What is Sex?
The most common use of the word “sex” is when people are referring to sexual intercourse or some other type of partnered sexual activity.
Because there is no single definition of sex that everyone will agree to, it is up to you to spend some time thinking about your personal desires and boundaries so that you can make choices that feel right for you.
Here are some activities that people may be referring to when they talk about “sex” or “having sex”:
VAGINAL SEX – when the vagina is penetrated, and often involves an in-and-out motion. Couples can also engage in vaginal intercourse by using dildos (often with a harness), sex toys, or fingers.
ANAL SEX – when the anus is penetrated by a penis, sex toy, or finger(s)
ORAL SEX – stimulating a partner’s genital region with lips, tongue, and/or teeth. There are different words to describe different types of oral sex. Cunnilingus refers to oral stimulation of a vulva and/or vagina. Fellatio refers to oral stimulation of a penis and/or testicles. Analingus (rimming) refers to oral stimulation of a partner’s anus.
There are lots of other pleasurable activities that someone can enjoy alone or with their partner. Some ideas include:
- Masturbation – touching one’s own genitals for pleasure
- Mutual masturbation – touching one’s own genitals in the presence of a partner and/or touching/stroking a partner’s genitals
- Sensual massage
- Writing/sharing erotic stories/poetry
- Cybersex, sexting, phone sex– writing erotic text/sharing fantasies with one’s partner online or through cell phones or other mobile device; talking sexually over the phone
- Sensation play – experimenting with different sensations (e.g. feathers, hot/cold items, candle wax, liquids; etc.)
- Role-playing – pretending to be different people and/or in different places in a sexual context
- Making-out – kissing, hugging, rubbing bodies together, etc.
- Showering/Having a bath together
We are often bombarded with messages about the risks associated with sex. Don’t get a sexually transmitted infection! Don’t have an unintended pregnancy! Don’t have sex outside of a monogamous relationship! In fact, this is often all we learn about when it comes to sex education. At the Halifax Sexual Health Centre, we take a sex-positive approach. This means that we think sexuality is something to be celebrated – not inhibited, and that we should talk about the benefits and pleasures of sexual relationships. However, it also means considering the risks involved, because keeping ourselves healthy and safe is part of experiencing pleasure and satisfaction.
Holistic approach to sex = enhancing pleasure + reducing risk
Safer sex is about harm reduction, which means educating ourselves on the risks that we are taking, and then doing something to reduce those risks (as opposed to avoiding them altogether).
One of the risks associated with vaginal sex is unintended pregnancy. If you are sexually active with someone who can impregnate you, and you want to avoid pregnancy, it is highly recommended that you use a form of birth control correctly and consistently.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are another major risk that we need to protect ourselves from if we are sexually active. STIs can happen to anyone. They happen to people of all sexes, genders, ages, abilities, education and income levels. They can happen to people who do not have intercourse and they can happen to people who only have sex once. Therefore it is important not to get caught up in the “it could never happen to me” fantasy.
A basic rule of thumb to protect yourself from STIs is to avoid exchanging bodily fluids with others. This includes semen/cum, vaginal fluids, and blood. It is also important to avoid skin-to-skin contact with any sores, blisters, lumps, bumps, and/or rashes on your partners’ genitals and/or around their mouths.
The 5 key steps you can take to practice safer sex are:
- MAKING HEALTHY LIFESTYLE CHOICES – limit or avoid high-risk sexual behaviors, limit or avoid non-sexual STI risks (e.g., IV drug use, tattooing with non-sterile needles); and take care of your general health.
- COMMUNICATION – communicate openly and honestly with your partners about their sexual history, STI testing practices, and about your boundaries (e.g. “I will not have sex without a condom”) before you become sexually active together.
- STI TESTING – have full STI screenings at least once a year – more often if you have new or multiple partners. Request that your partners also get tested for STIs before becoming sexually active with them.
- USING BARRIERS – always use barrier methods such as condoms, dental dams, and latex gloves during sexual activity involving the genitals.
- USING BIRTH CONTROL – use a reliable form of birth control correctly and consistently if your sexual activity leaves you at risk for pregnancy
There are several things you can do to take care of your sexual health and well-being:
- GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN BODY – our bodies are amazing and unique. Take some time to explore how you look, feel, smell, and taste so that you get a good sense of what’s normal for you. That way, you’re better able to tell if anything goes wrong. We highly recommend using a mirror to become better acquainted with your genitals!
- GET REGULAR CHECK-UPS – keep up-to-date on Pap tests, STI testing, testicular checks, breast exams, etc. A lot of health problems don’t have any symptoms, so it’s important to get into the habit of regular check-ups. When it comes to your health, ignorance is NOT bliss!
- KNOW YOUR OPTIONS – if applicable, find out about all the different types of birth control, the pros and cons of each, and make an informed choice. Also, take some time to learn about all the different kinds of condoms and other barrier methods that are available, so you can choose something that works best for you.
- EXPLORE WHAT FEELS GOOD – get creative and spend some time figuring out what makes you feel happy and fulfilled sexually. Think about your values, your dreams, your boundaries, your culture. Talk to people you trust. Read books, check-out reputable websites. Masturbate, fantasize, try out different roles. Seek out support if you need it. And remember that your sexuality is something to be respected and celebrated!
Are You Ready for Sex?
You are the only person who can decide if and when you are ready to be sexually active. This can be a very difficult decision to make. There is no magical age when people are suddenly ready, and there may be a lot of outside pressures – from your partner, your friends, the media, etc. – that can make it tricky to figure out how YOU feel and what YOU want.
Just remember that sex should be a pleasurable, comfortable, and guilt-free experience for both you and your partner.
Here are 10 questions that can help you decide if you are ready for sex:
- Are you feeling pressured to have sex by your partner, your friends, or television and movies?
- Will having sex fit with your religious or moral beliefs? In other words, will you feel guilty if you have sex?
- Do you want to have sex to get love, affection, or attention?
- Do you want to have sex to prove that you are sexually attractive?
- Are you afraid that your reputation will be hurt if you have sex?
- Do you think having sex will increase the commitment level of your relationship?
- Do your partner and you want the same things from sex?
- If you are in an opposite sex relationship, can you talk to your partner about birth control and share the responsibility of birth control (e.g. paying for it, using it properly, etc.)? If the birth control fails, are you both ready to deal with an unintended pregnancy?
- Can you talk to your partner about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and how you can protect yourselves?
- When you’re physically away from your partner, do you feel as ready to be sexually active as you do when you’re in the heat of the moment – e.g., making out with your partner? When you’re sober, do you feel as ready to be sexually active as when you’re drunk or high?
If you answered YES to questions 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and/or NO to questions 2, 7, 8, 9, 10, you may want to spend some more time thinking about whether you are really ready to become sexually active.
If you are not ready to have sex, that is okay! You should never feel guilty about that decision. Even if you’ve had sex before, you can always decide that now you’d like to wait. Even if you’ve told your partner that you’re ready to have sex, you can ALWAYS change your mind!