A beginner's guide to sex
The basics of pleasure, STIs, condoms, and more—we've got you covered.
Top things to know about sex:
Sex can mean different things for different people
Having sex is not just about having babies, it should also be fun for everyone involved
Consent means making sure everyone wants to participate, feels safe, and is enjoying the activity the whole time
Understanding your and your partner’s anatomy will help you both experience pleasure during sex
STIs are common and nothing to be ashamed about. All STIs are treatable. Many are curable.
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. This can cause a lot of confusion and questions.
It takes time to figure out what works for you and what your preferences are. That’s okay! Each of us are on our own timeline and the path to sexual pleasure looks different for everyone.
Are you curious about sex, but not sure where to start? Here are the very basics of what you need to know.
What is sex?
Sex is an activity that one, two, or more people participate in that causes them to feel aroused (sexually excited). It can involve touch, words, or both. It may involve touching genitals but does not always have to. Often when people talk about sex, they are talking about sexual intercourse or penetrative sex. Sexual activty should be enjoyable for everyone invovled and each person should provide consent throughout the event.
This means that everyone should agree on what they are comfortable with at the beginning of the activity. If someone changes their mind or decides that they want to stop, it is very important that that person is able to say this and that it is respected. This ensures that it is a pleasurable experience for all involved.
What are the different types of sex?
Vaginal sex is when the penis rubs or enters the vagina or if two vaginas rub together.
Mouth to genital sex
Also called “oral sex.” The mouth is used to stimulate or pleasure the genitals. This can be done by licking, kissing, or sucking.
The penis or sex toy is inserted into the anus (butt hole). Lubrication is very important because the anus does not create its own lubrication.
Hands or other body parts are used to cause a sexual feeling or sensation. This can be nipple stimulation, cuddling, kissing, or rubbing and caressing genitals or other parts of the body.
Fingering or handjob
Fingering is using fingers to stimulate clitoris and/or putting fingers in the vagina or putting fingers in the anus, to cause sexual senstations. A hand job is using a hand to stimulate the penis.
Touching your own body parts to cause sexual pleasure. This can be done alone or at the same time as someone else. Sex toys can be used during masturbation, including vibrators, dildos, anal toys, and more.
Talking, flirting, and sharing images with someone online or through the phone to cause sexual arousal or excitement.
Sex drive: what is it and where does it come from?
Sex drive, sometimes called libido, is the desire to have sex. Hormones, stress levels, and physical and mental health all impact our sex drive (1, 2). Our romantic partners, family, friends, community, and faith/religion may influence our feelings towards sex and pleasure and these can vary throughout our lifetime (1). Some medications that could affect sexual desire by decreasing libido or delaying orgasm are (2, 3):
Anticholinergics used to treat many conditions related to lungs, bladder, intestine, dizziness and nausea/vomiting
Medications to treat high blood pressure
Mental health medications, such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs)
Research does not show a direct connection between hormonal birth control and sexual drive (3). However, sexual health is complex. If you feel that a medication you are taking is affecting your sex drive, talk to a healthcare provider. Track your experiences in the Clue app. This can help you determine any effects your birth control is having on your body and libido.
Sexual pleasure and orgasm
Sexual pleasure is not defined in one certain way. Many things can bring enjoyment and satisfaction. Orgasm is an intense sexual excitement. This is one way to achieve sexual pleasure. People with penises experience orgasm when the penis becomes hard and enlarged. This occurs when there is a desire to have sex and a release of hormones in the body. Ejaculation usually occurs during orgasm. People with vulvas experience orgasm when the clitoris (and sometimes the inner and outer labia) is stimulated and becomes swollen.
Just like the penis, the clitoris has a high concentration of nerve endings (4, 5). By touching and massaging these erogenous zones, signals in the body flood the nerves. This can send pleasurable feelings all over the body. Understanding your and your partner’s anatomy is important so that you both experience the highest amount of pleasure during sex.
Communication is also critical. What feels good to you might not feel good to someone else. Talk with your partner about what you do and do not like. It can be fun to experiment to find the most enjoyable touches. Increased communication may also increase intimacy. Masturbation is another way that may help you understand the best techniques for experiencing sexual pleasure.
How to have safer sex
Safer sex is a way to reduce your risk of STIs and pregnancy. Penis-in-vagina sex is the main type of sex that can lead to pregnancy. Pregnancy could also occur if semen reaches the vagina during other forms of sex. STIs can be shared during all forms of sex where bodies and body fluids come in contact.
The top ways to protect against sexually transmitted infections (STIs):
1. Use barrier methods the correct way every time you have sex. Barrier methods should be used on body parts and toys for any vaginal, anal, or oral sex.
Barrier methods include:
External condoms (sometimes called “male” condoms)
Internal condoms (sometimes called “female” condoms)
Latex or nitrile gloves
2. Use lots of condom-safe lubrication
3. Change condoms before switching between oral, vaginal, or anal sex
4. Use a fresh condom or clean/sterilize sex toys when sharing
5. Test for all STIs frequently, and encourage your partner to do the same
Barrier methods significantly lower the risk of getting an STI (6). They work by preventing each partner’s genitals and body fluids from coming into contact with the other partner’s body (7). When used correctly every single time, condoms can also prevent pregnancy about 98% of the time with perfect use and 87% of the time with typical use (8). You should always use a barrier method unless all partners have recently tested negative for an STI, and you are both absolutely sure that neither of you have had sex with anyone else since the test. If you do not want to get pregnant you should use a condom everytime you have sex.
What if my partner doesn’t want to use a condom?
Protecting your health and feeling comfortable with all sexual activities is very important. Have open communication with your partner. If they pressure you to have unsafe sex, think about if they are a person you want to be with.
STIs and STDs: prevention, symptoms, and treatments
Every day, more than 1 million sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are acquired worldwide (9). But while STIs are extremely common, how much do you know about them? Did you know there are preventative steps you can take from contracting 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 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 (10)
Untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and/or infertility in women and people with female reproductive tracts (11)
Genital herpes is the second most common STI in the USA (12)
Some people with herpes get recurrent blisters and ulcers on their genital areas
Many people with herpes have no symptoms and are able to continue spreading the disease
There is no cure for herpes, but outbreaks and symptoms can be managed (13)
Gonorrhea is often asymptomatic, meaning that many people don’t know they have it (14)
Untreated, it can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, chronic pelvic pain, ectopic pregnancy, and/or infertility in women and people with female reproductive tracts (15)
Gonorrhea infections must be treated with two antibiotic medications (14)
Trichomoniasis is often asymptomatic, meaning that many people don’t know they have it (16)
Some people may experience symptoms including increased, malodorous, colored vaginal discharge, vulvar pain and itchiness, and/or pain with urination or sexual intercourse (17)
HIV is transmitted through the exchange of certain types of bodily fluids including blood, semen, breast milk, and vaginal fluids (18)
Saliva, tears, sneezing, and physical contact cannot transmit HIV (19)
Having unprotected anal sex, penis-in-vagina sex, and even oral sex (though rarely) can transmit HIV
There is no cure for HIV, but medications are available that can keep the viral load low and greatly reduce the risk of both transmitting and contracting HIV (18)
Which types of sex can transmit STIs?
STIs can be transferred through semen, vaginal fluids, skin-to-skin contact, blood, saliva, and even feces (20). 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) (20).
STIs you can get from kissing
Oral herpes (HSV-1)
STIs you can get from oral sex
Herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2)
STIs you can get from fingering and fisting (anal and vaginal) (21)
Anything that can cause cuts or tears to the anus or genitals (like fingernails, rings, or tearing of the skin) 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 vaginal (penis-in-vagina or vulva-to-vulva) sex
Herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2)
Hepatitis B & C
STIs you can get from anal sex
Hepatitis B & C
Herpes (HSV-1 and HSV-2)
Diseases transmitted through microorganisms from feces (Giardia, Shigella, Salmonella, Campylobacter, and E. coli) (21)
Having an STI is nothing to be ashamed of.
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.
When and how to have sex is a personal decision. Being informed, safe, and comfortable will mean that your sexual experiences can be fun and pleasurable too.
Sex is most enjoyable when you feel safe, comfortable and excited. Download Clue to track when you have protected or unprotected sex, and set reminders for STI check-ups.
An earlier version of this article was published November 8th 2021.