The Importance of Safe Sex and Sexual Health

*Editor's Note: Although this is an important article, some language may be unsuitable to younger readers. Reader discretion is advised.*

Talking about sex and sexuality can be an uncomfortable conversation for many, but it shouldn’t be. Sex is natural. Having sex is okay. Not having sex is okay. Questioning your sexuality is okay. Everything is okay as long as you’re safe.

However, there’s more to sex than just condoms. When people have conversations about sexual health and safe sex, the first thing they think is going to be discussed is condoms. Yes, they’re important and an important aspect to safe sex, but before we talk about condoms let’s talk about what sexual health is. The World Health Organization has created a working definition of sexual health:

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

This definition shows how compound sexual health is and that there are multiple factors to sexual health. The first that’s important to address is, of course, protection. Use protection every time you engage in sexual activity whether it’s vaginal, anal, or oral. Using protection during oral sex is not common, but it’s safe. If you’re unsure of the STI status of your partner(s), it’s important to use protection. Also, both men and women should know their birth control options. But even if you or your partner are using birth control that doesn’t mean you should skip using protection. Birth control will not protect you against diseases.

Next, make sure you and your partner(s) get tested. Every time you have a new sex partner, get tested regardless if you used protection or not. However, if you’re not as sexually active, you do not need to be tested as often. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that if you're sexually active, you should be tested at least once a year for gonorrhea and chlamydia.

Sexuality is also a big part of sexual health. The most important thing to remember is to do what you want when it comes to your sexuality. Don’t worry about what people think - although that's easier said than done. If you want to explore your options with someone other than the opposite sex, that's okay. Don’t allow heteronormativity to dissuade you from doing what you want.

Last, make sure you have healthy relationships with your sexual partners that are free of coercion, discrimination, and violence. Respect is key. If you feel unsafe, you need to walk away from that relationship.

Overall, sexual health and safe sex is more than just putting on a condom. It’s about the overall well-being of yourself.