Understanding your sexual health is an important part of your well-being. It's about being aware of your body, your mind, and your overall health. It also involves taking a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships. That includes being in control of your body, feeling empowered to make your own choices, and never being pressured - so you can have satisfying and safe sexual experiences.
Sexuality plays a part in who your are, and how you express yourself. As we are unique, so is our sexuality - and how we experience it. It's important to understand that some people are very sexual, while others may not feel sexual attraction as strongly, or at all. Your family, culture, religion, friends, and experiences may also influence your sexuality. Everyone is unique, and our sexual thoughts, desires, attractions, and values are no exception.
Sexual pleasure goes beyond the act of having sex. What sets human sexuality apart from animal or plant sexuality is our ability to discover how to give and receive pleasure through sexual activity - from intercourse to masturbation. In other words, we learn to experience sexual pleasure for pleasure's sake.
It is not always linked to being aroused or having an orgasm. Our enjoyment of sexual behaviors and practices varies from person to person, and culturally, sexual pleasure can cover everything from marital harmony to the relief felt by having protected sex. Understanding pleasure, and our different definitions of it, can also help prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs), like HIV.
There are also health benefits to sexual pleasure. Sex has been proven to promote better sleep habits, less stress, and allow us to thrive - thanks to the chemicals released into our body during sexual activity.
For many people, it can be easy to confuse love and commitment with sex. And it's important to know that you don't need to have sex with someone to show them you love them.
If you are in a relationship, sex can make people feel closer and more loving. At the same time, having sex in non-committed relationship can be fun, too. Either way, it is very important that you trust and respect your partner and that you feel trusted and respected in return.
If you're considering entering into a new relationship, it's good to know what kind of relationship you are getting into. Here are some of the questions you should be asking:
- Committed or non-committed? Consider whether you want to enter into a more long-term relationship, such as marriage or living together, vs. something less committed (casual dating)
- Friendly or romantic? Are you seeking friendship or something more emotional and intimate?
- Sexual or non-sexual? Do you expect to have sex with this person?
- Monogamous or non-monogamous (open)? Do you prefer to have a relationship with only one person, or do you want to keep it open so that either or both partners can have sex with other people?
Talking about it
In any relationship, it's important to talk about sex. In fact, open communication is key to making your relationships - and the sex you have - more fun and satisfying. No two partners want the same things, have the same fantasies or want to be touched in the same way, and it's important to know what works and doesn't work for them.
Not sure where to start? Here are some topics you can talk about with your partner(s):
Sexually transmitted infection (STI) history: Have an honest conversation about your sexual history. How many partners have you had since you were last tested for STIs? Which STIs have you been tested for, and what were the results? What were the STI statuses of your former partners?
Birth control: Are you currently using birth control? If not, are you aware of the possibility of pregnancy? What birth control do you want to use?
Sexual desires: What sexual activities do you like, and what would you like to try? Do you have fantasies that you would like to act out or pretend to act out, like role play?
Sexual boundaries: It's important that all sexual activities be mutually agreed upon and consensual. What sexual activities or fantasies are you not willing to explore? Are there places on your body that you do not want to be touched?
We all have feelings about how we look. You see yourself a certain way, and have ideas about how others think you look. When you think about yourself, the feelings and images that come up are important. A healthy body image means that you see yourself as you really are, and that you feel good in your own skin.
While some people have a very positive body image, others may have very negative body image. It's completely natural to feel better about certain parts of your body and not as good as others. However you feel, it's important to be aware of your body image, and find a way to feel strong, confident and in control.
Many people have trouble with their body image. Sometimes it's hard to understand all the feelings you have about your body, and you probably have many questions about whether the things you think and feel are normal. Here are some answers to some of those questions:
What is a positive body image?
It does not matter what you look like on the outside. Positive body image is about how you feel about the way you look. Having a positive body image means that you accept the way you look and feel good about your body. You may be aware that certain parts of your body aren't the same as someone else's, but you can accept and even come to love the difference. It's also about understanding that how you look does not determine your self-worth.
What is a negative body image?
Negative body image is when someone feels that his or her body does not measure up to family, peer or media ideals. When the standard of beauty is so high, it's hard to feel satisfied with your body image.
People with negative body image may not see themselves as they truly are. They may feel self-conscious, awkward or ashamed about their body. They may have issues with their self esteem and sexual life. While we all feel this way from time to time, if you have negative body image most of the time, you may have a problem. Having a negative body image can be harmful to your health and well-being - sometimes interfering with our sexual responses and experiences during sexual activity. It can also lead to the practice of unprotected sexual behavior, and eating disorders.
How can I improve my body image?
Remember that there are many ways to improve your body image, without changing your body (e.g. plastic surgery). Sometimes, talking through your feelings with someone you trust, such as a family member or friend, can be helpful. Or you may need to see a professional therapist. Pay attention to the negative feelings you may have about your body, like after you weigh yourself or see something on the Internet or on TV.
Every penis or vagina is different, but chances are the questions you have - from how to keep it clean to how they appear and function - are easily answered. Find out more about facts and common concerns regarding your genitals.
Vaginas are an important body part involved in sex, menstruation and childbirth. It's important to remember that no two vaginas are the same. What's normal for you, might not be normal for someone else.
Some of your sexual organs are partially inside the body, such as the womb, ovaries and vagina, and some are outside - like the vulva, the opening of the vagina. The vulva has inner and outer lips (labia) and the clitoris, which is located at the top of the vagina.
The vagina is a tube about 8 cm (3 in) long, which leads from the neck of the womb (the cervix) down to the vulva. It can stretch easily around a penis, sex toys or a baby during childbirth.
Vaginas can have a different size and shape, from small and egg-shaped to large and cylindrical. Colour can vary from light pink to a deep brown, or red-pink.
Vaginal discharge can be normal (mucus or secretions), and the texture and amount of discharge can vary throughout your menstrual cycle. If your discharge becomes different (e.g. it changes colour or begins to smell), this could be a sign of infection. When in doubt, ask your health care provider.
A healthy vagina should not be itchy, which could be a sign of thrush or other infections. Itching could also be part of skin problems like eczema or lichen sclerosus. Whatever the cause, if an itch persists for more than four weeks, have it checked by your health care provider or gynaecologist.
Cleanliness and health
Your vagina is naturally intended to keep itself clean, which means that you don’t need douches or vaginal wipes.
Eating well and exercising can help your overall health, including your vagina. For example, walking or running can help you tone your pelvic floor muscles.
When washing your vagina, it's a good idea to avoid perfumed soaps, gels or antiseptics as they can hurt the balance of natural bacteria and pH levels and cause irritation. Try to use plain, unscented soaps to wash the area around the vagina (the vulva) gently every day. The vagina will clean itself inside your body, with the help of your natural secretions.
Vaginal steamers, jade eggs, oak galls or other commercial products that are labeled as ways to clean or tighten your vagina should not be used. There is no proof that these products have any benefits. Plus, using these products can lead to dangerous side effects including heat or chemical burns, vaginal infections or anaphylaxis which is a severe reaction that can cause death. Please see your health care provider or visit a sexual health clinic if you have used any of these products.
It's important to protect yourself from bacteria and viruses that can get into your vagina during sex by using a condom.
You may have questions about the size or appearance of your penis. This is completely normal. Many men, and our culture, have associated the penis with qualities such as virility, strength and fertility. But it's important to remember that no two penises are the same.
Men are often concerned about the size of their penis - that it might be smaller than it should be, or that it won't satisfy a partner. This attitude can hurt a man's self-confidence and social life, and even keep some men from using public bathrooms and locker rooms.
It's important to see your penis as others would. Try looking at yourself undressed in a mirror, and your penis may appear longer and larger than when you look at it from above.
According to a 2015 study the average dimensions for an adult penis are:
- Length: 13.12 cm (5.16 in) when erect
- Circumference: 11.66 cm (4.59 in) when erect
Regardless of the actual size of their penis, many men are still unsatisfied and desire a larger penis.
Talking about it with a counselor can help you deal with your fears and concerns around your penis. Therapy can help you build self-confidence and overcome fears around your sexual relationships.
Most testicles ("balls") are the same size, though it's common for one to be slightly bigger than the other, or hang down lower than the other.
Testicles should feel smooth without any lumps or bumps, and feel firm, not hard.
It may also be a good idea to check your balls for lumps once a month after a warm bath or shower. If you notice anything unusual, talk to your health care provider.
Testicular cancer is easy to spot early on. Watch for one or more of the following:
- a hard lump on the front or side of a testicle
- swelling or enlargement
- an increase in firmness
- pain or discomfort in the testicle or scrotum (sac that holds the testicles)
- unusual difference between one testicle and the other
You should make an appointment with your health care provider if you experience any of these symptoms.
Cleaning your penis
Give your penis the care it deserves and you and your partner will benefit. Gently wash the penis with warm water when you're having a shower or bath. Make sure to pull your foreskin back gently and wash underneath. If you don't wash your foreskin (if you have one) a substance called smegma may begin to gather. Smegma is a natural lubricant that keeps the penis moist and is found on the head of the penis and under the foreskin.
If smegma builds up in the foreskin, it can easily become a breeding ground for bacteria. This can cause redness and swelling on the head of your penis, called balantis. If you notice this, see your health care provider immediately.
While personal hygiene is important, too much washing can cause soreness. Gently washing your penis once a day with warm water is enough. If you do choose to use a soap, choose a mild or non-perfumed soap to reduce skin irritation. Avoid talc or deodorant, as they may also cause irritation.
Also remember to clean the base of the penis and the testicle area, where sweat and hair can produce a strong unpleasant smell. These areas need to be washed at least once a day, along with the anus.
Sexual health and dating apps
With the rise in popularity of dating apps and websites, technology has added a new dimension to the already complicated world of relationships and sexual health. Millions of people worldwide are using apps like Tinder and Grindr to pursue both love and sex from the comfort of their phones. Using GPS to find matches in your area, dating apps enable people to arrange casual sexual encounters at literally the touch of a screen. The resulting "hookup culture" supports sexual freedom and choice, but it has also been linked to a rise in STIs. Since dating apps enable us to meet sexual partners with such ease, it's important to be aware of the risks. To maintain sexual health, make sure to practice protected sex.
Hookups and STIs
Although relationships can be managed from the convenience of a phone, sexual health requires being responsible online and offline. Recent evidence has shown a connection between the rise in STIs and the widespread use of dating apps. Often without symptoms for months or years, individuals who are infected can be completely unaware they have the infection, but continue engaging in casual sex. However, even without symptoms, they are still infectious, which heightens the risk they’ll spread STIs to others. With more people engaging in casual sex, it’s important you’re educated about the risk of STIs, so you can safely enjoy exploring the world of online dating.
If you're gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, or if you are somewhere along a continuum of gender and/or sexuality, being aware of your health risks and having relevant health checks can help you stay healthy and reduce your risk of illness.
While many LGBTQ+ people share the same health needs as those who identify as straight, in some cases they may be more at risk of contracting specific conditions, such as HIV (in gay and bisexual men) or breast cancer (in lesbian women). LGBTQ+ people may also be less likely to take advantage of certain screenings and health checks, which may lead to not identifying health conditions early.
Coming out to your health care provider
Coming out to your health care provider may be a difficult decision. But if you avoid doing so, you may miss out on services and care that can best meet your needs. If you're looking for a health care provider who's LGBTQ+-friendly, visit Rainbow Health Ontario.
Sexual health means having sex and sexual relationships that are as satisfying as possible. It also means taking care of your health (e.g., body, mind and emotions) and the health of your sex partner(s). It is important to have the information you need to make the right decisions about your sexual health.
Having unprotected sex is the most likely way to pass on a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Using a condom helps protect against HIV and cuts the risk of getting many other STIs.
If you're a gay or bisexual man, condom use and regular sexual health checks can help you have a healthy and pleasurable sexual life and help prevent STIs.
Women who have sex with other women are not immune from STIs, but sometimes are told they don't need to be tested for STIs. This is not the case. For lesbian women, the risks of STIs may be lower. However, women can get STIs such as herpes, genital warts and chlamydia when exchanging bodily fluids.
It is important to note that some STIs can be transmitted through oral sex (as well as anal and vaginal sex) such as syphilis and chlamydia. If you are sexually active get tested for STIs on a regular basis. Be sure to let your health care provider know what kind of sex you're having, so they can do the most appropriate STI testing. STIs can lead to more serious health problems if you do not treat them.
Trans or gender-diverse people have some unique health concerns and may be at increased risk for certain health issues. Most health care providers are not trained on these health needs and may not be sensitive to the particular health risks or knowledgeable about how to work with trans or gender-diverse people. Even when their needs are routine, it can be difficult for trans and gender-diverse individuals to find the care they need.
For more information on trans care, and sexual health contact Rainbow Health Ontario.
LGBTQ+ and HIV
Men having sex with men are at higher risk of getting HIV. Learn more about HIV and how to get tested here.
Cancer and other illnesses can affect anyone, but some LGBTQ+ people may be less likely to be screened for certain conditions. For example, some lesbian women may not consider Pap testing for cervical cancer, and some gay and bisexual men may not seek regular HIV and STI testing.
Women of a certain age should have regular breast and cervical screenings, and some men are eligible for cancer screening as well.
For more information on available screening tests, speak to your physician or contact the AIDS & Sexual Health InfoLine (1 800 668-2437).