What is Sexual Health?
Sexual health is comprised of many different topics, including:
- Safer Sex and Risk Reduction
- Healthy Relationships
- Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
- Men's and Women's Reproductive Health (coming soon)
Also on this page:
Safer Sex Products at the Office of Wellness Education
The Office of Wellness Education offers free safer sex products to all students, no questions asked. Visit the Wellness Office in Watson 003 to grab whatever you need from our self-serve table. Currently we have:
- Latex male condoms (an assortment of brands, shapes, sizes, colors, textures)
- Latex-free male condoms
- Latex dental dams
- Polyurethane dental dams
- Polyurethane female (also known as internal or "reality") condoms
- Slippery Stuff water-based lube
Are you satisfied with the selection of condoms and other safer sex products offered by the Office of Wellness Education? Let us know what we can do to improve this service by taking our Safer Sex Customer Satisfaction Survey.
Safer Sex and Risk Reduction
The Office of Wellness Education takes a sex-positive approach, meaning that we see all consensual sexual activities as fundamentally healthy, natural, and enjoyable parts of adult life. Of course, there are some risks associated with sex that should be taken into consideration, particularly the risk of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
There is no way to completely eliminate risk from your life, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of negative consequences. While abstinence is the only form of "safe" sex, you can still have a healthy and fulfilling sex life by practicing safer sex.
Safer sex practices include:
Using a protective barrier like a condom or dental dam to prevent STI transmission
- Sexually transmitted infections (also called sexually transmitted diseases, or STDs) are generally acquired by sexual contact. The organisms that cause sexually transmitted infections may pass from person to person in blood, semen, or vaginal and other bodily fluids. Some STIs like HPV and genital herpes may also pass through skin-to-skin contact - another reason to use a barrier method to cover more skin.
- Oral sex has a lower risk of passing STIs, while vaginal sex has a higher risk and anal sex has the highest risk. Many people don't think to use a barrier method during anal sex because there is no risk of pregnancy, but due to the nature of microabrasion that occurs in the anus during anal sex, it is especially important to use protection.
- Condoms, dental dams, and other barrier methods are available for FREE from the Office for Wellness Education. Stop by the Center for Wellness in Watson 003 to grab as many as you need.
Using contraception, whether it is condoms, birth control pills, or another method, to prevent unplanned pregnancy
- Condoms are 99.8% effective in preventing pregnancy.
- There are many different options when it comes to hormonal birth control. You can choose to take a pill, wear a patch or a vaginal ring, or get an injection, implant, or intrauterine device (IUD). Explore the options (Bedsider.org is a great site for this) and talk with a doctor about which is best for you.
- IUDs have recently been recommended for young women as a longer-term birth control method. An IUD is a small piece of copper or plastic inserted into the uterus that can prevent pregnancy for 3-12 years depending on the kind. They can be removed whenever you decide you want to get pregnant. There are hormonal and non-hormonal options available; talk to your doctor to see which is right for you.
- Birth control prescriptions are available through Atrius Student Health Services.
Getting tested for STIs and HIV every year
- 1 in 2 sexually active people will get an STI by age 25, and most won't know it. Some STIs have no noticeable symptoms, so it is important to get screened regularly just in case.
- Just like annual dental cleanings and physicals, STI screenings should be part of your regular healthcare routine. Some STIs can be screened with a simple urine test or oral swab; others with a blood test or genital swab. Talk with your doctor to find out which tests will make the most sense for your situation.
- Getting an STI is not the end of the world; it's just important to find out so that you can be treated sooner rather than later. If you do have any symptoms (bumps/blisters/sores, discharge, painful urination, itching/burning, etc.) make an appointment right away.
- STI screening and testing is available at Atrius Student Health Services.
Getting the HPV vaccine
- There are more than 40 different strains of HPV (human papillomavirus). Some straights can increase your risk of cervical, penile, anal, and throat cancers, others can cause genital warts, and others have no symptoms at all.
- The HPV vaccine is recommended for teen girls and young women through age 26, as well as teen boys and young men through age 21.
- The HPV vaccine is available at Atrius Student Health Services.
Open communication with your sexual partners about STIs and birth control
- It's important to have these conversations even if they feel uncomfortable. For tips and videos about how to start the conversation, check out It's Your Sex Life.
Practicing monogamy or abstinence
- Total abstinence is the only 100% effective safe sex method, but it's not always realistic for people. However, you can reduce your risk of STIs by limiting the number of sexual partners you have.
Sex is also associated with certain emotional and social risks, including embarrassment or awkwardness, misunderstandings, or low self-esteem. Part of practicing safer sex involves taking measures to reduce your risk of these negative consequences as well. Here are some things you can do to help make sex a more positive and fulfilling experience:
Figure out what kind of sexual relationship you want
- Does monogamy work for you? Would you prefer to have casual sex or hook ups? Friends with benefits? Knowing what you want will help you avoid being pressured into a relationship style that doesn't feel comfortable or right for you. Being honest about what kind of relationship you want is an important part of sexual communication.
- What are you looking for in a partner? What are your dealbreakers?
Figure out what you want in bed
- What are your turn ons and turn offs?
- What are your limits and boundaries?
- Masturbation is a safe and healthy way to get to know your body and figure out what you like.
- Do not feel ashamed of your sexual desires. Sex is a healthy and normal part of adult life; as long as it's consensual, it's all good.
Always ask for consent
- Always ask before touching or kissing or doing. There are plenty of sexy ways to do this, like saying "I really want to ___ right now. Can I?"
- It is always your responsibility to ask first; it is not your partner's responsibiliy to stop you, resist, or say "no."
- You must get consent for each and every sex act, even if you have done those things together before. Consent is not like season's tickets. You need to ask each and every time.
Choose partners you trust
- Choose partners that have your best interests at heart. Sometimes hooking up with strangers or people you don't know very well can be risky; they might turn out to be insensitive or make you feel badly about yourself.
- Sex can be awkward. There's nudity involved, it can be messy, and sometimes weird noises happen. It helps to choose partners that you feel comfortable with so that when the awkward stuff happens, you can both laugh it off and keep going.
Sexual Orientation is the overall term that is used to describe people’s physical and/or romantic attractions to other people.
- Heterosexual refers to someone who is attracted to people of the "opposite" gender (though this assumes there are only two genders). Heterosexual people are often referred to as "straight."
- Homosexual refers to a person attracted to people of the same gender. Most men prefer "gay" and most women prefer "lesbian." "Homosexual" is seen by some today as a medicalized term that should be retired from common use.
- Bisexual refers to a person attracted to both women and men, and/or attracted to people regardless of gender. Two common misconceptions are that bisexual people are attracted to everyone and anyone, or that they just haven’t "decided." Bisexual people are often referred to as "bi."
- Pansexual refers to someone who is attracted to people regardless of gender. This is sometimes also or alternately called "omnisexual" or "polysexual."
- Asexual refers to someone who is not sexually attracted to anyone and/or has no desire to act on their attraction to anyone.
What is gender identity?
Gender Identity refers to the internal sense that people have that they are female, male, or some variation of these. For many people biological sex (which is based chromosomes and sexual anatomy) and gender identity are the same. For others, however, they may be different. Some folks reject the idea of the male/female gender binary and do not identify as having any gender.
- Cisgender refers to individuals for whose biological sex match their gender identity.
- Transsexual has historically been used to refer to individuals whose internal feelings of being male or female differ from the sexual anatomy they were born with, and who have medically and legally changed their sex, or who wish to do so. The terms "FTM" (female-to-male) or "MTF" (male-to-female) are sometimes used.
- Transgender was coined to refer to individuals whose internal feelings of being male or female differ from the sexual anatomy they were born with who did not wish to alter their sex medically using surgery or hormones. Today, this term has evolved to become an umbrella term that is popularly used to include all people who transgress dominant conceptions of gender, or at least all people who identify themselves as doing so.
- Genderqueer / Third Gender / Gender Fluid / Two-Spirit: These identity labels are sometimes used by people who feel between and/or other than man or woman. Individuals may identify as being neither, as a little bit of both, or they may simply feel restricted by gender labels. Two spirit is a term derived from the traditions of some Native North American cultures, and can sometimes mean a mixture of masculine and feminine spirits living in the same body.
- Intersex is a general term used for a variety of genetic, hormonal, or anatomical conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn't’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. (Note: Hermaphrodite is an obsolete term that is not currently appropriate.)
- Crossdresser refers to a person who occasionally wears clothing of the "opposite" gender. Someone who considers this an integral part of their identity may identify as a crossdresser (note: the term crossdresser is preferable to transvestite and neither should ever be used to describe a transsexual person). Cross-dressing is not necessarily tied to erotic activity or sexual orientation.
- Androgyny refers to the mixing of male and female gender characteristics or the lack of gender identification. An androgyne is a person who does not fit clearly into one gender. An androgyne may identify as someone who is moving beyond gender or across genders, is between genders, is genderless, or some combination thereof.
It's important to recognize that one's gender identity is not dependent upon their sexual orientation. For example, a transgender person may be heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, etc.
Other important terms:
- Monogamous refers to the practice of dating or having a sexual relationship with one person at a time.
- Polyamorous refers to ethical non-monogamy, or the practice of having relationships with multiple people at the same time. This is different from "cheating" because polyamory involves honesty and open communication and must be consensual for everybody involved.
- Queer: a) attracted to people of many genders; b) self-identity label for people who feel they do not fit cultural sexual orientation and/or gender identity norms; c) sometimes used as an umbrella term for all people with non-heterosexual sexual orientations; d) historically, a pejorative term – its use today is met with disfavor by some and worn proudly by others.
- Coming Out means to openly stating one’s identity. Being out means being open about one’s identity. Being outed means someone else has disclosed one’s identity, usually without one’s permission.
- LGBTQ is an acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. This is currently a popular way to refer to all marginalized sexual orientations and gender identities in U.S. society, although other letters are often included as well to represent identities described above.
The Center for Wellness and Disability Services is a Safe Space.
- It's Your Sex Life
- Scarleteen.com - A comprehensive sex education website for young people
- Bedsider.org - The low-down on birth control
- CDC STD Testing - Find a testing site near you.
- American Social Health Association - Information about diseases and protection.
- Go Ask Alice - Columbia University's health Q&A site.
Books available for loan from the Office of Wellness Education:
- The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex
- What You Really, Really Want: The Smart Girl's Shame-Free Guide to Sex and Safety
- Sex Matters for College Students
- S.E.X. The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide!
- I Heart Female Orgasms
- The Guide to Getting it On