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Let's talk about sex, baby! Your ultimate guide to sexual health

Monday 6 November 2017

Two pairs of feet stick out the end of a bed.
Sexual health can affect your overall wellbeing, so make your sexual health a priority.

Let’s not beat around the bush: birds do it, bees do it, and Queenslanders do it, too. Understanding how to have safe sex is important, because it means caring for your own health and your partner’s health.

It’s not just for young people; Queenslanders of all ages who are sexually active should take steps to practice safe sex. Whether you’re thinking about having sex for the first time, have a potential new partner, or even if you’re in a long term relationship, your sexual health is an important part of your overall health.

Read on to find out how to make your sexual health a priority.

Learn how to prevent sexually transmissible infections

What are STIs?

Sexually transmissible infections, you might have heard them called STIs or STDs for short, are caused by viruses, bacteria or parasites which can pass from one person’s body to another’s during sex. This includes vaginal intercourse, as well as oral sex and anal sex. Some STIs are spread through contact with bodily fluids, while others spread by skin-to-skin contact.

Common STIs include:

  • chlamydia
  • genital herpes
  • genital warts
  • gonorrhoea
  • HIV
  • and syphilis.

Even though these infections are preventable by practicing safe sex, infection numbers of gonorrhoea and syphilis have increased in Queensland over the past two years.

Some STIs can be treated using medications like antibiotics. But some STIs, like herpes, can be permanent, and infected people may have to manage symptoms for the rest of their lives. STIs like chlamydia are treatable, but can cause damage to an infected person’s body before they realise they have an STI.

Symptoms of STIs

Many STIs don’t have symptoms and sometimes symptoms of STIs don’t show straight away.

This means that people can pass on STIs without even knowing they have them. It also means that you can’t tell if someone has an STI just by looking at them or asking if they feel like they have an STI. The only way to really know that someone doesn’t have an STI is if they’ve had a sexual health check and received ‘all clear’ results.

When people do have symptoms of STIs, they can include:

Women:

  • a sore, wart, lump, rash or blister on the genitals
  • pain during sex
  • pain passing urine
  • abnormal vaginal bleeding
  • an unusual vaginal discharge
  • painful, irregular periods and/or bleeding between periods or after sex.

Men:

  • a discharge from the penis or rectum
  • a sore, wart, lump, rash or blister on the genitals or around the anus
  • an itch or soreness of the penis
  • pain passing urine
  • painful or swollen testicles
  • abdominal pain.

A row of condoms hang pegged along a line of string.

Preventing STIs

STIs sound nasty, right? The good news is that there are ways to have sex and prevent catching STIs – that’s what we call ‘safe sex’.

You can use condoms to avoid getting or spreading STIs if you are having vaginal, oral or anal sex. Change the condom every time you change the type of sex you’re having and throw condoms away after each use. A dental dam, which is a flat square of latex, can also be used when having oral sex by placing it over the vulva, vagina or anus.

Condoms are the only method of contraception that can protect against STIs as well as pregnancy (we’ll get to that bit next). Other contraceptives, like the pill, an IUD or a diaphragm, don’t protect you or your partner from STIs.

Not sure how to use a condom? Read more about condoms in our post ‘Condom 101: Understanding why, when and how to use condoms’ and watch this short video about how to put one on.

If you decide to have sex without a condom, often called unprotected sex, discuss this decision with your partner first. Make sure you talk about the risks involved, remembering that some STIs can’t be cured.

Never have sex of any kind if you partner has a visible sore, ulcer or lump on their genitals, anal area or mouth. Do them and yourself a favour and recommend they visit their doctor or a sexual health clinic for a sexual health check instead.

Understand contraception for preventing pregnancy

While sex is the way that humans naturally make babies, many people have sex for pleasure and don’t want to try to conceive a baby every time they have sex.

Contraception methods are ways of preventing a woman getting pregnant. You might have also heard contraception being called ‘birth control’.

There are many different methods of contraception including condoms, the contraceptive pill, IUDs and contraceptive implants. You can read more about the different options here.

All the different types of contraception have their pros and cons. Different methods of contraception suit different people’s lifestyles and bodies. It’s best to talk to your doctor about the best type of contraception for you to use, or to find out more about the type of contraception your partner is using.

Remember: condoms are the only form of contraception that protects against pregnancy and STIs. Just because you are using a different type of contraception, like the contraceptive pill or an IUD to protect against pregnancy, does not mean you or your partner are protected against STIs.

On a table sit two packets of contraceptive pills, an unwrapped condom and some condoms in their packets.

Book in for regular sexual health checks

What is a sexual health check?

A sexual health check is an appointment with a doctor, nurse or other health worker that focuses on your sexual health and wellbeing.

You can book a sexual health check with your GP, at a sexual health clinic or through services like True Relationships & Reproductive Health (you might know True by their old name, Family Planning Queensland).

During a sexual health check, the health professional working with you will ask questions about your sexual history. Then a physical examination will be conducted and may include having a look at your genitals, anus and possibly mouth for any sign of STIs. They might also do some tests, by taking a swab, doing a blood test or urine test, to check for STIs.

A sexual health check isn’t about judging how often you have sex, the type of sex you have or the number of sexual partners you have. While the health worker conducting your appointment might ask questions about your sexual history, that’s to help them understand your health better. All the information you discuss at your sexual health check is confidential, so it’s a really good opportunity to ask any questions about sexual health you might have.

When should you have a sexual health check?

Sexual health is different for everyone, but the minimum recommendation for young sexually active people, people with multiple or different sexual partners and sexually active men who have sex with men is to have a sexual health check at least once a year.

You don’t need to be experiencing any symptoms of an STI or feel unwell to get a sexual health check. Even if you think you’re fine, you should still have a regular sexual health check every year if you are sexually active.

If you have a new potential sexual partner, you might discuss the possibility of each of you having a sexual health check before you have sex. You and your partner should think about having a sexual health check before you decide to have sex without condoms.

Sexually active women should have a Pap smear every two years (this will change to a Cervical Cancer Screening Test every five years in December 2017).

A banana sits on a table with a stethoscope curling around it.

At home chlamydia and gonorrhoea tests

Queensland residents who are older than 16 can now order chlamydia and gonorrhoea tests for free online, through the 13 HEALTH webtest program.

The 13 HEALTH webtest program allows you two options – you can order a free test kit to be mailed to you, which you use by peeing on a swab, and then mailing the swab back for analysis.

Alternatively, you can download a pathology request form (or have it posted to you) and take it with you when you got to give your pee sample for analysis at any QML Pathology, Sullivan Nicolaides Pathology (SNP), Mater Pathology or public hospital pathology (Pathology Queensland) collection centre. At the pathology centre you will be asked to pee in a jar for the test to be performed.  This service is free and confidential and will be followed up by the team at 13 HEALTH.

This test doesn’t replace a sexual health check, but is a good way to check for two really common STIs in-between appointments.

When to say “no” to sex

Sex can be fun and enjoyable, but it is also very personal. Every person has the right to choose when, where, how and with whom they’ll have sex.

You have the right to say “no” to sex with any person at any time. You never have to have sex or engage in sexual activity with someone if you don’t want to, even if you have had sex with them before or told them that you would.

You have the right to say “no” to sex if your partner does not agree to use condoms and you want to.

You have the right to, and should, say “no” to sex if your partner has a visible sore, ulcer or lump on their genitals, anal area or mouth (encourage them to see a doctor or visit a sexual health clinic for a sexual health check).

Sexual violence and assault

No one asks or deserves to be a victim of sexual violence, or any violence for that matter. If you have been a victim of sexual violence, it is not your fault and you are not to blame.

Sexual violence includes sexual assault and rape, and happens when a person is forced to have sex or engage in sexual activities when they don’t want to, or are unable to give their consent. Sexual violence is a crime.

If you have been sexually assaulted recently or in the past and would like help, there are a range of services available to help you.

Last updated: 13 November 2017