Natural processes are messy, and often require a set of guidelines for people to follow in order for them to be both safe and enjoyable for everyone involved. Being informed can make the difference between a wonderful experience and a terrible experience.
We have had many different ideas about the rights and wrongs of intimacy throughout history. We still do. This makes it very difficult to reach a consensus about a topic so integral to the human experience. Sometimes you might have to act differently to those around you to keep yourself safe.
There are many wonderful aspects of sex. It is pleasurable, it brings people closer together, it has numerous health benefits, and (last, but certainly not least) it has the potential to create new life! Positive sexual experiences are the source of so many good feelings.
However, there is balance in all things, including sex. Negative sexual experiences can have lifelong consequences, especially when involving sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), unplanned pregnancy, or rape. Any one of these can be traumatic. Some people face all three.
As if this wasn’t enough, prejudices against sex-related subjects tend to inhibit the maintenance of support systems for sufferers, and undercut public education that might have prevented their suffering in the first place.
There are many different ways we might put ourselves at risk when it comes to sex, and the reasons behind them are far from simple.
The lack of information about sex is a widespread, persistant problem. Even well-developed and scientifically advanced communities can be surprisingly squeamish when it comes to sex. Many adults withhold information about sex from the youth in an effort to protect them, but this effort is all too often paired with an unrealistic and infantilising view of their sexuality.
The opinion ‘if a person is too young for sex, they are too young to learn about sex’ is well-intentioned, however it ignores the fact that adults cannot control when and how the young people in their lives become sexually active, and it ignores the responsibility to teach them how to avoid making bad decisions in a sexual context in advance of the situations they may face.
If a teenager isn’t familiar with basic human anatomy, they might get pregnant (or get someone else pregnant) by mistake. Such a mistake cannot be reversed, only managed. Similarly, if they do not know what a healthy relationship is supposed to look like, they are at higher risk of suffering abuse, and if they do not know what the symptoms of the most common STDs are (or the fact that many STDs can be asymptomatic), they are more likely to become infected.
With a lack of information comes misinformation. False facts about sex are very common, especially in situations where the real facts aren’t freely accessible. Even a responsible person can end up in a bad situation if their efforts to keep themselves and others safe are based on falsehoods:
A proper sex education is absolutely vital for everyone, and we cannot let our fears get in the way of establishing public access to the knowledge necessary for making informed decisions about our sex lives.
The necessity of knowing the facts becomes even more apparent when you run up against the power of denial. People have a tendency to doubt, distort, and even outright ignore information that doesn’t fit their worldview, often without realising they are doing it. Our complicated relationship with sex brings additional difficulties to an already emotionally-charged experience.
Insufficient communication between partners carries great risk. If the only thing you know about sex is that you’re ‘not supposed to be having it’ (which, by the way, is not an effective deterrent), talking about it feels wrong. Even though sexual intimacy requires a level of trust, an aura of secrecy and sinfulness discourages us from speaking openly about sex, including voicing any concerns about health and safety, as well as any doubts we may have about engaging in sex.
This is especially true for those of us with low self-esteem. Surveys show that it is not uncommon for a person to avoid discussing fundamental topics (such as the need for protection) because they fear an unpleasant conversation could endanger their relationship. Have you ever put your desire to keep someone in your life over your own safety? Over their safety?
One of the reasons this happens is that the dangers we should be avoiding don’t seem real. Society tends to treat negative sexual experiences as embarrassing secrets that should be hidden away and forgotten. This is dangerous not only because it discourages victims from speaking out when they need help, but also because it creates an unrealistic view of the prevalence of bad experiences.
An older, more experienced person with sinister intentions may well take advantage of fear in a younger partner who doesn’t know any better. No one has the right to force you into sexual acts against your will. If you don’t feel safe talking about safe sex and mutual consent with your partner, you may want to reevaluate the health of your relationship.
It can be difficult to make objective decisions when we are influenced by our feelings for another person. Respect for authority can undermine our ability to question subjects we would usually question. And love, as we know, is blind.
A person who has grown up in a sex-negative environment may have strong negative emotional associations with sex-related subjects. It can be nearly impossible for them to rid themselves of prejudices and fears instilled in childhood, even if the rules that applied to them then no longer apply now.
It is our capability to be open, honest, and trusting with ourselves and one another, and our willingness to tackle difficult subjects in good faith that are the hallmarks of a healthy relationship. Good intentions aren’t always reasonable. In the heat of the moment, it may not seem unreasonable to let some safety precautions slide on the basis of demonstrating trust.
You may assume your partner would inform you of any diseases they might have before intercourse. However, they may choose not to speak up because of shame or embarrassment, or perhaps because they prioritize sex over your safety and wellbeing. If they have treated previous sexual partners the same way, there is a greater risk of infection.
There are myriad ways for things to go wrong during a sexual encounter.
Having unprotected sexual intercourse is a common way of transmitting STDs. Although there are several forms of both hormonal and non-hormonal birth control to choose from, only barrier birth control (condoms) is proven to be effective against sexually transmitted diseases. This applies to vaginal, anal, and oral sex.
A surprising number of people don’t know basic facts about STDs. Even those that understand STDs can be asymptomatic may unreasonably believe that they are not at risk—not because of factual evidence, but because it’s easier to believe that terrible things happen to other people.
Unprotected sex also means risking pregnancy. If the night has passed without protection, you need to think about the morning after pill and post-exposure treatment.
The morning-after pill is a type of emergency birth control that is used to prevent pregnancy for women who’ve had unprotected sex or whose birth control method has failed. For maximum effectiveness, emergency contraception should be taken as soon as possible after unprotected intercourse, and within a certain number of hours (this will be specified on the packaging).
You can take emergency contraceptive pills anytime during your menstrual cycle, but keep in mind—the morning-after pill does not end a pregnancy that has already implanted. It works primarily by delaying or preventing ovulation. It can be tempting to ignore the risk as long as possible in such a nerve-wracking situation, but if you do you are only increasing your chance of pregnancy.
Post-exposure prophylaxis, or PEP is a short course of HIV medicines that must be taken very soon after a possible exposure to HIV to prevent the virus from taking hold in your body. You must start within 72 hours after exposure to HIV or it won’t be effective. If started in time, PEP can reduce the risk of HIV infection by over 80%, but to achieve this effect, a 28-day course of antiretroviral drugs is also necessary.
Inebriants can be a source of pleasure, and are often synonymous with sharing and conviviality. The term ‘social lubricant’ (for alcohol in particular) refers to the sense of camaraderie people feel when they are inebriated together. Unfortunately, some individuals abuse these emotions to take advantage of others.
Date rape drugs are any drugs that are used to facilitate sexual assault, making it easier for the perpetrator to overpower their victim, and harder for the victim to understand what is happening, sometimes inhibiting their ability to remember the event.
The more inebriated a person is, the more affected they are by disturbances of vision, hearing, risk assessment, and coordination. Reaction time and concentration are usually impaired. Some people stay fairly aware of their surroundings and actions, while others retain very little control.
If you are trying something new, do your research beforehand! And keep in mind the factors that influence the way a substance affects you—your age, stature, medical history, and genetics, to name a few.
The less control you have over your body, the more vulnerable you are. You can partially combat this by planning ahead. Here are a few key rules that might save you from being taken advantage of on a night out:
We shouldn’t have to think about defending ourselves on a night out, but the reality is that it’s better to be safe than sorry.
Whoever you are, whatever your background: you can never go wrong by staying informed, fighting for good, and treating yourself and others with respect.
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