When you think of sexual wellness and health, you might have the basics down: Use condoms, get tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), be sure that your partner has been tested for STIs, etc. And while all of this is super great and important, it doesn’t cover everything we should be thinking about. Being a sexually well person means considering everything that comes along with sex, from the emotional side of things, to the erotic fullness you currently have (or don’t have).
Sex can be a highly charged experience, no matter how casual the encounter. We need to be giving it the weight and care in our lives that it deserves. Whether we like it or not, we’re vulnerable during sexual experiences. With that being said, our sexuality is an important part of our experience as humans. Science agrees with this sentiment. Studies have shown that it reduces stress, improves quality of life, and even reduces the risk of heart attacks in your later years.
Because sexual health and sexual satisfaction are cornerstones of many people’s happiness, it’s important that we take them seriously.
Considering the vast implications of healthy sexuality for your overall life, here is a complete Bill of Sexual Health to help you through your sexual journey. Take some time to go through and take stock of your entire sexual landscape to ensure that you’re in tip-top shape.
You’ve got you there. We’re here for you.
1. Get tested for STIs regularly.
We’d be remiss not to start with the most important part of sexual health: getting tested. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting tested for STIs at least once per year. If you’re having regular sex with multiple partners, it’s beneficial to get tested much more often—preferably every eight to 12 weeks.
With the coronavirus keeping everyone indoors, you’re probably not hooking up with random people and, therefore, don’t need to get tested as regularly. If you’re self-isolating right now, you can opt for a mail-in, at-home test from companies like LetsGetChecked and myLAB Box. These are super easy to use, and very convenient.
Regular HIV testing is especially important. The CDC has set up guidance for getting screened for HIV with as little human contact as possible in order to keep you as safe as possible from COVID-19. Luckily, self-tests are available for HIV, and most doctors will allow you to have a pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) prescription with a negative HIV test.
When it comes to sexual health, you have to take testing seriously.
2. Use condoms (and be careful with them).
As a clinical practitioner, it is my job to encourage condom use during all forms of sexual activity. They are our most effective way of protecting against STI infection and spread. While I understand not everyone in the community uses condoms, I’d be remiss as an educator not to encourage their use.
While condoms aren’t 100% effective, they are our best defense against STIs. Condoms reduce HIV transmission up to 85% when used correctly. Be sure you always have condoms and a good water-based lube on hand for every sexual encounter.
This same guidance includes condom use during oral sex. While contracting an STI is less likely with oral sex than it is with penetrative sex, it’s still important to practice risk reduction. You absolutely can get an STI from having oral sex, which means a barrier method (whether a male or female condom) is needed to adequately protect you.
If you want a tutorial or a refresher on proper condom use, check out the video below.
If you choose not to use condoms, it’s important that both partners be tested for STIs, use barrier methods with other sexual partners, or choose to remain monogamous. If you think you might have an STI, contact your primary care physician as soon as possible. Keep in mind that many STIs are asymptomatic—which is why regular STI screening is at the very tippy top of this list.
Certified sex educator Elle Chase tells TheBody that you also need to consider the size of the condoms you’re buying. “Condom failures can occur because the penis owner is wearing the wrong size. Knowing what size condom is best for your penis can not only make sex more enjoyable, but can help the condom do its job.”
Most people will be perfectly fine with a regular-sized condom, but if your penis is over 6.5 inches long and more than 2 inches in width, you may need to buy a large.
3. Use the right products for cleansing.
When you’re shopping for body washes and soaps, taking your sexual health into account is very important. Highly scented soaps can be irritating to the delicate skin of your genitals.
Choosing gentle products is especially important for people who have vulvas. If you own a vulva, never ever use soap. “Soap disrupts the pH in that delicate biome and kills the good bacteria in your vulva, giving the bad bacteria a chance to move in and grow,” Chase says. “This can cause yeast infections and bacterial vaginosis (BV) or vaginitis. In the same vein, your vagina cleans itself (like a self-cleaning oven!) and also has a sensitive ecosystem of good bacteria.” When this ecosystem is disturbed, it can wreak havoc on your vaginal biome. All you need is some warm water to have a happy vulva and vagina.
No matter what kind of genitals you own, make sure that any cleanser you’re buying is gentle and unscented. When in doubt, a classic Dove Beauty Bar is a solid choice.
4. Check in with your emotions.
Sex comes with a host of emotions, regardless of the nature of the encounter. Whether you’re in a long-term relationship(s) or having some casual fun, checking in with your emotions is a big part of staying sexually well.
Lucy Rowett, a clinical sexologist and certified sex coach, tells TheBody to really look inward and consider how the sex you’re having is making you feel. In a world that doesn’t value feelings, we need to rise above and realize that we do have them, whether we like it or not. “Ask yourself if the sex you’re having is what you want to be having, or if you want something else. Do an inventory of everything you want and need to be sexually and erotically satisfied, and if you don't know yet, start with what brings you to orgasm,” she says.
Having a large (or small) amount of sex isn’t what’s valuable. What’s valuable is having the sex that you want to be having in ways that make you feel whole and happy. Whatever that looks like for you, it’s valid.
5. Check in with your erotic self.
This might sound cheesy, but it’s actually really significant to your sexual wellness. The erotic self is the part of you that enjoys good sexual experiences on an almost cellular level. Your “erotic cup” is the vast potential you have for pleasure, novelty, and overall sexual excitement. It’s about exploring your sexuality to its fullest in a way that brings you joy.
“The fastest way to lose your libido and feel resentful is when sex is only about pleasing your partner, so focus on yourself again,” Rowett tells us. She suggests asking yourself the following questions: What turns you on? What do you like? Are you looking at erotica? Are you exploring erotic self-expression? How can you fill up your erotic cup so that it’s brimming over?
If you’re looking for some ideas for self-lust, don’t shy away from erotic materials. Porn is not sex education, but it can provide some valuable insight into what you might want to explore sexually.
6. Determine your sexual values.
If you’re uncomfortable or feeling drained from your sexual choices, it might be time to consider what your sexual values really are. A complete sexual wellness checklist means that your physical, emotional, and erotic needs are being met. While we’re living the Age of Hookup Culture, this dating dogma may or may not align with your personal values. It’s completely OK to find you’re not fitting into a certain box of how you think your sex life “should” be.
We need to make room for the nuance around sexuality. Almost everyone is in some sort of gray area. What makes sex good for someone isn’t black and white. “Be bold, get clear on your values, and ask yourself how you can act in accordance with them,” Rowett says. “Ask for what you want from a partner—both emotionally and sexually—and if they cannot meet that, reconsider if they are the best person for you.”