Exploring Sexual Health
Reading Length: Long read – 5-10 mins.
This article mentions: Sexual violence, Unwanted Pregnancies, STI/Ds, abortion
What is it?
So what do we mean when we talk about sexual health?
Good sexual health should mean you are able to express and explore your sexuality without fear of sexually transmitted diseases, unwanted pregnancies, coercion, violence and discrimination. However, like all health, we know it’s hard to manage and sometimes control… But hopefully we can explore together ways we can all have good sexual health!
Myths and rumours
Let’s start off by throwing the myths and rumours out the window!
“If I have an STI, I’d know about it” - WRONG! Many people have STI/D’s without showing any symptoms. Hence why regular testing is always advised if you’re having regular sex.
“STIs will eventually go away if I ignore it” - Actually the opposite... The longer an infection is left untreated, the more serious the potential health implications can become. Therefore, it’s really important to get tested as soon as possible. Most STIs can be easily treated with antibiotics or other medicines.
“Getting tested is painful and embarrassing” - Let’s be honest, swab and blood tests can feel uncomfortable, but they are over before you know it! The nurses and clinicians have seen hundreds of genitals in their time, so there is no need to feel embarrassed.
“You can only get an STI if you ‘sleep around’” - A big lie! Anyone who has unprotected sex, whether that be oral, vaginal or anal, is at risk of an STI. The number of people you have sex with has nothing to do with how STIs are transmitted, it’s whether you use protection or not.
“I can’t get an STI from oral sex” - Unfortunately you can get an STI from all forms of sex, whether that be oral, vaginal or anal.
“You can get an STI from a toilet seat” - Just no! The actual bacteria and virus from STIs cannot survive on a toilet seat. So, it is essentially IMPOSSIBLE to contract an STI from a toilet seat.
Sexually Transmitted Infections and Diseases (STI/Ds)
We need you to know STI/Ds are 100% common, normal and should NOT be shamed.
Just to put it in perspective – “More than 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired EVERY DAY worldwide” – World Health Organisation
However, STI/Ds aren’t fun and are best to be avoided where possible, so let’s talk about how we can help prevent them. It’s advised to;
- Use external or internal condoms during intercourse or while using sex toys (however, they do not prevent ALL STI/Ds). Thankfully you can get condoms for free from most sexual health clinics and many LGBTQ+ venues. You can also purchase condoms at any age.
- Get tested, along with your partner/s before any sexual activities.
Sometimes you can follow all the rules and advice and still get an STI/D, so it’s REALLY important to get yourself tested as soon as you show symptoms.
You can get advice and tested at your local GP, sexual health clinics or home-test kits. Click here to find your nearest sexual health clinic.
What to expect when visiting a sexual health clinic
Even though clinics are different in how they run, generally the appointment process is the same.
Appointment/walk in – You can either book an appointment online or via phone, which might be similar waiting times to general doctors' appointments. Walk ins work on a first-come-first-served basis, so it’s important to get there as soon as possible. Sometimes with walk ins they will slot you in for a certain time that day and tell you to come back for that time slot.
Name and details – When you arrive, they will ask for your name and some contact details. You don’t have to give your real name if you don’t want to. If you do give your real name, it will remain confidential and your GP won't be told about your visit without your permission. They will also ask you how you would like to receive your results (phone, email, text or unmarked letter).
Questions – Once you see the doctor or nurse, they will ask you some questions about your medical and sexual history. Such as;
- When you last had sex
- Whether you had unprotected sex
- Whether you have any symptoms
- Why you think you might have an infection
It’s important to answer these questions as honestly as possible, even if it feels embarrassing. These doctors and nurses have these conversations numerous times a day, so they've heard everything you’re telling them before.
Examination – Most likely they will want to have a look at the affected area to decide whether you need any tests and treatment. They will leave the room/pull a curtain to give you privacy while you take your clothes off (you only have to take off the clothes blocking the affected area e.g. pants, trousers). After an examination the doctor or nurse may explain what they believe you might have just from their observation.
STI/D tests – The doctor or nurse will tell you what tests they think you might have to take. The tests may involve;
- A urine (pee) sample (they will give you a sample pot to pee in, which you do privately in a toilet)
- A blood sample
- Swabs from the affected area (depending on the area, they will either ask you to do the swab yourself in the toilet or they will do the swab for you)
Getting your results back – If you test positive for an STI/D, you will be asked to go back to the clinic to talk about your results and the treatment you need. If the test is negative, they will most likely tell you via your contact of choice.
Most STIs are treatable with antibiotics or other medication.
You will most likely be advised by the nurse or doctor to notify any recent sexual partners so they can get tested and treated as well. Some clinics also offer a ‘partner notification’ service where they notify your previous sexual partners that they should get tested without revealing who you are.
If you have had unprotected sex with someone with HIV, the process may be a bit different to the above. If you have had unprotected sex with someone with HIV, in the UK, you will be able to access Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP).
PEP is an extremely effective course of anti-HIV medication (taken every day for 28 days). You must start the treatment as soon as possible after you’ve been exposed to HIV (ideally within the first few hours, as it is unlikely to work if it’s started after 3 days).
SO... what to do if you think you need PEP:
Questions – Similar to a regular sexual health visit, they will ask questions about your medical and sexual history, such as;
- When you last had sex
- Whether you had unprotected sex
- Whether you had oral, vaginal and/or anal sex
- Whether the other person/people definitely had HIV, and if known, what is their “viral load” (a test that shows how much HIV is in their blood)
HIV test – If the doctor believes you are at risk of HIV, they will ask you to take a HIV test before starting the PEP treatment (this is to check whether you’ve already had HIV or not). Unfortunately, if you refuse a HIV test, you will not be prescribed PEP treatment.
You will also have to do a HIV test after the treatment, to check that it’s been successful.
With modern medicine people living with HIV and Aids can now live happy and near-normal lives. Here are some helpful resources and support groups if you think you have or have been diagnosed with HIV and Aids;
- Inspiring personal stories from people living with HIV
- NHS – HIV and Aids
- NHS - Post-exposure Prophylaxis (PEP)
- NHS – Living with HIV and Aids
- Liv Life
- Terrence Higgins
- Find local HIV support services
The best way to avoid unwanted pregnancies is to use… (say it with me) contraception! In the UK you can get contraception free from your local GP and sexual health clinics – yay!
There are so many different forms of contraception out there. If you want to explore what might work best for you, visit here or read our contraceptives post.
If you are over 13, you can, confidentially, speak to your local GP (without parental consent) where they will provide you contraception advice and treatment if they believe you are a competent young person (often using something called the Fraser criteria).
If you think you might be pregnant or know someone who may be pregnant, it is important to try and book an appointment at your local GP or sexual health clinic as soon as possible. At the appointment you will be supported by a specialist who will provide all the information necessary to help you come to a decision, as to whether you want to continue with the pregnancy or have an abortion. And whatever you decide is OKAY!
For more information around this – check out our interview with the Marie Stopes.
Coercion, violence and discrimination
Being respectful is VITAL in order to have a healthy sexual relationship (and all relationships for that matter). It’s important to communicate about boundaries throughout a relationship to ensure consent is at the forefront!
But what is consent you ask? Consent is where all parties have given permission for something to happen or agreed to do something. The important thing to remember is that consent is temporary. Just because someone consented to a sexual activity last month, doesn’t mean they are consenting to it now. Here is a great video explaining how consent works.
Where to go for more support
Sexual Health coincides with your mental health, so it is completely normal to feel like your mental health is being affected by your sexual health (and vice versa).
If you feel this is the case, you can chat to someone online via text, you can register for ongoing online support via our online support portal. We also hold weekly drop-in sessions so that you can speak with a worker without an appointment.
We provide a number of face-to-face services too, all of which offer something slightly different depending on what’s best for you. Overall, though, every service provides you with someone who will listen, acknowledge your feelings, and work with you to help find resolutions. You can read about our services here.
We want to reassure you that having issues in a relationship is completely normal and should not be something to feel embarrassed about. With a lot of relationship stuff, your partner/s are good people to talk to. However, if you’re not ready for that, here are places that might help instead;
- Relate - Who support people with relationship concerns. They also have an anonymous online chat service.
- The Brook – A great charity for young people who want to confidentially discuss sexual health and relationship advice.
- The Mix – A site filled with information and resources on pretty much anything for young people.
- Rise Above – A place to find great stories and advice about relationships and consent.
- The Bish – A great guide to sex and love for everyone over 14.
By: Daisy Wakefield