Sexual Health 101: Prevention and Protection
Sex has always fascinated me. I have always been intrigued by the fact that it’s kind of a verboten topic, giving it an air of mystery, which fed my curiosity. As I grew older, that mystery settled, and I realized that sex is part of everyday life, can be fun, and always implies a high degree of responsibility. That may sound a little bit paralyzing–“a high degree of responsibility”–but it doesn’t have to be. If we participate in sexual relationships with other people, we must know how to enjoy sex responsibly. In other words, it’s good practice to inform ourselves about the risks implied in having sex, how to lower those risks, and how to communicate with partners and healthcare providers to have safer and, in turn, more pleasurable sex. From personal experience, I know I was cheated out of comprehensive sexual education since I went to a conservative Catholic school where abstinence was the policy, although not the reality for many students. Seeing as this experience hasn’t been exclusive to me, I thought it would be wise to try to help you begin to fill in some of the gaps that may be present in your bevy of sexual health knowledge. Even if you’re a Sexual Health Maven™, it never hurts to stay curious. Maybe some of the content in here can help you help a friend.
Defining ‘Sexual Health’ and its Importance
In 2002 the World Health Organization defined “sexual health” as a “state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity.” Furthermore, this definition includes that sexual health provides the opportunity for “pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence.” The WHO’s definition of “sexual health” is holistic as it acknowledges the different dimensions that influence our approach to sex, explicitly states the need for non-coercive interactions, and straightforwardly recognizes the pleasure aspect of sex. Other definitions of “sexual health,” like the one provided by Options for Sexual Health, a B.C.-based social profit, widens its definition to include dimensions like body image, employment, sexual orientation, and other terms. This article will discuss the risks of engaging in sexual activity, ways to minimize those risks, and resources to support your sexual health. As mentioned above, being knowledgeable about the different aspects of sexual health can help you enjoy your sexuality in a more responsible and healthier manner, hopefully minimizing worries and enriching pleasure.
Risks and Prevention
You have likely heard stories about unplanned pregnancies and people passing sexually transmitted infections, a synonym for the more commonly-used “sexually transmitted disease.” This section will focus on these two risks and how to navigate minimizing them.
The risk for unplanned pregnancy is only relevant when it comes to vaginal sex or penis-in-vagina sex since pregnancy happens in the uterus after a sperm cell and egg cell join. Condoms can prevent pregnancy by external use (the ones that go over the penis or sex toys) or internal use (the ones that go inside the vagina or the anus), as it prevents semen–colloquially known as ‘cum’–from entering the vagina. According to Teen Health Source, a sexual health resource created through Planned Parenthood Toronto, external condoms are 97% effective if use is as instructed and used every time you have sex (i.e., “perfect use”). Condoms can be misused and are 86% effective with “typical use.” However, internal condoms are 95% effective with perfect use but 80% effective with “typical use”.
Furthermore, using the correct type of lube with the right kind of condom can decrease the possibility of the condom breaking, decreasing the likelihood that semen will enter the vagina. So, suppose you’re using a latex condom. Sexual experts urge using a water-based lube since using anything with oil, like vaseline or coconut oil, can damage the condom, making it more likely to break and increasing the likelihood of unplanned pregnancy. Lastly, on the topic of condoms, some people have allergies to different materials, so be sure to discuss this with your partners and source the appropriate kind of condoms to prevent unpleasant reactions.
Condoms are not the only way to prevent unplanned pregnancies. There are a variety of other birth control methods, like the birth control pill, hormonal and non-hormonal intra-uterine devices (IUDs), and contraceptive injections. There is also the Fertility Awareness Method, which requires that uterus owners monitor their temperature upon waking and cervical mucus to recognize which stage of their menstrual cycle they’re at since pregnancy is more likely during the ovulation stage. The National Health Service of the United Kingdom emphasizes that it takes 3 to 6 months to figure out what your menstrual cycle is like to adopt this method, making it relatively more time-intensive than other contraceptive methods. While it’s up to each person to decide which method is best for them, it’s worthwhile noting that the “set it and forget it” methods like IUDs may be easier to manage for someone involved in time-intensive activities like completing coursework for university. You can discuss the effectiveness of different birth control methods and which methods would work best with your lifestyle with a trusted healthcare provider or by visiting websites, for example, Planned Parenthood, which offers a quiz that could help you narrow down your choices.
Lastly, it’s important to remember that doubling up on birth control methods helps to decrease the likelihood of unplanned pregnancy. For example, if you and your partners use condoms and birth control pills, you will be at a lower risk of having an unplanned pregnancy. I also want to remind you that some people get pregnant from precum, also known as pre-ejaculate. According to Planned Parenthood, “some people’s precum does have a small amount of sperm in it,” and since there’s no way to know whether or not someone’s precum does, it’s best not to rely on the “pull out method.” With “typical use,” pulling out results in about 1 in 5 people having an unplanned pregnancy yearly. Suppose this is your preferred method of birth control; sexual experts urge that you keep emergency contraception around (like Plan B) as it can prevent pregnancy for about five days after unprotected sex. Emergency contraception works as long as you haven’t ovulated yet, and meet specific weight criteria. “Getting certain kinds of IUDs as emergency contraception”, writes Planned Parenthood, “can work for anyone regardless of their weight”.
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, the three most common STIs in Canada are chlamydia, gonorrhea, and infectious syphilis rates seem to be trending upwards. Unlike pregnancy, the risk of passing sexually transmitted infections is present for everyone regardless of the kind of sex they have. According to Planned Parenthood, if you’re engaging in vaginal, anal, or oral sex, or any sexual contact, including coming into contact with someone else’s sexual fluids, you’re at risk of getting an STI. However scary this may sound, it does not mean you have to abstain from sex. There are many ways to make sex safer, such as using a contraceptive, getting tested for STIs regularly, and following the treatment exactly as prescribed by a doctor if you receive a positive STI result.
One of the methods to prevent passing STIs is to use barriers, like condoms (both internal and external), dental dams, and, to quote Planned Parenthood, “latex or nitrile gloves.” These items physically isolate both partners from each other’s sexual fluids and prevent skin-to-skin contact. STIs like pubic lice, syphilis, and genital warts, can be passed through skin-to-skin contact, while other STIs like chlamydia can spread through sexual fluids. It’s imperative to remember that barriers can also be used to prevent the spread of STIs when sharing sex toys with your partners. A new contraceptive, whether a condom or dental dam, must be used for each new partner you have. What I mean by this is if you choose to participate in group sex, you must use a new condom or dental dam if you’re going to have sex with a different person. Lastly, using lube can decrease friction that might damage the condom and cause it to rip, increasing your safety and your partner’s protection against STIs.
Another method to prevent the spread of STIs is to get tested regularly. Getting tested helps you know whether or not you have an STI, receive treatment if you require it, and provides peace of mind in knowing that you won’t be unwittingly passing an infection to other people. Many STIs can be present in our bodies but show minor or no symptoms. The Public Health Agency of Canada sums up the relationship between asymptomatic cases of chlamydia in Canada and the spread of this STI in the following excerpt from their 2022 report:
“. . . because asymptomatic infections are common in males and females, in the absence of screening, affected individuals unaware of their status can contribute to the spread of infection.” Please note that only a medical professional, like a doctor or nurse, can administer STI tests and treatment.
If you end up testing positive for an STI, rest assured that your sex life doesn’t have to stop. According to Planned Parenthood, treating STIs with medication is the most effective way to combat the infection, and you don’t have to worry about giving your STD to anyone. To clarify, you should not quit your medication even if your symptoms disappear. Instead, make sure you finish your entire course of treatment and continue (or begin using) barriers when having sex. If the STI for which you have tested positive can’t be cured, you must talk with your doctor about your options and medicines to help lower your chance of spreading it to your partner. For example, a 2004 study by Corey et al. reveals that an antiviral called valacyclovir “significantly reduces the risk of transmission of genital herpes” in heterosexual couples in which one partner has tested positive for herpes while the other has not. If you find yourself in this situation, it is also essential to take precautions by using barriers when having sex.
Regardless of your status, you must tell your partners if you have an STI so that you can make a plan to practice safer sex together. As hard of a conversation as this initially may be, it is a necessary conversation to have. Sex can be fun, but it comes with a lot of responsibility. Part of our responsibility in this realm is to respect other people’s right to choose. We can do this by providing crucial information, such as our STI status. So your sexual partner has a complete picture of the risks of having sex and can make the best choice for themselves.
Lastly, suppose you notice a strange discharge coming from your or your partner’s genitalia and/or anus, any irritation or swelling, or warts and sores; sexual experts urge that you don’t engage in sexual activity out of caution. Remember, “when in doubt, don’t put out”. It’s a crass adage, but I’m sure it will help you remember not to have sexual contact if you’re not 100% that those symptoms are unrelated to STIs.
Resources: ULeth and Beyond
Now that you’ve learned, or been reminded, about some of the risks involved in being sexually active, it’s time to find out where in Lethbridge you can go to get more information. Below are resources that have been listed where you can get tested and get the supplies that you need to practice safer sex and have the best sexual health you can have.
- The University of Lethbridge Health Centre: This centre is located at SU 020. Our lovely Health Centre offers various health services, including sexual health. Some concerns and questions that may bring you to their doors are STI screening, wanting to find out if you’re pregnant, and being curious about what sort of birth control may be right for you. The Health Centre also offers insertion for some birth control types and can refer you to a specialist if the need arises. The best way to book with them is to call the number or email the address found on their website.
- The Campus Collective Centre, formerly known as the Women’s Centre, is located at SP 150. They offer menstrual and sexual health resources for the ULeth community. I have personally always admired their wall of resources. When you walk past their office, there are cubbies full of condoms, menstrual products, and information material. In addition, I heard some time ago that they offer pregnancy tests upon request.
- University of Lethbridge Counselling Services provides free counseling sessions to ULeth students. Counseling is an opportunity to bring up issues you may be facing with your sexual health and have a professional help you navigate problems by gently helping you challenge beliefs around topics related to sexual health and by referring you to other resources in the community. Please see their website to find their email address or phone number to book an appointment.
In the community:
- Lethbridge Health Unit – Sexual and Reproductive Health: This building is located at 801 1 St South, Lethbridge, AB. They provide “youth-friendly, non-judgemental and confidential sexual and reproductive health services,” according to their Alberta Health Services website. Some of the services they provide are STI testing, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception, birth control counseling, and supplies, including prescriptions. Additionally, they help you explore your alternatives if you are experiencing an unplanned pregnancy, and do post-abortion checkups.
- Pro-choice Society of Alberta offers information about various birth control methods and your options for accessing abortion services in Southern Alberta. In addition, they break down the different types of abortion, medical and surgical, and where it is easily accessed (spoiler alert: mostly in Calgary, depending on what kind of abortion you’re seeking). They may be able to find support for getting to Calgary and arranging accommodations following the procedure if you contact them.
- 811 is a service offered by Alberta Health Services that puts you, the caller, in contact with a nurse. The nurse will answer your health questions, including sexual health-related questions, and can refer you to appropriate support in your community.
- Planned Parenthood Chat: This resource can be found by searching it on Google. They offer a chatbot available 24/7, which will answer pre-loaded questions you can choose from. There is the option to chat with a health educator who you can receive answers to your specific questions about pregnancy, STIs, abortion, and other topics. It is entirely confidential. Both of these options are text-based. One factor to consider with the health educators route is that they’re available on a set schedule, but they are available all seven days of the week, but at specific times. For up-to-date information on their schedule, please visit the Planned Parenthood website. From personal experience, I can say it was judgement free and very informative to speak with an educator (I tried it out for you, dear reader). It did take about 20 minutes to connect with someone, so keep that in mind when you log on.
- Teen Health Source is brought to us by Planned Parenthood Toronto. Teen Health Source also offers the option to chat with an educator about your health concerns. This service is also provided on a schedule, from Monday to Thursday and on Saturday. Please see the website for current hours of operation. They, like their American cousin, also offer excellent information on sexual health.
- Options For Sexual Health, a B.C.-based resource, is another great resource that offers the option to have your specific questions answered, except you have to wait a little longer since it’s not done through a chat. However, there’s a wealth of information on their website, so be sure to check out their different sections. I was amazed to see the section on pleasure, the discussion on how our brains are our biggest sex organ, and the comprehensive Sexual Health FAQ.
To echo Uncle Ben from Spiderman (2002), “with great power comes great responsibility.” This is one of the biggest clichés because it is true. Having the opportunity to engage in sex is thrilling and can be a lot of fun, but also comes with risks. I hope that in reading this article, you’re able to take away some knowledge that you will put into practice to support your sexual health and enjoy your sexuality to the fullest extent. First, we went over a couple of risks that come with sexual activity. Then, we discussed methods to decrease your risk and resources that can provide you with more information and materials to support your sexual health. I understand that sexual health encompasses much more than what I discussed in this article. Some other dimensions of sexual health include effective communication, consent, and self-advocacy in a medical setting. I hope to continue to bring you information relevant to these different realms of sexual health. And remember, “when in doubt, don’t put out!
Canada, Public Health Agency of. “Report on Sexually Transmitted Infection Surveillance in Canada, 2019.” www.canada.ca, 25 Feb. 2022, www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/publications/diseases-conditions/report-sexually-transmitted-infection-surveillance-canada-2019.html#s0. Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.
Corey, Lawrence, et al. “Once-Daily Valacyclovir to Reduce the Risk of Transmission of Genital Herpes.” New England Journal of Medicine, vol. 350, no. 1, Jan. 2004, pp. 11–20, 10.1056/nejmoa035144.
Handall, Candy, and Kathy Chinn. “Definitions of Sexual Health – Minnesota Dept. Of Health.” www.health.state.mn.us, www.health.state.mn.us/people/sexualhealth/definitions.html.
“How Well Does My Birth Control Work?” Helloclue.com, helloclue.com/articles/sex/how-effective-is-birth-control-the-difference-between-using-a-method.
“Planned Parenthood.” Plannedparenthood.org, 2019, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/birth-control/withdrawal-pull-out-method/how-effective-is-withdrawal-method-pulling-out.
Services, Alberta Health. “Lethbridge Health Unit – Sexual and Reproductive Health.” Alberta Health Services, www.albertahealthservices.ca/findhealth/Service.aspx?id=3792&serviceAtFacilityID=1132104#contentStart. Accessed 14 Aug. 2022.
“What Is Sexual Health?” Options for Sexual Health, www.optionsforsexualhealth.org/facts/sex/what-is-sexual-health/#1551381368888-0d494e5b-0502.
“What’s the Weight Limit for Plan B?” www.plannedparenthood.org, www.plannedparenthood.org/learn/ask-experts/whats-the-weight-limit-for-plan-b.
World Health Organization. “Sexual Health.” Who.int, World Health Organization: WHO, 27 Aug. 2019, www.who.int/health-topics/sexual-health#tab=tab_1.
—. “Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).” Who.int, World Health Organization: WHO, 22 Nov. 2021, www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/sexually-transmitted-infections-(stis).