Sex is an important part of our overall health and wellbeing. A happy, healthy sex life can be fun and exciting, intimate and loving, pleasurable and fulfilling. Most importantly, sex should be enjoyable and safe for everyone involved.
Sex means different things to different people, and there are lots of different ways to explore your sexuality. Your likes and dislikes are as important in sex as they are anywhere else. You should never feel awkward or pressured when it comes to sex. You can say no whenever you want.
The most important part of any relationship is good communication. Talking about your feelings, your interests and your desires is the best way to have a healthy, positive sex life.
Condoms protect against both pregnancy and STIs when used correctly. They form a barrier between you and your partner, and should ideally be used during all types of sexual intercourse. You can also get female condoms, but they are not as widely available.
The contraceptive implant is a small, flexible rod (like a tiny tube) that’s inserted underneath the skin on your upper arm. It releases progestogen to stop you getting pregnant, and can be left in place for up to 3 years before replacing.
A regular injection of progestogen stops sperm reaching an egg, and is an effective form of contraception. There are three different types of injections, which last for 8, 12 or 13 weeks.
Intrauterine device (IUD)
An IUD – sometimes called a coil – is a small, T-shaped device made of plastic and copper, inserted into your womb via your vagina. It stays in place for 5 or 10 years, depending on the type, as a long-term (but reversible) contraceptive, but can be removed sooner.
Intrauterine system (IUS)
Similar to an IUD, an IUS is a plastic device inserted into your uterus that releases progestogen at regular intervals. Depending on the type, it lasts 3 or 5 years. An IUS can also help reduce heavy, painful periods.
Commonly known as ‘the pill’, it contains progestogen and oestrogen to stop your ovaries releasing an egg. You’ll need to remember to take it every day. An alternative option for some women who smoke, are over 35 or are breastfeeding is the progestogen-only POP pill.
Just like a nicotine patch, you apply this directly to your skin, where it releases hormones to control your fertility. Each patch lasts for seven days, and you change it every week for three weeks, with one week off a month.
A vaginal ring is a small plastic circle that’s inserted into your vagina, where it releases both oestrogen and progestogen to prevent ovulation and conception. It stays in place for three weeks, and is then replaced with a new one.
Diaphragms and caps work the same way by covering the cervix to stop any sperm reaching an egg. You’ll be given the correct size for you, which is then inserted into your vagina before sex. They need to be used with spermicide.
Both male and female sterilisation are permanent methods of contraception. An operation will cut, seal or block the fallopian tubes in women or the tubes carrying sperm in men. It’s not a method for anyone planning on having children in the future.
Emergency Contraceptive pill
The emergency contraceptive pill needs to be taken as soon as possible after unprotected sex. The most common brands of pill (containing levonorgestrel) need to be taken within 72 hours (3 days) of unprotected sex. These pills are available, for free, from lots of pharmacies and from sexual and reproductive health clinics.
Emergency Intrauterine device
The intrauterine device can be used as emergency contraception. It needs to be fitted within 120 hours (5 days) of unprotected sex. You can get an emergency IUD, for free, from sexual and reproductive health clinics.
If you are looking to start a family and are having trouble getting pregnant, it helps to understand the full menstrual cycle, the stages of ovulation and how the reproductive organs work in men and women. There are lots of different things you can try to help improve your fertility and the chances of conceiving.
But if you have been trying to get pregnant for over a year there may be some underlying issues with your fertility or the fertility of your partner. There could be any number of reasons why you’re finding it hard to conceive, but there are several treatments available. Fertility clinics can help you with medicines, IVF, and other options.
If you think you could be pregnant, you’ll need to take a pregnancy test. To make sure it’s accurate, the earliest you can do one is the first day of a missed period (or 21 days after unprotected sex if you don’t have regular periods). You can buy a self-test device from lots of shops and pharmacies. You can get a free test and advice from your GP or from a Sexual and Reproductive Health clinic.
A pregnancy is indicated by a positive result. It’s completely normal to go through a whole range of emotions if this is the case, including happiness, worry, fear and excitement. There’s lots to think about - friends, family and healthcare professionals can help you discuss your options and point you in the right direction.
During sexual arousal, a man’s penis grows and becomes erect as it fills with blood. If their penis is stimulated – through sexual activity like masturbation or penetration – they can reach an intense feeling of sexual pleasure known as an orgasm. Male orgasms happen when contractions in their pelvic floor push semen – a mix of sperm and fluid - into their urethra and out through the top of their penis (ejaculation or ‘cumming’).
Once contractions start, men cannot stop ejaculation. After an orgasm, men go through a recovery phase before they can have another orgasm, which can last from a few minutes to a few hours (sometimes longer as men get older).
Both men and women can experience difficulties having an orgasm.
Women have orgasms like men, where their hearts beat faster, their blood pressure increases, and their breathing gets heavier. As they become sexually aroused, their genitals dilate with blood and muscles contract to release sexual tension with an intense pleasurable feeling.
Unlike men, most women do not need a recovery period, and may be able to have more than one orgasm if stimulation continues. Equally, lots of women have and enjoy sex without an orgasm. In order to climax, the majority of women require foreplay and stimulation of their clitoris and other erogenous zones (either by themselves or with a partner). Only some women can achieve an orgasm with penetration alone.
All women and men can struggle at times to reach an orgasm during sex or masturbation.
A lot of men worry about the size of their penis, when in reality, research suggests they often underestimate their own size and have unrealistic expectations. Although the length of a flaccid penis can vary depending on many different factors, erect penises are much closer in size to each other. Smaller penises will grow more when erect than larger penises.
The truth about penises is that every man is different, and penis size isn’t linked to shoe size, manliness, sexual ability or female satisfaction. They do need to be kept clean and looked after. They’re not actually a muscle, but rather a sponge that fills with blood and causes an erection. And although there is no bone in it, a penis could break if it’s violently twisted or bent when erect.
The vagina has many purposes: to help us enjoy sex, for periods and for childbirth. Every vagina is different – completely individual in fact - and there is no ‘normal’. Some are bigger, some are smaller. Some are lighter in colour, others are darker. Some are oval shaped, some are more cylindrical.
The external organs are known as the vulva, and include the opening to the vagina, the clitoris, and the labia (the inner and outer lips). Some women worry about the size or look of their labia, but again, they vary from woman to woman. Vaginal discharge is completely normal too, and can vary throughout the menstrual cycle. But an unusual colour, smell or itchiness could be a sign of an infection.