Safe Sex: Top 10 Questions About Sexual Health

About Sexual Health

Although sex is not vital for good health, it’s definitely good for you. It can boost circulation, help depression, soothe chronic pain, and reaffirm the joys of living.

And sexual problems often signal deeper ills: Low libido, erectile dysfunction, genital infection, or sexual pain may hide a serious health problem such as diabetes or heart trouble.

What Is Safe Sex?

Safer sexual intercourse carries some risk, but it is much, much safer than taking no precautions at all. In short, safe sex means not allowing your partner’s semen or vaginal secretions to get inside of your vagina, anus, penis, or mouth.

It also means avoiding genital skin-to-skin contact. That’s because some STIs are spread just by skin-to-skin contact. Safe sex also means taking precautions if you have cuts, sores, or bleeding gums; these can increase the risk of spreading HIV.

Safe sex is protected sex during each and every sexual encounter. It includes:

  • Oral sex with a condom, dental dam, or plastic wrap
  • Vaginal sex with a male or female condom
  • Anal sex with a male or female condom

What are gender identity, gender expression and assigned sex?

We totally get it. These terms can get super confusing when you don’t know what’s what, so here’s the no-nonsense scoop:

  • Gender identity is how you identify yourself in terms of being a man, woman, somewhere in between or maybe a little of both. It may be that you don’t identify with any gender.  Your gender identity comes from how you see yourself fitting into societal gender roles.
  • Gender expression is how you intentionally or unintentionally choose to demonstrate your gender identity through appearance, actions, behavior and social interactions. Your gender expression could change day-to-day or depending on what you’re doing or how you feel.
  • Assigned sex is usually assigned by a doctor when you are born based on the appearance of your genitals and sex organs and may be measured by the hormones and chromosomes in your body. Most people think of biological sex as either male or female, but it’s actually a little more complicated than that. Some people are born with both male and female sex organs, genitalia that is difficult to identify, or chromosomes that do not seem to match their physical appearance. These, along with other presentations, are known as intersex.

What are gender stereotypes and how can I help combat them?

A stereotype is a standardized mental picture held of all members of a particular group. It may assume that a person or group of people have certain abilities, characteristics, behaviors and values just because they belong to a specific race, gender, religion, social or economic class, etc.

Gender stereotypes are pretty much what they sound like—assumptions about how members of a perceived gender or sex should feel or behave. These, like most other “you are this, therefore you are that” theories, can be harmful because they perpetuate narrow ideals of how people should act, especially in relationships.

Gender stereotyping can also lead to incorrect or hurtful assumptions about what someone’s gender identity, sexual orientation or gender expression means for them. So to avoid falling into the stereotyping trap when it comes to relationships, here’s some stuff to remember:

  • Everyone should be able to openly communicate what they want and don’t want in a relationship.
  • Expressing yourself is a learned skill that can be developed by anyone and everyone.
  • Emotions and feelings need to be respected (everyone else’s are just as valid and important as yours, even when you might understand them).
  • Violence is not an appropriate way to express yourself. Ever.
  • Unless you can read minds—which is pretty unlikely—all partners in a relationship should feel free to communicate about their sexual boundaries.
  • Sex is not the most important part of a relationship. Is it fun? It sure can be. But it’s not the end-all, be-all. There are lots of other ways to be physically and emotionally intimate.
  • A healthy relationship is based in equality and respect, not power and control. If you’re in an abusive or coercive relationship, it is your right to get out of it.

What do transgender and cisgender mean?

These two terms are opposites.

Transgender, or “trans*” as it’s commonly called, is an umbrella term used to describe a person who does not identify with the sex assigned to them. Basically, this person may appear to be male or female and have all the physical traits of that sex, but does not mentally or emotionally identify as such.

Some transgender individuals choose to change their looks using clothes, hair styles, makeup or other bodily alterations to make their outward appearance better match their personal gender identity. Taking hormones to is another method in which trans* individuals may participate in order to aid their body in accentuating some of the physical characteristics of the gender they identify with.

Others may choose to seek medical gender confirmation procedures to surgically change their features for a more permanent change. It takes a lot to make this kind of change including approval from multiple people and a mental health evaluation. Gender-reassignment can be extremely costly as it is rarely covered by insurance.

Cisgender, a much less commonly used term, is used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with their assigned biological sex. For instance, a person who is assigned a male sex at birth and identifies himself as a man, or a person who is assigned a female sex at birth and identifies herself as a woman.

What is sexual orientation?

Sexual orientation refers to the concept of sexual attraction—whether a person is attracted to the same sex (gay or lesbian), the opposite sex (heterosexual), both sexes (bisexual) or neither sex (asexual). Many people believe, and some research supports, that people are born with a specific sexual orientation and that it is not a choice.

Today, it is commonly accepted that sexual orientation occurs along a continuum and that not all people fit into just one category, in the last decade youth have reclaimed the word queer to be reflective of this continuum.

It is not uncommon for people who identify as being gay or lesbian to participate in sexual behaviors and relationships with the opposite sex—or vice versa. In fact, some people might choose not to identify with any specific orientation at all.

All that said, no matter what sexual orientation you identify with, it’s important to stay safe and understand the risks of unintended pregnancy and STDs. Curious to learn more? Read the rest of our “Things to Consider about Sexuality” or visit our birth control method selector to see what types of protection are available.

Can lesbians get STIs?

Absolutely. Most STDs/STIs and many common vaginal infections (including yeast infections, trichomoniasis, and non-specific bacterial vaginosis) can be spread during woman-to-woman sexual contact. In fact, many infections can be transmitted just as easily through oral-to-genital as genital-to-genital contact.

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the most commonly transmitted STIs in lesbians. HPV can cause anal and genital warts and lead to anal, cervical, mouth and throat cancers, so it’s important for sexually active lesbians to be screened by a health care provider. The more partners you have in a year, the more often you should get tested.

Quick tips: Using dental dams, condoms (even with toys) or gloves and making sure your hands and toys are clean can help prevent transmission.

Which STIs affect men who have sex with men (MSM)?

STDs/STIs occur in gay men and men who have sex with men at a very high rate. These infections include fully treatable ones like syphilis, gonorrhea, chlamydia, pubic lice and others, and those for which there is currently no cure (HIV, hepatitis, human papilloma virus (HPV) and herpes).

Unprotected receptive anal sex in particular can lead to higher risk for infection due to the delicate nature of the tissues in that area. The more partners you have in a year, the more often you should be screened because you could have an STD without symptoms and be unknowingly passing it on to others.

Quick tips: Using condoms and making sure your hands and toys are clean can help prevent transmission. Another way for people who do not have HIV and are at substantial risk of getting it is PReP, or pre exposure prophylaxis – which is a prescription pill to take daily.

Which STIs affect bisexuals?

Similarly to men who have sex with men (MSM), sexually active bisexuals are at high risk for spreading and contracting STDs. Although women who have sex with women have lower rates of HIV, if a woman has sex with a man who has sex with men, she can seriously increase her risk of transmission.

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is one of the most commonly transmitted STIs in sexually active populations overall, and therefore in bisexuals as well. HPV can cause anal and genital warts and lead to anal, cervical, mouth and throat cancers, so it’s important to be screened by a health care provider. The more partners you have in a year, the more often you should get tested.

Quick tips: Using condoms, gloves and dental dams and making sure your hands and toys are clean can help prevent transmission.

Which STIs affect heterosexuals?

We’re just going make this really simple: Anyone who is sexually active can contract any STD/STI. It doesn’t matter what your sexual history is, what gender you have sex with or what kind of sex you have—It. Can. Happen.

Having sex with anyone who has engaged in higher risk behavior (such as receptive anal sex, multiple sexual partners or unprotected sex) can increase the risk of contracting HIV or other STDs, so it’s important to understand your status and know how to protect yourself.

It’s possible to have an STD without symptoms and not even know that you’re spreading it to others, so the more partners you have in a year, the more often you should be screened. And always remember that safe sex is the best way to stay…well…safe.

Quick tips: Using condoms, gloves and dental dams and making sure your hands and toys are clean can help prevent transmission. Also, in the event that you are exposed to HIV, contact your provider IMMEDIATELY to discuss your options, including post-exposure prophylaxis.

Where can I find LGBT-friendly health care providers?

Some health care providers are—how do we put this lightly?—a bit “behind” when it comes to understanding the overall health needs and concerns of LGBT individuals. And while many advocates are working to promote education and improve the situation across all medical practices, there is still a ways to go.

Now, we know it can be awkward, but it’s important that you be open with your health care provider about your sexuality and sexual behaviors. This is the only way to ensure you get the best and most relevant care. If you feel that your provider is being discriminatory due to your sexual orientation or activities, there’s no shame in making a switch to someone you can trust and better connect with.

Bottom Line

From safe sex to reproductive health issues, sexual health plays a crucial role in your overall well-being. Find answers for your questions, even ones you may be embarrassed to ask.

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Written by STDsSTIs

STDsSTIs is here to help people think, discuss and take responsible action on some of life’s biggest decisions – ones that often don’t get enough attention. We help raise the tough questions and ask young people to consider what really makes sense for them. Together, we can help Coloradans lead healthier lives and raise healthier families.

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