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Summary Article: Sexual Health from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

Falling in love is a two-way process that either develops and flourishes or fades and dies. Those who are in love move beyond a physical attraction to a deeper, more intimate closeness that brings the two people close together. Many people choose to express their love physically in a sexual relationship.

During puberty, it is natural to experience sexual feelings and urges. There is a primitive urge to reproduce, to ensure that babies continue to be born, so that the human race can continue. This sex drive is a natural physical feeling. It does not have to be satisfied, although some boys and girls choose to release this feeling through masturbation. For boys, this involves rubbing the penis and for girls, it involves rubbing the vulva, which is at the entrance to the vagina.

As our body and mind develop, we become aware of our sexuality. Although both boys and girls have sexual feelings, they are under pressure to behave in different ways. A boy may be tempted to brag about his sexual experiences because he thinks it will give him some credibility as a man; a girl, on the other hand, is likely to gain a reputation for ‘sleeping around’ if she were to do the same. This double standard misses the point; sex is a personal and intimate activity between two people who care for each other.

People become involved in sexual relationships because they want to create a baby, or simply because they enjoy the physical and emotional pleasures that a physical relationship brings.

The Christian religion suggests that sex is an act reserved for people who have committed themselves to each other through marriage. It argues that in order for the act of sexual intercourse to be meaningful, rather than mechanical, there must be an emotional commitment and connection between the two partners. In truth, many sexual relationships take place ‘outside marriage’– these relationships may be long-term or simply fleeting.

When? This is a difficult question. UK law states that it is illegal for anyone under the age of 16 (17 in Northern Ireland) to have sex. There is no set time to have your first sexual relationship, but it is important not to have sex too early – before you are physically or mentally prepared. Although young people may tell each other about alleged sexual experiences, and brag about how many times they have ‘done it’, the truth is that most people do not have sex until they are 17 or older. It is also important that you know all of the risks before you enter into a sexual relationship. Only do so when you are ready. Do not be pressurized into having sex by others – it is your body and your choice.

Contraception Using contraception is the only way of making sure that a baby will not be conceived after sexual intercourse. There are various methods of contraception and they have varying degrees of reliability. Contraception is the responsibility of both the male and the female.

the Pill This is a reliable form of contraception. It is a tablet that stops the normal hormonal changes, preventing an egg from developing. The Pill can have side effects and its use should be monitored and reviewed regularly.

barrier methods These are ways of preventing the sperm entering the vagina. The condom is a protective sheath that is put on the male's erect penis. The condom is a safe and popular form of contraception, provided it is used properly. The cap is a rubber barrier that covers the entrance to the cervix. Both the condom and cap can be covered in a spermicide (a chemical that kills sperm). Barrier methods are less reliable forms of contraception than the Pill.

the morning after pill This pill (which may be taken up to 72 hours after sex) may be used in emergencies, after unprotected sex.

the rhythm method This is based on the days during the month when a woman is infertile. It depends upon knowing when a woman's period occurs – it is particularly risky in young women, whose periods may be irregular.

the withdrawal method As the name suggests, this method depends on the male withdrawing his penis from the vagina before he ejaculates. This method is very risky, because sperm leaks out of the penis before the man ejaculates (even one drop of semen contains millions of sperm).

Sexually transmitted diseasesAcquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) hit the headlines in the UK in 1981. AIDS is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). When in the bloodstream, this virus attacks the body's ability to defend itself. This means that the sufferer rarely dies of AIDS but of other illnesses, like pneumonia, that the body is unable to fight against. AIDS develops from HIV over a period of time – there is no knowing how long this will be.

There are many myths about how HIV is transmitted (note it is transmitted; it cannot be caught). HIV can be passed:

  • from blood to blood. Before people were aware of HIV, contaminated blood was passed to people who received blood transfusions

  • through contaminated needles

  • through sexual intercourse – HIV may be contained in and passed on from a man's semen or a woman's vaginal fluid

  • from mother to child during birth or through breastfeeding.

Because there are myths about how HIV is transmitted, many negative attitudes have developed towards those who suffer from the disease.

Those who are particularly at risk include drug users who share needles and people who have unprotected sex with a number of different partners. Babies of mothers who have HIV are at risk of getting the virus from their mothers.

For advice you can contact your local clinic or doctor.

Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are passed from one person to another. They can be unpleasant and painful. They may affect males and females differently. The earlier they are identified, the sooner treatment can be given and the more effective it can be. Young people who have lots of partners, and who have unprotected sex, are more at risk of getting a sexually transmitted disease. It is important to use condoms to protect against STDs even if relying on another method of contraception. You do not have to have had a number of sexual partners to become infected by someone else who has an STD. A person may unknowingly be a carrier of an STD; he or she may not show any symptoms, although he or she may pass the disease on to another person. You must seek help immediately if you think that you have contracted an STD. If they go untreated, STDs can cause long-term damage, including infertility, that cannot be repaired. If you are concerned, consult your doctor or the local STD clinic (which will treat you without informing your doctor).

chlamydia This is one of the most common STDs. It is caused by a germ that infects the genitals. It can be passed through sexual activity of close contact. Its symptoms are pain while urinating and unusual vaginal discharge or a swelling of the testicles. It is relatively easy to treat though can cause greater complications if it goes untreated.

genital warts These look like fleshy growths on the sex organs. Warts can be passed on through sexual contact or close contact. Genital warts are caused by a virus that, if left untreated, may cause a secondary infection. In women, there may be a risk of cervical cancer so regular cervical smears are important.

herpes This disease appears as sores on the sexual organs. Although they are easily treated, they are sometimes difficult to get rid of because they may reappear on a regular basis.

syphilis This is much more rare than it used to be. It appears as a painless sore – if not treated, it can be absorbed into the bloodstream, causing serious long-term damage.

gonorrhoea This STD, sometimes known as the ‘clap’, is on the increase. It is passed on through sexual activity or close contact. In men, the symptoms are a yellow/green discharge and pain urinating. In women, the symptoms tend to be less pronounced but may include increased vaginal discharge and pain whilst urinating. However, approximately half the women and a third of the men who are infected with gonorrhoea do not show symptoms. It can be treated effectively; if it remains untreated it can cause further complications.

scabies These are parasites that lay their eggs under the skin; they can breed and spread and there is a risk of a secondary infection. They are spread by close contact.

candidiasis This is also known as thrush. It rarely occurs in men, but in women it causes the vagina to be sore and itchy. It is a fungal infection that may have other causes than sexual activity.

cystitis This is a urinary infection that is not a sexually transmitted disease but may be exacerbated by sexual activity. It is most common in women. Bacteria enters the urethra and bladder causing an inflammation that makes urinating painful. Urine may be of abnormal colour with a strong odour. It can be controlled by the use of antibiotics and drinking plenty of fluids.

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© RM, 2016. All rights reserved.

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