Your guide to a healthy, safe sex life


Your guide to a healthy, safe sex life

Updated November 2022 | 4 min read
Expert contributor Dr Deborah Bateson, Professor of Practice at the Daffodil Centre, The University of Sydney
Words by Linda Vergnani

There's evidence that sex is great for the body and mind but practising safe sex can fall off our list of priorities. Follow these tips to maintain a healthy and safe sex life. 

Whether you’re in a relationship, single, starting over or starting from scratch, having a healthy sex life is a positive choice with added health benefits. Research shows sex can help keep your blood pressure down, improve sleep, lower your risk of having a heart attack and even reduce pain.

“We know sex is a pleasurable part of life, so having a healthy sex life is important,” says Dr Deborah Bateson, Professor of Practice at the Daffodil Centre, The University of Sydney. And while a good sex life can mean different things to different people, she adds, overall it means having sex when you want it and feeling comfortable and confident.

But maintaining your sexual health is a marathon, not a one-night plan, and despite great strides in sex education, many Aussies – from teenagers and midlife divorcees to retired singles – are still not having safe sex.

CSIRO completed a study on age differences in attitudes toward safer sex practices in heterosexual men who used online dating. The study concluded that older, Internet-dating, heterosexual men are vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs). While younger men (aged 18 to 29 years) were more likely to report the intention of having sex with a new partner only if a condom was used, this intention was lower in men aged over 60. As age increased, men had lower knowledge about STIs, lower use of condoms and greater beliefs that condoms reduced interest in sex.

“It’s down to a lack of knowledge. We know people are changing partners later in life, but it would be a long time since some older men, and women as well, would have had any information that was aimed at them,” explains Dr Bateson.

Testing for STIs

STIs, like chlamydia and gonorrhoea, are still a widespread problem in Australia. So, to give new relationships a healthy start, and before having unprotected vaginal, oral or anal sex with a new partner, it’s wise to be tested for STIs.

“The key thing people are unaware of is that most STIs don’t have any symptoms,” Dr Bateson explains. This makes testing an important part of sexual health that should be normalised – “just a routine thing you do”. It’s also an essential step for anyone who believes they may have had exposure to an STI.

“I think there’s a lot of angst, stigma and shame, particularly among older people,” says Dr Bateson. “They may be embarrassed and worried about going to their GP to find out more information or get tested.” But there’s no shame in being tested, she adds, and everyone has the right to visit health services like a doctor, family planning or sexual health clinic to be checked – especially if you've been having unprotected sex.

Good sexual health starts with condoms

When used correctly, condoms significantly reduce the risk of most STIs (as well as unintended pregnancy). Regardless of age, both men and women should be proactive about buying and using condoms, experts say.

“Negotiate the use of condoms in a new sexual relationship,” Dr Bateson suggests, “because people don’t always know they have an STI and many unwittingly pass it on to a partner – then feel mortified about it.”

Here’s a quick guide to safe condom use:

  • use a new condom every time you have sex, and check the expiry date before using it
  • be careful not to tear the condom when opening the packet
  • only use water-based lubricants as other lubricants can damage the condom
  • use condoms on vibrators and sex toys that you share with partners
  • use the condom (or dental dam for oral sex) from the start of sex to the very end.

Talking with your teen about safe sex

Parents talking with their teens about safe sex may play a role in encouraging safer sexual behaviour, according to a study review published in JAMA Pediatrics. It included more than 50 studies covering 25,314 adolescents and showed the effect was strongest with mothers talking to girls.

Most experts advise talking with children early and often about sexuality and respectful relationships, including consent, so by the time they reach puberty they feel comfortable asking you questions.

Kids Helpline suggests it’s wise to refer to children’s body parts by their proper anatomical name – penis, vagina – from an early age. Here are a few tips for a smooth discussion:

  • keep it honest, informal and relaxed
  • consider it an ongoing conversation – not a one-off chat
  • discuss safe sex and contraceptive methods, including condoms
  • be supportive and don’t judge or use gender stereotypes provide children with resources according to their age and development stage, like calling Kids Helpline at 1800 55 1800 or visiting Better Health.

Listen to season two of HCF’s Navigating Parenthood – Talking to Teens podcast for more about sex and consent.

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