Sexual health is more than a young person making decisions about birth control and protecting themselves from sexually transmitted diseases; it’s about making positive choices for both themselves and their partners.
Sexual health is linked with emotional, physical and social well-being and involves having a positive and respectful approach to sexual relationships. Coercion or abuse should play no part in any sexual relationship.
Young people should also be alert to the dangers of sexting, even when they are in a consensual relationship.
Gender and sexuality can be complicated issues and it’s not unusual for a young person to be confused about their identity and/or sexual feelings. It’s important to support them to be themselves and help them know where to go if they need support.
In the UK, the age of consent to any form of sexual activity is 16 for both men and women, whether they are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual.
Health professionals are allowed to provide contraceptive advice and/or treatment to young people aged 13 to 16 if they believe it is in the young person’s best medical interests and the young person gives informed consent.
Children aged 12 and under cannot legally give their consent to any form of sexual activity.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STIs)
STIs are very common and most are easily treated. The majority are transmitted during intercourse and oral sex so condoms offer the best protection.
Chlamydia is the most common STI diagnosed in Wales, with young people disproportionately affected (2014 figures). Chlamydia presents few obvious symptoms, so the young person may not always realise they have an infection unless they get tested. Most pharmacies sell home-testing kits.
Genital warts – small fleshy lumps or skin changes around the genital or anal area – are also very common. All girls in Year 8 are now offered the HPV vaccination which protects against about 90% of genital warts.
Genital herpes is highly contagious and is common among 20-24 year olds. It causes painful blisters, and while it can’t be completed cured, it can be controlled with antiviral medication.
Pubic lice (also called ‘crabs’) and scabies are mostly passed through sexual contact but can be caught from less intimate skin-to-skin contact.
Syphilis and HIV are more serious forms of STI, which if left untreated, can pose major health risks in the future.
Most STIs are easily treated with antibiotics but some can lead to more serious problems if they are left untreated, for example, gonorrhoea can lead to infertility.
Contraception is a personal choice and very much depends on whether someone wishes to start a family (or have another baby) in the near future.
Popular forms of contraception include:
- condoms – the only kind of contraception which protects against pregnancy and STIs
- hormonal contraception – progestogen only and combined oral pills
- intrauterine devices, like the coil
- contraceptive patches
- contraceptive implants
Emergency contraception is available when someone has unplanned and unprotected sex and does not want to get pregnant.
There are two methods of emergency contraception:
- copper intrauterine device (IUD) is the most effective form (it prevents 99% of pregnancies). There are no side effects and it can be left in place to become the usual form of contraception.
- emergency contraceptive pill (often known as ‘the morning after pill’). It’s free of charge on prescription but can only be bought from a pharmacy by over 16s
Search for a sexual health clinic on NHS 111 Wales.
Brook gives free and confidential information to under 25s. Their Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool explains what kind of sexual behaviour is appropriate at different ages and when sexual activity becomes a safeguarding issue.
The Terrence Higgins Trust offers advice about sexual health to young people.