Reading Time: 5 minutes Is your partner’s behavior normal or a big red flag that they might be controlling or abusive? Take our quiz to see if you’re in a healthy relationship.
Category: Sexual health
Reading Time: 9 minutes Students share what they like (and don’t) about these common contraceptives.
Reading Time: 8 minutes Our “sexpert” answers your questions on how to talk to your partner about sexual history, STI/STD status, and having safer (and enjoyable) sex.
Reading Time: 8 minutes Implants and IUDs are two methods of long-acting reversible contraception (LARC) that are increasingly popular among college students. Find out if this type of birth control is the right choice for you.
Reading Time: 8 minutes Experts answers students’ questions about STIs.
Reading Time: 2 minutes A health educator offers advice on what to do if you’re feeling pressure to be sexually active.
Reading Time: 9 minutes Learn about the usage, cost, and effectiveness of different types of birth control.
Reading Time: 12 minutes Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are increasingly common among young people. Here are seven simple ways you can lower your STI risk.
—Malik W., San Bernardino Valley College, California
This is a very important question to bring up. The stigmas surrounding getting tested for a sexually transmitted infection (STI)—also called sexually transmitted diseases (STD)—can be difficult to confront, yet it can be done. Here’s how.
Talk about why it's important.
Shift focus from “You might have an STI” to “It’s just a precaution.” For example, explain to your partner that this is the best way to protect each other from infections or any lifelong illnesses. That might help them realize there’s nothing to be defensive about.
Offer to get tested with them.
And then share your results with each other. This lets your partner know that you want to protect each other.
Make a pact to get tested regularly.
This shows your partner that this is a step in taking care of each other. It can also show respect and that you don’t want to unknowingly infect each other.
Halt any sexual activity until you’ve both been tested.
Let them know you’re not comfortable having sex or hooking up unless they’re willing to get tested. It’s important not to compromise your values of how you take care of yourself on someone who’s unwilling to take care of themselves or consider the effects on you.
It’s not uncommon for people to get defensive when asked to get a test like this. STIs have a lot of stigma associated with them. Because of that, some people think that being asked to get tested means they’re perceived as “dirty” or that they’re “sleeping around.”
But STI testing is highly recommended for college-aged students who are sexually active. According to the CDC, people between the ages of 15 and 24 account for half of all the 19 million new STIs that are transmitted each year. While some STIs have symptoms, most do not. Many people don’t know that they’re infected until they get tested. This is why testing is so important.
For more information, check out the following:
—Cris M.*, Georgia Gwinnett College
I get a lot of questions about the pullout method, also known as coitus interruptus or the withdrawal method. It’s the third most commonly used form of birth control among college students, according to the National College Health Assessment survey (fall 2015, involving 90,000 students).
The short answer: Yes, pulling out can prevent pregnancies on its own, when used correctly. But it isn’t the most effective form of birth control. If you’re using this method, it’s best to use it in conjunction with another form of contraception to decrease the likelihood of unintended pregnancy.
Here’s what you need to know:
The effectiveness of the pullout is dependent on using the method correctly
When not used correctly, 27 women out of 100 who rely on pulling out will become pregnant each year, according to Planned Parenthood. However, when withdrawal is done perfectly, those unplanned pregnancies are reduced to about 4 out of 100 women each year. In other words, if you are not using another method of birth control, it’s extremely important to use withdrawal correctly.
How to ‘pull out’ the right way
Many errors can occur while using the pullout method. The most important thing to keep in mind is to avoid having ejaculate fluid come into contact with the vulva (the outside of the vagina) or the vagina. This includes pre-ejaculate fluid, also known as pre-cum, as pre-cum can contain viable sperm that could cause pregnancy.
Being able to pull out prior to ejaculation is something that a man needs to know how to do. As a sex educator, I’m not in the business of telling people what to do unless it’s to prevent harm to themselves or others. That said, for this method to be used correctly, a man must understand his body and pull out prior to ejaculation.
To master this technique, a man can masturbate alone. This helps him understand his body and what it feels like for him right before ejaculation. It’s important to practice this several times before trying it out with a partner. If a man isn’t comfortable with masturbation, using another form of contraception instead of the pullout method might make more sense. Understanding how the body feels prior to ejaculation is crucial to withdrawing correctly.
Communication is also key for the pullout method to work. Being able to talk about where a person is going to “pull out” to ejaculate is important, as well as when to stop stimulation so that the person has time to withdraw before ejaculating outside the body.
The downsides of pulling out
There are many opportunities for pulling out to fail. This can be a difficult contraception method to implement. It requires knowledge of the body and the ability to pull out despite distractions. While masturbation can help a male to understand his body, it isn’t guaranteed. Plus, pulling out provides no protection from sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
How else can you prevent pregnancy?
Many forms of contraception are more effective than the pullout method. In fact, it’s even better to use the pullout method in addition to another form of birth control, to further decrease the risk of unintended pregnancy. For example, if a man puts on a condom before pre-ejaculatory fluid (pre-cum) is released, and then pulls out, ejaculating outside of the body in the condom, no sperm will come into contact with the vulva or vagina.
—Carson G., University of North Dakota
First, it’s important to define sex. Sex can be with yourself (masturbation) or with others. It’s a consensual act between partners engaging in any agreed-upon activity. Here are some of the physical benefits:
Sex is a form of exercise—though it may not be as rigorous as some other aerobic activities. Sex can get the heart rate up and it requires the use of various muscles. While I’m not suggesting that we use sex as an alternative to workouts, it can supplement them.
Reduced risk of certain diseases
Fun fact: Males who ejaculate frequently (at least 21 times a month) are less likely to develop prostate cancer, studies suggest. While the research isn’t complete, there is no known harm associated with ejaculating this often. Unless masturbation takes a person away from work, academics, commitments, relationships, or friendships, it’s healthy.
Increased bladder control
This has been shown for women. Sex can be a good workout for the pelvic floor muscles, because contractions of those muscles before and during orgasm can help strengthen them. That strengthening protects against incontinence, or the loss of bladder control, which affects about three in ten women during their lives.
Orgasms can help reduce pain from migraines or cluster headaches, according to a 2013 study in the journal Cephalalgia.
Relaxation and sleep
Various studies have shown that sex (including masturbation) can help reduce stress and assist with sleep. There’s some research to suggest that sex can help lower blood pressure (one study specifically states that this benefit comes from sex with a partner).
Protection from overwork
People who have less sex tend to accept more assignments at work, compensating for their frustration, according to a study by German researchers.
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What makes a romantic or sexual encounter great? What do people want out of hookups? Everyone has their own answers—like physical pleasure, feeling connected to their partner, or developing a relationship. One quality, though, is fundamental to all good encounters: mutual desire.
So how can you make your sexual experiences more like your fantasies?
- By emphasizing desire and what you both truly want
- By focusing on quality, not quantity
“Unsexy sex” refers to sexual encounters in which one or both partners are in it for unsexy reasons—such as a sense of obligation, an urge to fit in, or a need to prove something. Good sex is based in genuine desire—the difference between a reluctant yes and an exuberant yes!
In a sexual or romantic encounter, talking or expressing desire doesn’t ruin the mood. Just the opposite—this can bring about some of the sexiest moments. These five steps will help you communicate in ways that deepen the pleasure or connection for you and your partner.
Trust your body language
Why body language works
One of the most important things about communication is how basic it is. As two-year-olds, most of us learn to interpret agreement, refusal, and ambiguity. And we only get better at it over time. We’re very good at interpreting—and giving—signs. These may be in words, tone of voice, or body language.
What does that have to do with romance and sex? If you think you’re making it clear with your body, tone, or words that you do or don’t want something, the person you’re talking to or hooking up with can almost certainly tell.
Humans are highly skilled at understanding acceptance and rejection in sexual and non-sexual contexts, according to researchers. “There are indeed miscommunications in sexual activity (as in all of life), and those miscommunications can certainly get in the way of fulfilling, pleasurable experiences. But they do not cause rape or assault,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean in student affairs at Yale University.
Clarifying affirmative consent
Sometimes, people dismiss the idea of communicating about the different parts of a physical encounter as a series of awkward questions: “May I put my hand on your leg? What about on your belly?” But this denies how we communicate during sex. The vast majority of people pick up on and respond to their partners’ signals. And when people ask outright, it only opens partners up to talk about what they want. This is far from a series of clinical questions or doctor’s checklist.
So trust your body language—and think about how to use it to express what you want. Your might place your partner’s hand where you want to be touched. You might create more space between your bodies and take a moment to talk. You might get closer and talk a little less.
All communication skills can be impaired by alcohol and other substances. If you are unsure whether or not the other person (or you) is able to give consent, call a halt. Mutually enthusiastic sex can be rescheduled.
What if understanding nonverbal language doesn’t come easily?
Some people have genuine difficulty interpreting nonverbal language and social cues. This has implications for establishing mutual sexual consent.
What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for you
“I don’t always pick up on body language, so if I misunderstand you, it’s not intentional. Please tell me directly what you want and what you don’t want.”
What to say to your partner if understanding body language is hard for them
“Let’s be direct, so we’re sure to understand each other. I’ll tell you what I want and what I don’t want. What do you want?”
How misunderstandings can happen
“This is mainly about the ability to read other people’s intentions and thoughts,” says Dr. Isabelle Hénault, a sexologist and psychologist based in Montreal, Quebec. “Especially with individuals with Asperger syndrome or other autism conditions, they rarely act out with a negative intention. Any problems are most likely about misreading situations.”
Get help developing sexual communication skills
How to communicate clearly
When one or both people have difficulty interpreting body language and other nonverbal cues, “be very concrete, very explicit, very clear,” says Michael Glenn, a clinical social worker and sex educator based in Massachusetts. He recommends disclosing a relevant diagnosis. “I really believe that at this point in time, enough is known about Asperger’s. You may as well label it and discuss it more openly, and make it sound interesting.”
How to develop sexual communication skills
For people who struggle with interpreting social cues, intimate communication skills are best learned with support from a clinician, says Glenn: “They really need a professional who they can talk to in an ongoing way.” Therapists and their clients use role-playing and scripting to build skills. Pornography does not represent social norms or rules, and should not be used as a guide.
+ Seek support from Adult Services at the Asperger/Autism Network [AANE]
Talk about your desires (& theirs)
Express your desire
Expressing desire is about showing your own enthusiasm—and it’s about shaping a hookup or encounter for the better. Whether you’re looking for pleasure, a feeling of connectedness, or something else, communication is essential. Expressing your own desire helps your partner understand what you’re looking for, and it’s a chance to talk or figure out together what you each want.
In a recent poll by Student Health 101, more than half the respondents (53 percent) said that what makes them feel most desired is their partner telling them “I care about you” or “I desire you.”
Ask what they want
Talking is key, whether you’re going for physical pleasure, trying new things, feeling connected, empowered, or sexy, or something else. “Furthering the conversation in a positive way is fun,” Twanna A. Hines, the sex writer behind the Funky Brown Chick blog and Twitter account, told Student Health 101. Try questions like these, she says: “What are you into? What’s the hottest thing you’ve ever tried?”
Sometimes this shared excitement is called enthusiastic consent. This is the idea that when people engage in sexual activity, it’s not simply that you both agree to do it—it is something you both actively want. Focusing on your partner’s enthusiasm and finding where your desires overlap makes any encounter better.
“The ideal is a genuinely mutual, engaged, connected encounter that’s working for both people,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, who runs programming designed to create a more positive sexual and romantic culture at Yale University.
Listen, don’t assume
Listening is always better than assuming
Discussing your desires can feel intimidating. But remember—you are not a mind reader and neither is your partner. Every person comes into a sexual encounter with different goals and experiences. To get to shared desire and enthusiasm, it’s important to be attentive to your partner.
“Hooking up with someone from another country, you know there might be differences you don’t expect, so it’ll be important to communicate well,” says Dr. Melanie Boyd, assistant dean in student affairs at Yale University. “That’s likely to also be true of people whose values and experiences you think you already know.”
When it makes sense to be wary—and when it doesn’t
Listen to your partner. As you signal that you’re open to learning about their desires and what feels good to them, they should respond in kind. If they don’t—pay attention to that. And if your partner stops responding, check in and make sure they’re still OK with this. Remember: quality, not quantity.
Don’t worry about seeming inexperienced or wide-eyed. This kind of open communication will make an encounter more pleasurable, more mutual, more connected.
Talk about the basics ahead of time
Assumptions about what your partner might want are just as likely to prevent mutual engagement and pleasure. And while much communication around desire happens through body language, often things like whether to have sex, or how to do it, need to be talked through. Before you begin a sexual encounter, discuss consent, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections, says sex writer Twanna A. Hines. These conversations can help put people at ease.
To treat your partner as you would want to be treated, go into an encounter trying to understand what they’re looking for and how they want to get there.
Know what you want
Know what you’re looking for
Thinking about what you want out of an encounter or relationship, and about how you express desire, can help you feel clearer and more confident to pursue what you want.
“The research shows that so many young people are dissatisfied with their sex lives because they don’t understand it’s about quality, not quantity,” Jaclyn Friedman, an activist and a survivor of sexual assault, told Student Health 101. “Let go of the idea that sex is an accomplishment, something to collect, a commodity that we trade in, something one person gives up and the other person gets.”
Prioritize two-way communication
It’s important to look for partners with whom you can communicate in ways that work for both of you. Just as you’ll want to signal that you’re open to hearing what their desires are, you should look for partners who make you feel you can share and discuss your desires with them.
People who don’t seem to pay attention to what you want, who disregard your feelings, are unlikely to be ideal partners. And if you can find someone who values pleasure, mutuality, and emotional connection in ways that you do, or make you think about how you value those things—even if it’s only a one-time thing—then you’re on your way to creating more ideal encounters.
“Unsexy sex” refers to sexual experiences that are consensual but not pleasurable or enthusiastic for everyone involved. The term comes from Dr. Nicola Gavey, professor of psychology at the University of Auckland, who researches the ways that cultural norms influence sexual behavior.
Take the pressure off: Dos & don’ts
Know what sounds like pressure
In discussing with a partner what you want out of an encounter, it’s important that you don’t pressure them. After all, an ideal encounter is marked by mutual desire and enthusiasm.
Discuss the ground rules
Discuss ground rules: what you want to try, what you don’t want to try, what you might want to try, and maybe safe words as well. (See below.) “Asking open-ended questions—‘How do we have a lot of fun?’—communicates boundaries and seeks to provide pleasure for both parties,” says Twanna A. Hines of the Funky Brown Chick blog.
If you or they want to “give up control”
Exploring sexual roles involving dominance and submission, to whatever degree, plays on the idea that someone has given up control over their own body and desire. That idea is part of the game, but is not the reality. This kind of sexual encounter again relies on mutual agreement, clear expectations and boundaries, and safe words that signal when someone needs to stop or do something differently. Explicit communication and earned trust are essential. (A safe word is a word or phrase you would never otherwise use during sex; for example, “glitter bomb”. You agree in advance that it means “Stop right now and check in”.)
Tell me if anything I do makes you uncomfortable…
I’m going to…
Time for us to…
How students talk about consent
How has a partner (or past partners) let you know they want to have sex or hook up?
- “Directly; for example, ‘Do you wanna [insert sexual activity] now?’”
- “The look.”
- “My [girlfriend] always went straight to the point.”
- “Body language.”
- “Said to get the condom.”
- “They let you know by talking about it ahead of time, almost ‘planning’ it but not exactly. And in that moment, asking you and then following through.”
- “By kissing, cuddling, and telling me directly.”
What does “enthusiastic consent” mean to you?
- “omg yes take me now”
- “Both parties really want to engage in sexual contact. It means they are both asking if it is OK and they are both showing that it is clearly what they want. The word ‘yes’ is crucial here.”
- “I think it means that not only do you and your partner agree on a particular sex act, but you are both excited about engaging in it.”
- “It means that ongoing communication happens between both parties before/during/after sex, and that anyone can say no to anything at any time without repercussions.”
- “Clear, continuous positive engagement in whatever sexual activity is going on (not necessarily verbal).”
- “‘Do you want to have sex?’ ‘Heck yeah!’”
Source: Student Health 101 survey, December 2015