Healthy sex

When people talk about healthy sex they often assume that this just means sex that is not bad for their physical health (not putting them at risk of sexually transmitted infections or accidents). However, healthy sex is a lot broader than that. A group of experts on sex recently agreed that the following were key features of healthy sexual development[45]:

  • Freedom from unwanted activity.
  • An understanding of consent, and ethical conduct more generally.
  • Education about biological aspects of sexual practice.
  • An understanding of safety.
  • Relationship skills.
  • Lifelong learning.
  • Open communication.
  • Sexual development should not be ‘aggressive, coercive or joyless’.
  • Agency (people should learn that they are in control of their own sexuality, and in control of who can take sexual pleasure from their bodies).
  • Self-acceptance (of sexuality and of bodies).
  • Resilience (to learn and go forward from bad sexual experiences).
  • Awareness and acceptance that sex can be pleasurable.
  • Values (people need to know their parents’ and wider societal values in order to place their own decisions in a wider social context).
  • Awareness of public/private boundaries.
  • Mediation (people need to understand how media represent sexuality, and the relationship of that to their own experiences)

The idea of ‘safer sex'[46] rather than ‘safe sex’ is useful because it recognizes that sex (like most human activities) is never completely risk free. Concerns often focus around risk-taking in sex, failing perhaps to recognize that some degree of risk is necessary when people are exploring what they enjoy sexually.

People can keep physically safer by understanding how to protect themselves from infections (condoms and dental dams for any penetrative or oral sex, not going from anal to oral/vaginal sex without washing), and  from injury during other forms of stimulation (being careful to avoid hitting people on their kidneys or any form of suffocation, not penetrating people with anything fragile or without the means to remove it again, and carefully checking the temperature of anything we are going to put against someone’s skin, such as candle wax).

Emotionally safer sex involves all involved being clear from the start about what it means to those involved (e.g. does having sex mean other changes in the nature of their relationship from now on, if pregnancy is a possibility how would they respond to this). It also means ensuring that everyone involved is consenting and communicating about what each person likes and doesn’t like before engaging in sex, and that there is awareness of any pressures that may be present[47]. This may also involve checking during sex that it is still what everyone wants, and spending some time afterwards appreciating what has happened and checking that people are feeling alright.

Communicating about sex

45. McKee, A., Albury, K., Dunne, M., Grieshaber, S., Hartley, J., Lumby, C. & Mathews, B. (2010). Healthy Sexual Development: A Multidisciplinary Framework for Research. International Journal of Sexual Health, 22 (1), 14-19.
46. http://www.scarleteen.com/article/sexuality/safe_sound_sexy_a_safer_sex_how_to
47. See Barker, M. (2013). Consent is a Grey Area? A Comparison of Understandings of Consent in 50 Shades of Grey and on the BDSM Blogosphere. Sexualities, 16(8), 896-914.

Communicating about sex

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