Making Decisions About Sex, Birth Control, and Health

How to give yourself the care, thought, and attention you need when making decisions about sex.

Browse the internet and you will find no shortage of pages about “taking charge” or “taking care” of sexual and reproductive health. But what does this mean, exactly?

While the answer may be a little different for everyone, it involves feeling good about yourself and knowing your choices align with your values. It means being proud of—and enjoying—your sexuality. It’s knowing your own sexual boundaries and feeling confident to communicate those boundaries to a partner. It’s taking action to avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STDs). It’s being empowered to make decisions about if, or when, you want to become pregnant. It’s getting regular gynecological checkups and being able to have informed, honest conversations with your healthcare providers.

Taking charge of your sexual and reproductive health means all of this and more. Here are some key tips to ensure you’re giving these things the care, thought, and attention they need.

Determine what’s right for you
Sex is something you deserve to enjoy. Remember that it’s up to you to decide if and when you choose to have sex. This goes for whether you’re in a romantic relationship or whether you’re not. And always be sure you’re having sex in a safe and healthy way.  It’s a good idea to check in with yourself regularly: think about your values, what you’re looking for sexually, and any boundaries you’d like to set for yourself. These answers could change throughout different stages of your life.

What may also change through your life are your thoughts on becoming pregnant. You may decide this isn’t the right time to become a parent, in which case, taking steps to prevent becoming pregnant is key. Your healthcare provider can help you understand your options for birth control so you can choose one that aligns with your lifestyle, your overall health, and where you see yourself in the future.

Keep up with your gynecological appointments
Regular gynecological exams are another important aspect of maintaining good sexual and reproductive health. Here’s a rundown of the key parts of an appointment:

  • External exam. During this exam, the vulva (exterior part of the vagina) will be examined for any sores, cuts, or other abnormalities.
  • Pap test. Your healthcare provider will also perform a Pap test, which involves collecting cells from your cervix (the lower part of your uterus that opens up into the vagina) to help detect potentially precancerous and cancerous cells in the cervix.
  • Discussion about STDs and possible screening. Some STDs don’t cause symptoms, so it’s important to be honest with your healthcare provider about your sexual partners and whether reliable protection has been used. Your healthcare provider will take this information and your past medical history to determine if you should be screened for any STDs including human papillomavirus (HPV), which is the most common STD. Various strains of HPV spread through sexual contact and are associated with most cases of cervical cancer. Vaccine options exist that can help prevent infection by certain types of HPV. During your appointment, you and your healthcare provider can talk about this vaccine and if it makes sense for you to get it.
  • Birth control check-in. This checkup is also a good time to talk about birth control—whether you’re thinking about starting it, are considering a different option, or want to stop birth control because you want to become pregnant.

Outside of your regular exams, you should schedule a visit with your gynecologist if you experience pain, menstrual changes, any skin issues with your vulva, or if you have questions about birth control. Being familiar with your body—and being on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary—is an important step in keeping yourself healthy.

Be honest with yourself, your partners, and your HCPs
Openness and honesty will not only benefit you but also the people around you. The better your healthcare provider understands your overall health, the better able they will be to answer your questions and give you the best care possible. Also of utmost importance is open communication with your partner or partners—about safe sex, personal comfort levels and boundaries, views about pregnancy, and more. This way, you can make informed decisions together. And of course, continuing to be honest with yourself—and educating yourself about your body, disease risk, the importance of health screenings, and more—can give you the tools, knowledge, and confidence you need to maintain good sexual and reproductive health.

Medically reviewed in May 2021.

American Sexual Health Association. "What is sexual health?"
National Coalition for Sexual Health. "Taking Charge of Your Sexual Health."
Office on Women's Health. "Birth Control Methods."
MedlinePlus. "Women's Health Checkup."
Planned Parenthood. "What is a pelvic exam?"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "What Should I Know About Screening?"
The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Cervical Cancer Screening."
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "How to talk to a doctor about STD Testing?"
National Cancer Institute. "Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccines."
Planned Parenthood. "Should I get the HPV Vaccine?"
Mayo Clinic. "Women's health."

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