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An abstract visual of sex, with an eye and a vulva and two rainbows.

Illustration by Marta Pucci

Sex

A beginner's guide to sex

The basics of pleasure, STIs, condoms, and more—we've got you covered.

by Stephanie Liao, Product & Marketing Copywriter Reviewed by Nicole Telfer, Science Content Producer
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Top things to know: 

  • Sex drive, is complex and is affected by physical and emotional aspects

  • Sex is not just for procreation—it should also be pleasurable for every person involved

  • STIs are common and if caught early, may be treatable. Many don’t have symptoms, which is why regular testing is extremely important.

We wouldn’t be on this planet if it wasn’t for sex. Although sex is a part of the human lifecycle, many people still find it taboo to discuss. In many places, it’s common for people to start learning about sex during puberty. 

Curious about sex, but not sure where to start? Here’s the very basics of what you should know before thinking about having sex for the first time.

Often, the sex ed you learn in school is not as accurate as it could be, nor as applicable. It can take a long time to figure out what works for you and what your preferences are.

Sex drive: what is it and where does it come from?

Our sex drive and sexual pleasure are impacted by our physiology, psychology, societal expectations, and the interactions between these domains. In addition, we still don’t have a great understanding of female sexual anatomy or female orgasm.

Birth control can sometimes affect your sex drive, so if you are currently taking hormonal contraception, tracking your symptoms in Clue can help you determine its effects on your body and libido. 

Tracking your sex drive and sexual activity in Clue can give you an indication of what’s normal for you at certain points during your cycle. Make sure to download Clue and start tracking today.

A hand holding a phone with the Clue app opened

Download Clue to track your sex drive.

Sexual pleasure

When people think of sex, they often think of orgasm as the ultimate way to achieve pleasure. Female orgasm, in particular, is often seen to be proof of sexual success. There is still not enough adequate research or information about female orgasm, although we generally know how to define the different ways people tend to achieve orgasm:

Even if you don’t end up having an orgasm, there are other ways to experience pleasure. Erogenous zones are areas of the body that elicit a sexual response when stimulated. This can include the genital area, nipples, or anywhere, really—whatever you’re into. 

The clitoris is one of the most sensitive erogenous zones due to its high concentration of nerve endings (1,2). By stimulating an erogenous zone, a sexual physiological response can be set into motion.

The clitoris is part of the vulva, the name for the external parts of female genitalia. The vagina is the tube connecting the vulva and the cervix

What feels good to you might not feel good to someone else. Experimenting with masturbation to figure out what you like and dislike might be a good idea.

How to have safer sex

Safer sex is a way to reduce your risks of STIs.

Here’s the top 3 ways to avoid STIs:

  1. Correct, consistent (always, not just some of the time) use of barriers (condoms and other barriers, like dental dams) on body parts or toys for any kind of vaginal, anal, or oral sex

  2. Being mutually sexually exclusive: both you and your partner only have sex with each other

  3. Regular testing for all STIs, by you and your partner(s)

Barrier methods include:

Practicing “safer sex” through the use of barrier methods (like condoms, gloves, and dental dams) can significantly lower this risk (3).

Internal and external condoms work by providing a physical barrier that prevents each partner’s genitals and body fluids from coming into contact with the other partner’s body (4).

It’s especially important to use a barrier method to protect yourself and your partner against STIs if either of you is unsure of your STI status, or if one or both partners are also having sex with someone else.   

STIs and STDs: prevention, symptoms, and treatments

Every day, more than 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired worldwide (5). They are incredibly common—here's what Clue users and readers said about their experience with STIs.

But what do you know about STIs? Did you know many STIs have no, or only mild symptoms? Knowing some basic information may change the way you take precautions about sex in your own life.

Chlamydia

  • Chlamydia is often asymptomatic, meaning that many people don’t know they have it

  • Chlamydia symptoms can include pus-like yellow discharge; frequent or painful urination; spotting between periods or after sex; and/or rectal pain, bleeding, or discharge

  • Untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and/or infertility in women and people with female reproductive tracts

Genital herpes

  • Genital herpes is the second most common STI in the United States

  • Some people with herpes get recurrent blisters and ulcers on their genital areas

  • Many people with herpes have no symptoms, but still are able to continue spreading the disease

  • There is no cure for herpes, but outbreaks and symptoms can be managed

Gonorrhea

  • Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic, meaning that many people don’t know they have it

  • Untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and/or infertility in women and people with female reproductive tracts

  • Gonorrhea infections must be treated with two antibiotic medications

Trichomoniasis

  • Trichomoniasis is often asymptomatic, meaning that many people don’t know they have it

  • Some people may experience symptoms including increased, malodorous, colored vaginal discharge, vulvar pain and itchiness, and/or pain with urination or sexual intercourse

HIV

  • HIV is transmitted through the exchange of certain types of bodily fluids including blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal fluids

  • Saliva, tears, sneezing, and physical contact cannot transmit HIV

  • Having unprotected anal sex, penis-vagina sex, and even oral sex (though rarely) can transmit HIV

  • There is no cure for HIV, but medications are available which can keep the viral load low and greatly reduce the risk of both transmitting and contracting HIV

Which STIs can you get from every type of sex?

STIs can be transferred through more than just semen, but also through vaginal fluids, direct mucous membrane (skin) contact, blood, saliva, and even feces (6). 

It is hard to establish which sex act is responsible for disease transmission since people often engage in more than one type of sexual activity (e.g. having both oral sex and penis-in-vagina sex during the same session).

STIs you can get from kissing

Oral herpes (HSV-1)

STIs you can get from oral sex

  • Chlamydia

  • Gonorrhea

  • HPV

  • Herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2)

  • Syphilis

  • HIV

  • Trichomoniasis

STIs you can get from fingering and fisting (anal and vaginal)

Anything that can cause cuts or tears to the anus or genitals (like fingernails, rings, or tearing of the mucous membranes) can increase possible transmission of any blood-borne STIs (like HIV or hepatitis B or C). If your fingers contact other people’s genitals and then your own, STIs can be passed through genital secretions.

To be safe, always wash your hands after touching someone else's genitals, or even wear gloves to be extra safe.

STIs you can get from penis-in-vagina sex

  • HIV

  • Gonorrhea

  • Chlamydia

  • Herpes

  • HPV

  • Syphilis

  • Chancroid

  • Hepatitis B & C

  • Trichomoniasis

  • Genital warts

STIs you can get from anal sex

  • HIV

  • Hepatitis B & C

  • HPV

  • Syphilis

  • Gonorrhea

  • Chlamydia

  • Herpes

  • Genital warts

  • Diseases transmitted through microorganisms from feces (Giardia, Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli) (7)

STIs you can get from sex toys

Not much research has been dedicated to STI transmission via sex toys. It is possible that STIs transmission can occur from genital fluids on the sex toy. To be safe when sharing toys, use a condom or clean and sterilize them. Always put on a new condom or clean the toy again when changing from one person to another, or from anal to vaginal use.

STIs you can get from vulva-to-vulva sex (scissoring)

  • HPV

  • HSV-1

  • HSV-2

  • Syphilis

  • Chancroid

  • Chlamydia

  • Gonorrhea

  • Genital warts

  • HIV

While STIs are extremely common, there are still preventative steps you can take from contracting them.

That said, having an STI is nothing to be ashamed of and discussing STIs more openly with peers and telling your partners is not only necessary for your sexual health but also important for fighting stigmas and breaking societal and cultural taboos.