Sexual health is an important part of your physical and mental health, as well as your emotional and social well-being. It’s important to take care of your sexual health. If you have children, it is good to talk to them about sex and relationships.
Safer sex and health
Both men and women need to look after their sexual health and understand issues surrounding sexual relationships and consent, sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy and contraception.
Protecting your sexual health
If you choose to be sexually active, there are steps you can take to help protect your sexual health.
- talking to your partner about your relationship
- using contraception, including condoms and dental dams
- getting tested for sexually transmitted infections
- limiting your number of sexual partners
- avoiding overlapping sexual relationships
- being aware of how alcohol and drugs can lower inhibitions and affect your decision making
Young people and sexual health
Although there is a legal age of consent, it’s not necessarily the right age for everyone to begin having sex. It’s important that you and your partner are both comfortable and sure you want to begin having a sexual relationship.
Around one quarter of the population of Northern Ireland is made up of people aged 16-34. However, this age group accounts for 82 per cent of STIs. It's important before you start having sex that you make sure you are aware of the risks and how to avoid them.
If you’re a parent, it is important that you are able to talk to your children about sex and relationships.
Alcohol and sex
Alcohol and drugs can affect your sexual health and wellbeing. Too much alcohol or drug use can mean you might take more risks. This includes having sex when you normally wouldn’t or, when you do, not using a condom.
Results from a survey of people living in Northern Ireland show that 31 per cent of people agreed that alcohol has contributed to them having sex without using a condom.
Men who have sex with men
Men who have sex with men (MSM) experience increased rates of certain STIs, including HIV, syphilis, gonorrhoea and hepatitis.
HIV diagnoses among MSM in Northern Ireland have stayed at increased levels. Gonorrhoea cases in MSM are almost six times higher in 2017 compared with 2010.
If you are a man having sex with men, there are ways you can protect your sexual health, including;
- always use a condom for oral and anal sex
- get tested regularly – at least once a year, or every three months if you change sexual partners
- get the hepatitis A and B vaccinations
- be aware of post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV
- find out if you are able to access the new pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) currently being trialled in Northern Ireland
- getting human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccination if you are aged under 45 years and go to a GUM or HIV clinic
MSM also have an increased risk of hepatitis A. Hepatitis A is spread mainly through contaminated food or poor hand-washing, but can also be passed on easily through sex. During sex, it is mainly passed on:
- when licking skin, condoms or sex toys that have small amounts of faeces on them
- during oral-anal sex
- when giving oral sex after anal sex
There are many methods of contraception to prevent pregnancy. Different methods will suit different people.
Condoms are the only form of contraception that can protect against both pregnancy and STIs. If you are sexually active, using condoms correctly is an important part of taking care of your sexual health.
You should always use a condom with new and casual partners.
When using condoms, always:
- use a new condom
- make sure it has not reached its use by date
- make sure they have the European CE standard mark, which means they meet high safety standards
- use plenty of lubrication for anal sex
Other forms of contraception
There are a number of other forms of contraception for you to consider, depending on your needs. These include:
- the contraceptive pill
- intrauterine device (IUD)
- intrauterine system (IUS)
- contraceptive injections
More information on different types of contraception is available from the Family Planning Association.
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) can be passed on when you have unprotected sex or other close sexual contact with another person. More information on STIs can be found at the following links:
It is important you get tested if you think you are at risk of getting a sexually transmitted infection (STI). If you have had unprotected sex, or the condom split or came off, you can use emergency contraception.
If you are sexually active and if you are unsure about your partner’s sexual history, you risk getting an STI. People of any age can get a sexually transmitted infection.
You should get a sexual health check-up if:
- you think you might have an STI
- you have had sex without using a condom, including vaginal, oral and anal sex
- a condom split or came off during sex
- you are at the beginning of a new sexual relationship
- you or your partner have more than one sexual partner
- you shared injecting equipment
How often you need a check-up depends on your lifestyle and your sexual activity.
If you believe you may be at risk of getting an STI, it is important to know that:
- getting tested is free, straightforward and confidential
- you can get tested at your nearest GUM clinic and some GP surgeries
Find out what's available in your Health and Social Care (HSC) Trust area:
- Belfast HSC Trust - sexual health and HIV services
- Northern HSC Trust - sexual health service (GUM)
- South Eastern HSC Trust - sexual health service
- Southern HSC Trust - sexual health
- Western HSC Trust - sexual health services