Facets of Wellness

Talking Out Loud About Sexual Health

by Abby Robinson

A black person stands with large green leaves covering their chest and pubic area. Behind them, more green leaves grow. The background is a pattern of beige and white colors, with broan and green illustrations of leaves around the edges.

September is Sexual Health Awareness Month — and unsurprisingly, it’s one of our favorite months to celebrate! At As You Like It, webelieve that sexual health is just as important as any other aspect of our health. And yet, sexual health is discussed surprisingly infrequently. When these conversations do occur, they can often be accompanied by a heavy dose of awkwardness. More often, these talks are rushed over, or worse, skipped altogether. Therefore, the first real introduction to sexual health for many of us is a sex-education class at our middle school or high school.

Our experiences of sex education depend heavily on the teacher, the school district’s policies, and the state laws where the school is based. And those can vary dramatically. For example, only 29 states require sex education to be taught at all, and only 15 states require that sex education must be medically accurate. Unfortunately, this discrepancy leaves a lot to be desired from most of our sex education experiences.

As a whole, sex education as it currently stands tends to focus on a very narrow experience of sex. Preventing pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI’s) may be discussed, if you are lucky, but the fundamental concepts of consent and pleasure are unlikely to be mentioned. It is also incredibly unlikely that the sex ed cirriculum address the needs of LGBTQ+ students, and even less likely for the discussion to be affirming. In fact, 7 states prohibit educators from discussing LGBTQ+ identities and relationships in a positive light — or even mentioning them at all. This leaves a sizable portion of youth without knowledge that is necessary to help them navigate their changing bodies, relationships, and desires.

Although exceptions absolutely exist, the reality of sex education seems to be woefully limited in scope. It’s not difficult to see how the lack of inclusive and accessible sex education for youth can lead to a generation adults with a lot of questions regarding their sexual health. Worst of all, because of the lack of open conversation on the topic, many of these adults may find themselves unsure of where to turn for answers.

That’s where we come in. In honor of Sexual Health Awareness Month, we at As You Like It want to give all the adults with lingering questions a do-over at sex ed. What would it look like if our sexual health education was inclusive, accurate, shame-free, and deeply invested in giving everyone access to the information and resources they need to make safer choices? With this blog, we want to encourage you to think about what you wish you had learned in sex ed, and we will do our best to answer as many of your questions as we can!

Getting Started — Consent, Communication and Setting Boundaries

One of the first aspects of sexuality that most people discover is also the primary attraction to sex for most people: pleasure. And the interesting thing about pleasure is that it doesn’t require another person to participate in creating it. Many people discover pleasure in their youth. For some, this discovery may come totally by accident. But others discover early on that they can pleasure themselves by moving or touching their bodies. Self-pleasure is called masturbation, and it is a healthy way to explore your body and discover what kinds of sensations you enjoy. We’ve written extensively on masturbation in the past, so we won’t spend too much time talking about why it’s awesome. But it’s important to understand that all sex education would seek to affirm masturbation as a natural, normal, and beneficial part of maintaining sexual health.

But sooner or later, we as humans may find that we want to involve someone else in our experience of pleasure. We may begin experiencing desire for others, and we also may want to act on it. And the first step to any sexual encounter that involves another person is consent.

Before you touch, kiss, or engage in any sexual activity with anyone else, it’s important to talk to your partner about intentions and desires. That way, you can go into the experience with everyone on the same page, with similar expectations. Consent is ongoing, which means that getting consent isn’t a one-time talk. Part of agreeing to be sexual with another person involves being willing to pay attention to their words, desires, and body language. If your partner asks you to stop at any point during your encounter, or if you sense that your partner has stopped enjoying what is happening, consent culture teaches that you stop and check in with them about what they need. Consent is about respecting our partner as a human, and that respect should always be present, even in the most casual sexual encounter.

It’s important to remember that no one gets to set your boundaries except you. Each and every person has the right to make their own rules regarding their body. And each and every person has the right to partner/s that respect them, their body, and their boundaries. Recently, our society has deemed “sex positivity” as cool and empowering — and it is! — but it’s also important to realize that being sex-positive doesn’t necessarily mean you’re down for absolutely anything. To be sex psoitive just means that you view your sexuality without shame, and explore it in a way that makes you feel comfortable and affirmed. When in doubt, trust your gut! We could fill an entire book with how to employ consent and boundaries in your relationships and sexual encounters — and many people have!

We here at As You Like It stock several different books for all ages specifically about consent, because we know that consent is the necessary first step to any successful sexual interaction. For this reason, we imagine that any inclusive and shame-free sexual education curriculum must include ample discussion of consent. Proper discussion of consent in sex education could be critical in reducing sexual harm, increasing sexual pleasure, and creating a society in which all people are treated with inherent respect.

Choosing a Body-Safe Lube

So you’re feeling confident in your boundaries, you’ve met a partner that you feel affirmed and respected by, and you’re ready to move from talking about sex to actually doing it. What’s the first step in doing it safely?

Well, at As You Like It, we always advocate for starting your sexual encounters — whether solo or partnered — with a good lubricant!

Lube is an extremely important tool for both safety and pleasure in sexual experiences. According to research conducted by the Indiana University Center for Sexual Health Promotion, use of high-quality lubricant can increase the chance of orgasm by as much as 50%. Dr. Laurie Steelsmith also reports that the right lubricant may also decrease risk of infection and disease by protecting our delicate tissues from microtears and discomfort, all while providing a slippery fun surface for any desired stimulation.

But not all lubricants are created equal. There is very little oversight in the lube industry, and many of the most popular lubricants on the market contain harmful and irritating ingredients that can dry tissues out, cause painful reactions, mess up the PH balance of the body, and more. Due to high osmolality levels, certain lubricants can actually dehydrate our cells, making our bodies prone to microtears, infection, and chafing.

If you are shopping elsewhere for lube, there are some key ingredients to look out for and avoid. Phthalates, Mineral Oil, Parabens, Glycerin, Propylene Glycol, Sulfates, and Synthetic Fragrances are all harmful ingredients that can be found in many low-quality lubricants.

So how do you pick the right lubricant? The good news is that there are a large variety of high quality & PH balanced lubricants, stroking oils, and sensation enhancers to choose from! At As You Like It, we only carry lubricants that meet our rigorous standards for body safety. Everything that you buy from us will be body-safe (although it’s important to remember that all bodies have different sensitivities).

It is also important to consider what lube base is right for what activity. To help our customers navigate the many choices we’ve created a handy lube guide. Head over to our 2-Minute Lube Crash Course for more information. Or if you want a more personalized recommendation, you can stop by the store to chat with one of our highly trained staff members! In store, you can also check out our lube tester station where you can safely feel the different textures or taste the various flavors. Because every body is unique, and you deserve a lube that works for yours!

Lube-Guide2

Picking the Right Barrier

One of the most common tools we can use in defense of our sexual health is a barrier. Using the barrier method in sexual health essentially means placing a single-use protective device between two bodies to prevent skin-to-skin contact or fluid sharing. Using a barrier can help prevent pregnancy if it is used to collect ejaculate, such as a condom, but they can also assist in protecting from STI’s. For many sexually transmitted infections, such as herpes or public lice, the easiest way to pass infection is from skin to skin contact. Therefore, adding a barrier can seriously lessen the likelihood of transmission of these kinds of STI’s. But what kind of barrier is right for you will depend on your body, your partner, and the way you want to play!

Condoms are one of the few sexual health tools that most sex education programs actually do cover. However, there is a lot more to stay about these devices than our school education would have us believe. 

One of the most important things to understand about condoms is sizing! Finding the correct size condom for the wearer is crucial to both efficacy and pleasure alike. There is a widely believed myth that because condoms are often capable of stretching to a dramatic length, the standard size should fit everyone. But this is not the case! There is a wide range of bodies and anatomies, and a condom that fits too tightly could restrict blood flow, causing pain and even damage.

Many condoms come in a “classic” or “original” size that varies only slightly from brand to brand, but there are also slim fit and larger sized condoms that have a greater variance to accommodate all users. We have our very own handy dandy condom sizing guide researched and compiled by the As You Like It staff. This guide contains a breakdown of length and width information by brand and style. To get the most accurate match, you can use a string or soft tape measure to measure your anatomy at home! Our guide is limited to the brands that we carry in our store, so you may need to do some independent research if you are looking for a brand we don’t carry at the moment, but this guide should give you somewhere to start comparing.

Another important consideration is material type. The vast majority of condoms on the market are made of latex, which is a great durable rubber option. Some people however may have a latex allergy, or dislike the smell or taste of latex. Don’t fret! There are other options. A store favorite here are the Skyn Non-Latex Condoms in all varieties. These condoms are made of polyisoprene, a durable material that tends to feel softer and more realistic than latex, and lacks the distinctive latex scent. 

Internal condoms, sometimes referred to as “female” condoms another option when searching for a barrier. These are a lesser known barrier method, despite their many useful advantages. The internal condom consists of a larger cylinder of polyisoprene, nitrile, or latex that can be gently tucked into the vaginal canal. Use extreme caution when using internal condoms in the anal cavity, because they may become extremely difficult to remove if they get pulled entirely inside the body. Most internal condoms come with a removable internal thick ring to assist with placement and securing the condom inside of the body.

One of the great benefits of this style is that it can be placed inside of the vagina up to several hours before penetration. That way, one can feel protected and prepared before an encounter even begins! This extra time also allows the condom to warm to the body’s temperature, providing a seamless and comfortable transition into penetrative sex.

These condoms also have a larger surface area that can fit over part of the vulva or the anus, providing added protection for external touch and fluid exchange. A word to this wise, it can take some practice to master this technique for anal penetration, and may require some creative hand placement to avoid slipping or spillage. If there is any difficulty placing the internal condom inside of the body first, it can also be placed on the penetrating partner, then positioned upon insertion.

Internal condoms are usually only available as a medical wholesale item, so we unfortunately are not able to sell them in our store. If you believe this may be the right barrier method for you, we recommend contacting your healthcare provider, or utilizing a resource like Planned Parenthood or a university student health center for access. For example, the University of Oregon Student Health Center stocks internal condoms, and gives them away for no charge!

The barriers that we have discussed so far are designed mostly for penetrative sex, but there are other barrier methods that can be excellent for adding protection during oral or manual stimulation. For example, dental dams are single use flat sheets of latex or polyurethane, intended for use during oral sex to protect against certain STI’s. The sheet is stretched over the genitals, providing a stretchy and comfortable fluid barrier between partners. With a little bit of lubricant, the dam can glide comfortably with the movement of the mouth, tongue, and fingers.

Items like these tend to signify having sex purely for pleasure, and tend to be assosciated with queer sex more so than other methods for STI and reproductive protection. Because of this, there exists a stigma that makes access and sourcing difficult. Few people learn about these helpful devices in standard public school sex education, and in turn less people are inclined to try them as adults. In reality, dams are an easy, comfortable, and pleasurable way to engage in safer oral sex. Many even come in fun flavors!

Unfortunately, dental dams are another useful tool that can be difficult to locate. Because of the lower production levels and stigma, dental dams tend to be expensive for customers as well as businesses. Here at As You Like It, we do our very best to continuously stock this important and useful item for our community. We are committed to maintaining access to tools that help our customers have the safe and pleasurable experience they desire. If we are out of stock when you stop in or shop online, please let us know so we can contact you as soon as our next order comes in!

If you do not have access to a dental dam, what can you do? You still have options! For example, latex gloves are a much more accessible item that can be used in several ways. For a DIY dental dam, simply cut the glove along the side to flatten out the largest surface area. This can then be draped over the genitals. Alternatively, you can cut along the length of any larger latex or polyisoprene condom to use the same way!

But that isn’t the only purpose for gloves in the sexual health world. Gloves also make a fantastic fluid barrier for external and internal manual penetration. Want to protect your partner from your amazing but potentially sharp manicure? No problem! Place a bit of tissue or cotton balls in the tips of a larger glove, and slide your hand in for a more cushioned sensation. Just remember to change gloves and wash hands when moving between anal and vaginal play to prevent bacteria transfer!

Toys and Keeping Them Clean

Many people who are looking to explore their sexuality decide to purchase a toy to help them explore. And luckily, there is a toy for every occasion and every body. There are toys that may have multiple uses, and there may also be some toys that you and your sweeties like to share. So how do you keep everything safe and fun?

Just like with lube, there is a wide range of quality out there when it comes to sex toys. Some toys can be made of porous materials, and are therefore challenging to clean properly, which makes them unsanitary to share with others. While at As You Like It, you can be assured that all of our products will meet our high standards of body-safe materials. Most of what you find in our store will be made out of platinum grade silicone, medical grade plastic, glass, and/or steel. These are all 100% body-safe, non-porous materials! That means that none of our toys will store bacteria, or leech harmful chemicals into your body. But even with the highest quality materials, it is still very important to understand proper techniques to clean the surface area of the toys, especially if you hope to share them with others.

We sell several toy cleaners in our store, which are safe to use on any material. Toy cleaners are especially handy for toys that are not waterproof, as they limit moisture on the toy. For any toy that is splash-proof, you can gently scrub the toy with a fragrance free, body-safe soap of your choice, and rinse with hot water. Hot water and fragrance-free soap will clean your toys of almost all surface-level bacteria. However, this method of cleaning does not guarantee full sterilization.

Sterilizing your toys is always recommended when switching between anal and vaginal use, or for sharing the love with a non-fluid bonded partner/s. Many non-motorized silicone, glass, and steel toys can be boiled for 30 seconds in water, but make sure to check your toy's specifications before boiling. One of the fastest and most convenient ways to fully sanitize any toy is to invest in the UVee Sterilizer. UVee uses a ultraviolet light to kill all lingering bacteria and germs on a microscopic level in only about ten minutes, making it the ultimate accessory for keeping your items clean. In our store we use our UVee to sanitize everything from pens, to phones, to floor models! Adding the UVee to your home is a great way to ensure that you are always playing with clean toys.

Full sterilization may not be an option for every person or every toy, but you can still find ways to use them safely! Using a condom as a barrier on whatever toy you’d like to use provides an easy method to switch the toy between partners or orifices! Just use a fresh condom with every partner and body part to prevent cross-contamination. This helpful trick works for everything from dildos to butt plugs to wand massagers! Any toy that you want to use with a sweetie that you’re not fluid-bonded with can be shared safely with the simple addition of a barrier.

Some external toys, like strokers and c-rings, can be made of soft squishy materials like elastomer and TPR. These materials work great for this style of toy, as they provide a unique level of elasticity and comfort. And with a good thorough wash and time to dry after use, these toys are still a pleasurable and safe option for external play. However, they are slightly porous and are not able to be entirely sanitized. Therefore, we do not recommend toys made of these materials for internal use or sharing between non-fluid bonded partners. We especially recommend strokers designed to make cleaning a breeze, like the Tenga Flip!

Every toy is a little bit different, so your favorite toy may have unique requirements when it comes to cleaning. For cleaning instructions specific to your toy, consult the inside packaging or one of our friendly and knowledgeable staff members.

Sexually Transmitted Infections

When discussing sexual health, it is important to remember that health is not a conversation of morality. Using words like “clean” to refer to our STI status implies that folks who do have STI’s are unclean, which further stigmatizes sexual health and makes it much more challenging to have judgement-free conversations. All people experience health in different ways, and not all bodies are capable of being healthy. But this is not a moral failing. All people deserve to feel pleasure, regardless of health status. For deeper reading on disability studies, social justice and engagement with health and morality, we recommend the following works.

Many STI’s can present asymptomatically, or lie dormant for extended periods of time. Because of this, it is important to get tested frequently and follow the advice of medical professionals for testing windows and procedures. Not all testing panels are equal! If you have reason to believe you’ve been exposed to a specific STI or have relevant symptoms, communicate this to your healthcare provider so they can ensure you receive the proper testing.

It is also crucial to communicate your status and protection expectations with all sexual partners. This can feel like a daunting task, but part of informed consent means understanding the risks that are being taken by all involved. An honest and respectful conversation about STI status and testing sets everybody up to have a stress free, consensual and pleasurable experience. Remember to refresh this convo with your partner/s anytime your status or exposure level changes!

We offer this advice as a reminder of ways to experience pleasure with the goal of making safer choices for ourselves. We also seek to challenge the stigma behind sexual health and STI status. Although most traditional sex ed focuses on prevention of STI’s, the truth is that STI’s do happen! There is no prophylactic that is 100% effective, and contracting an STI is a totally normal part of living a sexually active life. Most people will encounter an STI at some point, and this is not a failure. As Heather Corinna writes in their expansive sex education manual, S.E.X,  "we're only human: we get sick and can get infections of or through any site on our bodies." Which is why it’s important that there are plentiful resources for testing, and easy access to treatment if you should ever test positive. Here in Eugene, we have the wonderful resources of Planned Parenthood and HIV Alliance for all things testing, treatment, and support related.

For more information on STI prevention, treatment, long term support, stigma and advocacy check out some of the resources below.

Reproductive Justice

Reproductive health is another crucial component of sexual health that we believe should be discussed without judgment in any sex education curriculum. For all things birth control, emergency contraception, abortion services, prenatal care, annual exams and more, we once again highly recommend your local Planned Parenthood offices. You can also utilize your insurance company’s provider search tool to locate individual healthcare providers that meet your needs. Lane County also offers a support and assistance program (WIC) specifically for pregnant, nursing, and parenting individuals.

Additionally, several forms of emergency contraception are available at the pharmacy with no need for a prescription. If you do fear that you may be at risk of an unwanted pregnancy, Plan B is a non-prescription medication that can seek to prevent pregnancy after sex. However, emergency contraceptives like Plan B do have limitations. They are only viable for a short amount of time after intercourse, and also have dosage limitations based on weight. Always make sure to consult the pharmacist or your doctor for more information before taking any medication.

The entire team at As You Like It would also like to state our firm belief that reproductive healthcare is a human right that shall not be alienated. We give our full support to organizations fighting to protect this right, such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Bodily autonomy is of the utmost importance to sexual health — the two are inherently intertwined.

Some Closing Thoughts

If we had our way, sex education would be an entire comprehensive course that continues to evolve as you learn and grow. But in reality, most sex education classes come as a special two-week unit that your gym teacher awkwardly rushes through without making eye contact. So until our dreams for widespread inclusive, shame-free sex education become a reality, we at As You Like It are happy to make up for lost time and answer any questions that our customers might have.

If you can't make it into the store, or if you would just like to read more on any of these topics — or a wide range of others related to sexual health — consider investing in your very own copy of Heather Corinna's all-inclusive guide to sex education, S.E.X — the All-You-Need-To-Know Sexuality Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties. Although the imagined audience for this textbook-sized manual is young adults, the information found inside is important and helpful for folks of any age. And while some of us may have a lot to learn (or unlearn) about our sexual health, it’s never too late to get the information you need to live a happy, healthy, and satisfied sex life!

Still have questions? That makes total sense! Your sexual health is as unique and complex as you are. It would be impossible to address all the diverse sexual health needs of all the diverse bodies in the world in a single blog. For personalized advice, feel free to stop in store to ask our extremely knowledgeable staff. You can also leave any questions you still have in the comments below!

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