University life is exciting, busy, and sometimes confusing. Maybe you’re living away from home for the first time, you met someone super cute at open mic, and now you have no idea how to move forward. Or maybe you’re old hat at the whole independent student life thing, but your sexual health education was limited and you don’t feel confident in your ability to communicate with partners. Wherever our knowledge and experience levels fall, no one has all the answers. When it comes to sex, many of us have received inadequate education and have been left to figure things out on our own in a world full of contradictions, shame, and anxieties. It’s a lot to sift through. Luckily, your pals at Valley Vixen have been through it all, and are here to share a few tips that might help you on your path.
Know Your Own Desires
Before we can talk about all the amazing and sexy experiences we are en route for as fully fledged Independent People, we need to figure out what we want those experiences to look like. Where is your experience level right now? What activities do you have confidence in doing, and what do you feel excitement about trying? Are there things you don’t feel ready for, or would never want to do? Taking time to reflect on our needs, wants, and boundaries is an essential first step towards cultivating a healthy sexual relationship both with others and with ourselves. It’s also something we should try to do regularly, as these feelings will evolve and grow as we do. Check in with yourself just like you would with a partner or friend.
Understanding what we want is a really important part of cultivating healthy sexual relationships. It can make the difference between a good time and a terrible one, and it can help us be more confident in ourselves as sexual beings. If you have some sexual experience already, you may have a good idea of what you like and where your boundaries lie. This experience doesn’t need to be with a partner, either. If you’ve ever masturbated, you’ve had a sexual experience. Masturbating is a great way to learn about our own bodies and how they operate, especially because it can be done completely on our own terms and at our own pace. Watching or reading porn can be really helpful, too. There’s a lot of really terrible porn out there, but there’s good stuff too, and if you’re curious about something you’re not sure you want to jump right into, watching it in porn can help you decide. Using sex toys during masturbation can also help us learn about our preferences and what feels good (or doesn’t). Be open and gentle with yourself as you embark on this journey of sexual self-discovery!
When we engage in sexual activities with others, working from an understanding of our own desires and boundaries will help us be able to say yes and no with confidence. If we’re faced with a new or unexpected situation, it’s much easier to give or deny consent when we have a framework of self knowledge to work from. Saying yes and giving consent is a cornerstone of sexual interaction, and it should be a mindful and enthusiastic choice. Know that giving consent is essential, and a partner who doesn’t take the time to get consent before trying to rush in is dangerous. Consent is an active process, and consenting to one thing doesn’t imply consent to the next, nor does it mean you or your partner give consent to that thing indefinitely. You’re allowed to change your mind and your preferences.
Saying no and retracting or denying consent is equally important, and this is a skill we must practice to perfect. How do you feel about saying no to doing a favour for a friend, or working an extra shift for a coworker? If you’re worried about your ability to give a firm “no” in the heat of the moment, think about why. Is your partner going to pressure or guilt you? (if yes, they are not respecting you and you should not engage in sexual activities with them). Do you feel a need to perform in certain ways to be sexy or please your partner, even though they’re outside your boundaries? (if yes, you might want to step back from sex for some self-reflection and -care, as well as reflection on your relationship). There are many reasons saying no might feel difficult. Remember that the absence of a “no” does not indicate consent. Consent is a freely and enthusiastically given “yes,” and no one is ever justified in trying to push past your “no” in whatever form it takes. Be honest with yourself, and know you have the agency and the right to direct your sexual health and relationships in the ways you want them to go.
Choose Your Safe Sex Style
Two fears often associated with sex are unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. It’s important to be mindful of the risks associated with both, and the ways in which we can protect and prepare ourselves to handle them.
When thinking about contraception, our first question should be whether pregnancy is possible. If you and your partner both have a vagina, or both have a penis, this is probably not a huge worry for you. If you and your partner are engaging exclusively in non-penetrative sex, chances are pregnancy is not on the table (though if this sex happened without barriers and there was penis ejaculation near a vagina, this is less certain). If you are certain you are not fertile and this has been confirmed by a health professional (for example, you have complications from endometriosis or PCOS and have been given an official diagnosis of infertility by your doctor), pregnancy isn’t a big concern. If none of these factors apply to you, it’s important to have at least one method of contraception in effect before you have sex.
There are a wide variety of contraceptive methods available, but choosing the right one is a personal decision. If you’re worried about pregnancy, it’s best to have one method at play that you are personally responsible for; this could mean bringing your own condoms, wearing a diaphragm, or taking a contraceptive pill. Here’s a quick list of contraceptives that might work for you:
- Condoms (internal or external)
- Cervical barriers
- Oral contraceptives
- Depo-Provera shot
- Contraceptive patch
- Contraceptive implant
Talk to your doctor about finding the right form of contraception. Many of these methods are for people with vaginas, but that doesn’t mean the full responsibility for preventing pregnancy should be on that partner. Condoms have no physical side effects (like the pill or the shot), are plentiful on campuses, and have the bonus of protecting against STIs. Using multiple compatible methods of contraception can help both partners feel confident in the reliability of their pregnancy prevention.
Preventing STIs is a whole different ballgame. Sexually transmitted infections can pass between partners of any genders, ages, and after any sexual act or number of interactions. Regular STI testing is essential! Tests are quick and easy, and results usually come back quickly and can be given over the phone. A test is the only way of knowing whether or not you have an STI. Getting tested is important for maintaining autonomy over our own health, and asking new partners about their STI status is good practice. It might feel awkward to bring up with a new partner, but if you’re worried about putting them on the spot you can open the conversation with your own status. Try a line like “I recently got my test results back and I don’t have any STIs! What about you?” or “I get tested regularly and my most recent results said I have no STIs. Have you been tested lately?”. This creates a space where disclosing is welcome and safe. If you can, ask in a neutral and nonsexual setting, but if you don’t get a chance before things get steamy, don’t worry about upsetting the mood. It only takes a minute, and it’s an important part of consent.
If you do have an STI, it’s your responsibility to let your partner know before you start sexual activities. Again, telling them in a safe and nonsexual setting is best, but if you don’t get a chance outside of the bedroom make sure to let them know before sexual contact begins. It’s always possible your partner might react poorly because of fear or lack of knowledge, but disclosure can help to establish trust and correct stereotypes about STIs. If your partner does say something negative, it’s okay and valid to feel hurt, sad, angry, or any other way. There’s a lot of misinformation about STIs, but the truth is that most are not chronic, and 1 in 2 sexually active people will contract an STI before the age of 25.
Barrier methods are the most reliable way to prevent STIs during sex. When used correctly, insertable and external condoms, dental dams, and nitrile or latex gloves are each effective in the prevention of transmission. Only one condom should be used at a time, and condoms should never be used more than once. The same goes for gloves and dental dams – once they’ve done their job, make sure they’re disposed of. Adding in some lube can both enhance sensation and decrease the possibility of breaks and tears in barriers. Avoid oil based lubricants with latex barriers, as oil will cause the latex to break down.
Keep a safe sex kit handy! It’s easy and inexpensive to be prepared, and it can be a huge help to you (and your friends too!). Our safe-sex kit includes:
- Condoms (make sure to check the expiry date, and consider bringing some that are latex-free)
- Dental dams (you can make a dam out of a condom by cutting it lengthwise)
- Latex or nitrile gloves
- Single packs of lubricant (easier to carry! small bottles work too)
Some other kit materials could include cleansing wipes, small sex toys (like pocket vibes and c-rings), mints or gum, menstrual products, a travel sized toothbrush, hair elastics, and emergency contraceptives. We keep our kit in a small zippered pouch, which can fit easily into a bag or coat pocket. A ziplock bag or an inside bag pocket can make great stash spots too. Cash for a cab ride and a fully charged cellphone are also important equipment. Always be sure to inform a friend, roommate, or RA of your location and plans. Keep in contact with your friends on a night out, and let them know if you plan to head anywhere alone.
This is just a brief overview of some ways to have safer, healthier sex while at university. There’s always more to say, and what works for some might not work for others. Trust your gut, know your boundaries, and practice respect. Sex is fun, weird, messy, and complicated, and we’re all always learning and growing. Check out Scarleteen and Girl Sex 101 for more online sexual health info, and read on for a list of local sexual health resources. If you have questions or comments, feel free to contact us! You can reach us via email at email@example.com, or drop by the shop any time to have a chat in person!