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What is sex? If you ask a room full of people, you’re bound to get many different answers. While usually, it refers to sexual intercourse between two or more individuals, the definition has evolved over the years to include many other activities that feel sexual in nature. It can be an expression of sexuality and intimacy and involves the stimulation of sexual organs which leads to arousal.

Sexual activity can lead to orgasms, which are experienced at the peak of sexual arousal. Orgasms have many health benefits including better sleep, lower levels of stress, strengthening of the pelvic floor, improved heart health, pain relief, and increased immunity. It even reduces the risk of prostate cancer in men and helps women deal with menstrual cramps or period pain.

Quantity and quality of sex

There is no clear indication of how much sex is good for you. Different individuals have different sex drives and you should stick with whatever feels natural to you. Generally, two-three times a week is a common number. It can be higher or lower, depending on the individual. 

It’s the same when it comes to the duration of sexual activity. Foreplay can last as long as you want it to, from 30 minutes to three hours. Intercourse, though, has a much shorter average duration of about 5 minutes. Again, this can be higher or lower, depending on the individual, how much experience they have, how aroused they are, etc. 

Sexual identity

Everyone is born with sexual organs. Traditionally, these organs end up defining your sex or gender. Female sexual organs mean you’re a girl and male sexual organs mean you’re a boy. One can also be born intersex which means they have both or mixed sexual organs that don’t fit the male or female gender.

But is your sexual identity the same as the gender assigned to you at birth? It doesn’t have to be.

Your sexual identity is the gender you identify as. Which brings us to transgenders who identify as a different sex than the one assigned to them at birth. For transgenders, we either use the pronoun "they" or the one they prefer.

Sexual orientation

Just like sexual identity, sexual orientation is also a spectrum. At one point in the not-so-distant past, it was assumed that men are sexually attracted to women and vice versa. But this isn’t true. One can be heterosexual (sexually attracted to the opposite gender), homosexual (sexually attracted to the same gender), bisexual (sexually attracted to both male and female genders) or asexual (lack of sexual attraction to others). The world of sexual orientation is constantly evolving, though - for example, some people identify as pansexual (sexual attraction isn’t based on gender) or demisexual (sexual attraction dependent on a strong emotional connection) now as well.

  1. Safe sex practices
  2. Sexual health for women
  3. Sexual health for men
  4. Types of sexual activity
  5. Sex education
  6. Takeaways

Safe sex practices

Safe sex is the act of engaging in sexual activity while also protecting yourself and your partner(s) from sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and sexually transmitted infections as well as unwanted pregnancies. An important part of practising safe sex is communication with your partner about your sexual history and habits and using a form of protection, usually condoms. Regardless of your gender or whether it’s your first time having sex or you’ve been sexually active for many years, practising safe sex is recommended for everyone, every time.

  1. Sexually transmitted diseases
  2. How to prevent STDs and when to get tested for STDs
  3. Contraception or birth control methods

Sexually transmitted diseases

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) spread through the exchange of bodily fluids, generally during sexual activity like vaginal sex, anal sex or oral sex. Occasionally, they can be transmitted non-sexually, for example from mother to child during pregnancy or by sharing needles.

STIs can be caused by bacteria, viruses and parasites. STDs include Herpes, Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), gonorrhoeachlamydiasyphilishuman papillomavirus (HPV) and more. Some common symptoms are painful urination, painful sex, discharge from the penis, abnormal vaginal discharge, vaginal burning, unusual vaginal bleeding and sores or bumps on the genitals or around the mouth.

How to prevent STDs and when to get tested for STDs

The most effective way to prevent STDs and STIs is to not have sex. But since there are many health benefits of sex, forgoing it altogether may not be the best way thing for your overall health. Here are some other options: 

  • Have safe sex: Use a new condom for each and every sexual activity. Do not reuse condoms and do not use two at the same time. For oral sex performed on a woman, a dental dam may be used.
  • Don’t share needles.
  • Be in a healthy monogamous relationship.
  • Get tested regularly and get vaccinated.

Being in a monogamous relationship with someone who does not have an STD considerably lowers your chances of contracting one. Vaccinations are available for HPV and Hepatitis B.

STDs don’t always have obvious symptoms. The only way to know that you’re free of any STDs or STIs is to get tested for all of them.

Now, should everyone get tested? And how often should you get tested?

Well, if you’re sexually active, you should get tested at the following times:

  • Before entering a sexual relationship with a new partner.
  • If you have had unprotected sex.
  • If you have sex with multiple partners.
  • If you feel like you might have been exposed to an STD.
  • If you notice any symptoms that could indicate an STD or STI, you should consult your doctor who may prescribe tests such as the chlamydia test or the VDRL test for syphilis, based on your symptoms and the physical examination.

Contraception or birth control methods

When it comes to contraception, only condoms (male or female) can protect you from the transfer of fluids during sexual intercourse. Latex condoms are the most effective, they are 98% effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and almost 100% in preventing HIV if used correctly.

If you’re trying to avoid getting pregnant, there are many birth control methods available for use. Male and female condoms keep you safe from STDs but if you’re in a monogamous relationship in which that isn’t a concern, or if you require the use of an added contraception method, you can choose from birth control or contraceptive pills, contraceptive injections, patches, intrauterine devices or IUDs, diaphragms, etc.

Talk to your doctor about your options.

Sexual health for women

Sexual health has a habit of coming last on the list of priorities, especially in some cultures and especially when it comes to women. But it contributes just as much as anything else to your overall well-being.

Sexual health for women begins with understanding your body, what kind of touch makes you feel pleasure, what kind doesn’t and, of course, practising safe sex. It’s about keeping a check on the health of your sexual organs as well as your sexual relationships - checking in with yourself (and with your partner) when you feel like your sexual needs are not been met.

Given the cultural restrictions some women grow up with, there is an even bigger need for creating an environment where women of all ages are able to discuss their sexual health, problems and concerns with a medical professional or an expert.

  1. Female sexual organs
  2. Pregnancy
  3. Female sexual dysfunction

Female sexual organs

The vulva is part of the external sex organs. It consists of many parts like the labia, clitoris, vaginal opening, urethral opening (from where you urinate), etc. The labia are the folds of skin you can see outside and they protect your vaginal opening from being exposed at all times. Your vaginal opening is the gateway to the internal sex organs - the vagina and then the cervix, which connects your uterus to the vagina. Back to the outside, the clitoris is located at the top of your vulva and contains a very large number of nerve endings. Most women orgasm due to clitoral stimulation. There are many more sex organs like the fallopian tubes, ovaries, etc that help your body function the way it does. An awareness of these organs, their functions and their well being is essential in maintaining your sexual health.

Pregnancy

Sexual health for women comes with an added concern - pregnancy. There are all kinds of aspects to the subjects, though, depending on what phase of life a woman feels she is in. If you want to get pregnant, there are ways to plan it carefully with a lot of consideration. There are also tips on how to get pregnant. While for many women these tips are enough, some couples might face trouble conceiving, in which case there are other options like fertility treatments you can discuss with a specialist.

If you are pregnant and find yourself wanting to, for whatever reason, terminate the pregnancy, you can reach out to your doctor and ask for a referral to a facility that provides the required medical procedure, called an abortion.

Female sexual dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction is extremely common and not something to be ashamed of. Some female sexual problems can keep you from having a healthy sex life. These can include low libido or sex drive, anorgasmia (inability to have an orgasm), persistent genital arousal syndrome, vaginismus (involuntary spasming of vaginal muscles) and dyspareunia (pain during sex). There are therapies and treatments you can try for all of these. It is important to recognise the symptoms and address the issue instead of letting it fester and living with the problem.

Sexual health for men

There are some sexual health concerns that apply to men as much as to women.

  • Men, too, need to have a deep understanding of their body, what causes pleasure, practising safe sex and maintaining healthy sexual relationships.
  • Maintaining good hygiene is equally essential for men - before, during and after sexual activity.
  • Men, too, might let the taboo around discussing sexual health keep them from seeking help or advice when they need it. It’s important to get past this and reach out to medical professionals.

Men may have many different concerns regarding their sexual health, too, depending on which phase of life they’re in. Some of these have to do with their sexual abilities and whether they are consistent with those of other men.

On the topic of contraception, initially, there were only condoms for men. Over the last few years, though, there have been many scientific advancements and soon other options like a male birth control pill or injection might be made available.

  1. Male sexual organs
  2. Male sexual dysfunction

Male sexual organs

 The male sexual organs also consist of external as well as internal organs. Externally, we have the penis, scrotum and testicles. The penis is the one that is involved in sexual intercourse - increased blood flow during arousal makes it erect, making penetration possible. The testicles are responsible for producing testosterone (hormone) and sperm. The scrotum is the sac-like covering of skin around the testicles. The internal sex organs include the vas deferens, prostate gland, urethra, etc. Together, all these organs make it possible for men to feel aroused, be sexually active and, if needed, procreate.

Male sexual dysfunction

Sexual dysfunction in the male body refers to any men’s sexual problems that might keep one from deriving pleasure or satisfaction from sexual activity. For men, these could include low (or loss of) sexual drive, erectile dysfunction (impotence or the inability to reach/maintain an erection) and ejaculation disorders (premature, delayed or retrograde). There are medications and therapies available for these problems, depending on the cause, and can be discussed with a medical professional after a diagnosis has been reached.

Types of sexual activity

Sexual activity is a broad term. What one person or couple may consider to be sexual, another might not. On a general basis, the following are considered to be a part of sexual activities: 

  • Masturbation: The act of pleasuring yourself by stimulating your sexual organs is known as masturbation. It is completely natural and one should not feel shameful about indulging in it. In fact, masturbating to orgasm has many of the same benefits as achieving orgasm during sexual intercourse. It carries no risk of pregnancy or STD transmission. 
  • Vaginal intercourse: The insertion and subsequent thrusting of the penis into the vagina. There might be some initial discomfort. Pain during vaginal intercourse is common, though not normal, contrary to popular belief. Enough lubrication and preparation should make vaginal intercourse painless. Vaginal intercourse carries the risk of STD transmission and pregnancy, even the first time, so the use of condoms is advised. 
  • Oral sex: When one partner uses their mouth to stimulate the other person’s genital area, this is known as oral sex. While there isn’t genital contact, there is still an exchange of body fluids - which is why protection in the form of latex condoms or dental dams is recommended.
  • Anal intercourse: The insertion and subsequent thrusting of the penis into the anus. There can be some initial discomfort with anal sex. There is a risk of STD transmission and condoms should be used. 
  • Fingering or handjobs: When one partner uses their hand to stimulate the other’s genitals, it could take the form of fingering or a handjob. These are considered low-risk sexual activities which means that it is rare for one to contract an STD through them. There is no risk of pregnancy if proper hygiene is maintained. 
  • Genital rubbing: The grinding of one’s genitals against the other’s, over clothes or without them. There is no penetration or exchange of bodily fluids. It is also referred to as outercourse.

Sex education

Sexual education is a programme designed to give young boys and girls information about the importance of sexual health, acceptable sexual behaviour and safe sex practices as well as answering any questions they might have about them. It is part of the curriculum in many schools internationally but is yet to be as widespread in India. This creates the need to educate the younger generation about the same at home so they can make informed decisions in the interest of their health. Remember, half information is worse than no information. It is essential to create an honest and safe environment for this conversation and to discuss topics in depth.

  1. Consent
  2. Being prepared
  3. Healthy sexual relationships
  4. Risky sexual behaviours

Consent

Consent is the most important concept to understand when it comes to sex education. In sexual situations, it refers to the permission one gives or receives before commencing sexual activity. It must be freely given and not coerced or assumed. It is also extremely important to understand that consent can be retracted as soon as you start feeling uncomfortable, yes, even in the middle of sex. On the other hand, if your partner seems uncomfortable or reluctant in any way, you should take a break. Talk about the situation, get your partner to open up to you, reassess where you stand and then take a call on whether to proceed or stop completely.

Being prepared

Yes, sex is one of the most natural things in our lives. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take work.

To have a smooth experience, you can prep for it as you would for an exam - do all your research so you know what to expect and have all your tools ready beforehand, including spares in case of an accident.

Your tools, when it comes to having sex, will include condoms (many of them, this isn’t a time to be stingy) and lubricants (a variety of them, in case one doesn’t seem to suit you or your partner). In case of an accident, like a condom getting torn during sex, you should again know that you have the option of a morning-after pill as well as STD testing.

Healthy sexual relationships

Not everyone actively looks out for their partner’s interests in a sexual relationship. You must be careful when entering a relationship with such people and remember not to get so involved that you forget to take care of your own self. In case you feel like you’re in an abusive or toxic relationship or even if you feel like things might be taking a turn towards that, seek help and end the relationship. Your health takes priority and you need to make decisions that reflect that. 

Risky sexual behaviours

Different people have different likes and dislikes. It’s the same when it comes to sex - different people have different preferences. Unfortunately, some of these preferences might put you at a higher risk of becoming pregnant or contracting STDs or STIs. Some such behaviours are:

  • Having unprotected sex (vaginal, anal or oral).
  • Having multiple sexual partners.
  • Using drugs or excessive alcohol. 
  • Having anal sex.
  • Having a high-risk partner. 
  • Paying for sex.
  • Being a sex worker.

Takeaways

Just as we strive to maintain our physical and now mental health, we must make space for sexual health care in our lives. While sexual health is actually highly intermingled with both your physical and mental health, it can often be ignored because of some cultural and social beliefs and misgivings.

Sex is an important part of life - it may even be one of the most natural things we do in our lives. But without proper knowledge and support, it can turn out to be a huge risk to engage in any sexual activity.

The spread of STDs and sexually transmitted infections is on the rise globally, but it can easily be curtailed with the spread of information and resources being made available to everyone, especially the at-risk population.

Pregnancy might also be extremely natural - but that doesn’t mean that everyone is ready for it. If you want to avoid pregnancy, you should make sure you use a trusted method of birth control. It is also good to be aware of your options in case of an unplanned, unwanted or accidental pregnancy.

Understanding how your body functions is essential for the optimum use of all the amazing things your body is capable of.

Exploring your body, touching yourself and experimenting with what brings you pleasure are ways of doing just that.

Sex, sexuality and sexual activity - they can all mean different things to different people. It’s good to keep an open mind. 

Sex education isn’t as widespread yet as it should be. Knowledge about all the sexual activities, their health benefits, the risks they might put you at and how you can prevent those risks is extremely important for everyone, especially the younger generation as they can be at a higher risk of contracting STDs.

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