some key things that are important to discuss and share with your partner/s, whether you, or they:

  • have had an STI before, and whether it has been treated

  • have had a sexual health check and when

  • have any preferences about safe sex practices, like types of protection and contraception.

Practising safe sex is relevant for everyone regardless of gender or sexuality. Even if sexual contact doesn’t involve any blood, semen or vaginal fluids being passed between partners, you can still minimise the risk that you’ll get an STI or BBV (blood borne virus). Remember, nothing is ever 100 per cent risk free.

Sexual activity between people who have vaginas has a lower risk of STI transmission, but lower risk doesn’t mean there’s no risk at all. It’s still possible for this type of sex to pass infections between people so it’s important to use appropriate protection. STI tests should reflect all sites exposed during sex – as some people will identify as a different gender (e.g. a person could identify with a gender that’s different from the sex they were assigned at birth).        

Anal sex, regardless of gender identity or sexuality, has a higher chance of resulting in an STI, but using condoms correctly can dramatically reduce that risk. When taken properly, a new medication, PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis), can reduce the chance of people getting HIV from anal sex. But it’s important to remember that this medication doesn’t stop other STIs from getting transmitted. Condoms are always the safest option.

If you think you might have been exposed to HIV, it’s important to get to a medical professional as soon as possible. A medication called PEP (post-exposure prophylaxis) may be able to stop you from getting HIV, but you have to start taking it within 72 hours (the sooner, the better).


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 injectionsintrauterine 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. Doubling up and using a hormonal contraceptive (the pill) and a condom is the safest option to prevent unintended 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.


Getting tested

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 9 August 2018

Get professional support