Tips for enjoying healthy, safer sex

For Sexual Health Week 2016, we asked more than 2,000 people across the UK about their knowledge of and attitudes towards sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and safer sex using condoms.

Our findings highlighted areas where you might need some extra support to stay healthy and get the most out of sex. Here are some tips to get you started.

Conquer your condom embarrassment

Carrying a condom says you care about your healthNearly one in five (18%) said they thought it can be embarrassing to buy condoms. Young people aged 16-24 were even more likely (28%) to feel embarrassed. And some people said they think it's taboo for women to buy and carry condoms. The stigma that still surrounds sex, and means we can have a hard time talking about it, can also act as a barrier to safer sex.

Most adults are sexually active and most sex takes place for pleasure, so there really isn’t anything to feel ashamed or embarrassed about. It’s important to remember that carrying and using condoms is a responsible health choice and is not a reason to judge someone for their sexual behaviour. One of the reasons we campaign for statutory sex and relationships education in schools is so young people get consistent messages about using condoms to enjoy safer sex. This would help normalise many aspects of sexual health and enable people to treat it as they do any other part of their health.

If you're embarrassed to add condoms to your shopping list, remember that they're also available for free from various places, including sexual health and contraception clinics, some general practices and young people’s services. These services are confidential and non-judgemental.

Don't forget oral sex can put you at risk of infection

Only one in 10 people we surveyed had learned about the risk of STIs being passed on during oral sex. Other gaps in people’s knowledge of STIs, included how they can be transmitted, what effect they may have on the body, what the signs and symptoms might be (if there are any), and how to get help when you need it.

Overall our survey participants reported quite poor sex and relationships education (SRE). If you missed out on good SRE you might not be equipped with the knowledge and skills you need to keep yourself safe. We answer many questions about infections on our STI support pages and have a guide to using male and female condoms.

Use condoms to enhance your pleasure

Through our survey, we heard various barriers to using condoms, including not liking the feel of condoms and just not enjoying sex as much with them. Most sex is for pleasure and so it's understandable you don't want to lose the enjoyment factor. Staying safe is important though, so try and use condoms to enhance your pleasure rather than seeing them as an annoyance. Knowing you’re protected from STIs can actually mean being able to relax and enjoy sex even more!

If you know you’re more likely to abandon condoms in the heat of the moment, or lack confidence in putting them on, practice can make perfect. Women, as well as men, may feel more confident using condoms if they practice taking them out of the packet and handling them. For men, it’s really important to find the right condom for you – they come in a range of shapes and sizes and, if you’ve not found a condom which feels comfortable to wear, it's worth experimenting with some different types.

You can also practice ejaculating into condoms without penetrative sex to improve confidence in using them; this can also help increase the association between condoms and pleasure, rather than seeing them as a barrier to enjoyment.

Remember as well as male condoms, there are also female condoms, which some people may prefer to use, and dams (small plastic squares) can be used to protect you from STIs during oral sex.

Negotiate condom use before sex

11% said that on at least one occasion they had not used a condom during sex because their partner didn’t want to use one. Using condoms to protect yourself from infections and unplanned pregnancy is a responsible health choice, and it is also your right. It is always OK to say no to sex and it is OK to tell a sexual partner that for you, using condoms for safer sex is non-negotiable.

At FPA we believe condom negotiation should be covered as part of good sex and relationships education. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our survey participants told us they had not learned at school how to deal with situations where a partner puts pressure on you to have sex without a condom.

It's often much easier if you discuss condom use with a partner beforehand rather than in the heat of the moment. If you need more help and support with this, try asking a health professional at a contraception or sexual health clinic to talk you through some strategies.

Practice talking about sex

Nearly one-third of people in our survey said it is easier to have sex than to talk about it. Protecting yourself from STIs is a lot easier when you can have open conversations with a partner about using condoms, but this can sometimes feel embarrassing and awkward. Even for couples who have been together for a long time, frank conversations about sex might not be a walk in the park.

It is a skill worth having though, and if you practice it will become much easier. It can also help open up other important conversations, like what you like or would like to try in sex, and what you would rather not try.

Have a look at our guide to easier communication.


A note on our survey: We surveyed 2,079 people in the UK aged 16+ who have ever been sexually active. All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from Atomik Research. Fieldwork was undertaken between 27 July and 1 August 2016. The survey was carried out online. The survey was representative of all UK people aged 16 and over.