Your guide to a healthy, safe sex life

There's evidence that sex is great for the body and mind but practising safe sex can slide off our radar. Follow these tips to maintain good sexual health. 

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, medical director of Family Planning NSW. 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 Australians – from teenagers and midlife divorcees to retired singles – are still not having safe sex.

A study of more than 2,300 men by Family Planning NSW and online dating service RSVP showed 80% of men aged over 50 who used RSVP had not always worn a condom in the past year. And 66% of younger men aged 18–29 had also failed to use a condom at least once. 

Dr Bateson, who is also a clinical associate professor in obstetrics and gynaecology at the University of Sydney, says older men are more likely to chat about sexually transmissible infections (also known as sexually transmitted infections or STIs) with new sexual partners, “but they are also more likely to have sex without a condom than younger men”.

“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.

Getting the right sex advice

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 chlamydia or other STIs.

“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.

The state of STIs in Australia

While the number of HIV notifications (written alerts sent to the Department of Health) has dropped in Australia, infection rates for some other STIs have soared. The Kirby Institute reports there were more than 255,000 new chlamydia infections in people aged 15–29 in 2017, with notification rates increasing by more than 50% over the nine years from 2008 to 2017.

In the same period, gonorrhoea notifications tripled. Dr Philippe Adam, senior research fellow at the University of New South Wales' Centre for Social Research in Health, says STIs are increasing “drastically” in people aged 15–29 because they’re the most sexually active. And they aren’t using condoms every time they have sex, says the Centre’s National Debrief Survey.

While 92% of young people surveyed agreed an STI could seriously affect their health, two-thirds thought their own risk of contracting a disease was relatively low.

“What we see is that young people start to date and very quickly decide to stop using condoms,” Dr Adam says. “People did not believe their friends or peers expected them to use condoms.”

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.

Being proactive about safer sex practices

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.”

So, for a healthy sex life, which brings you all the good stuff without the health worries, be informed, stay protected and ensure you’re regularly tested when circumstances change.

Having ‘the talk’ with your teen

It’s a no-brainer to introduce the safe-sex topic before teens are sexually active. Most experts advise talking with children early and often about sexuality and respectful relationships, 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 2 of HCF’s Navigating Parenthood – Talking to Teens podcast for more about sex and consent.

Words by Linda Vergnani
First published March 2020

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