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What the heck does "sexually active" mean?

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Anonymous asks:

My boyfriend and I just started getting physical in our relationship. He has fingered me and when I went to the doctors the other day they asked me if I was sexually active. I am still a virgin but I wasn't sure what to say. So if I have been fingered, am I sexually active?

Heather Corinna replies:

You're not the only person confused by this term, so let's see if we can't clear it up for everyone once and for all.

When healthcare professionals ask that question, they are asking from a sexual health perspective.

In other words, what they are wanting to know is if a patient or client has possibly been at risk of pregnancy and/or of sexually transmitted infections. They're asking to find out if they should do a pregnancy test, screen for those infections, if it's time (for women) to start pap smears and also to see if you want to discuss or need birth control.

Manual sex -- "fingering" or "hand jobs" -- can present risks of some sexually transmitted infections, particularly when it isn't done with latex gloves or freshly washed hands, even though it's a lot less likely than getting one through vaginal or anal intercourse. So, in your case, from a sexual health perspective, you have been sexually active, and that'd be the case for someone, of any gender, who has engaged in manual sex, oral sex, vaginal or anal sex.

Just to give you a rundown from another page at the site, here is a short list of what risks can be presented from those basic sexual activities:

Vaginal or anal intercourse:

Oral sex:

  • Chlamydia
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • Gonorrhea
  • Hepatitis
  • Herpes Simplex
  • Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV)
  • Molluscum Contagiosum
  • Syphilis

Manual sex:

  • Bacterial Vaginosis
  • Cytomegalovirus (CMV)
  • Herpes Simplex
  • Humanpapilloma Virus (HPV, Warts)
  • Molluscum Contagiosum
  • Pubic Lice
  • Scabies

So, you can see why being sexually active isn't just about having vaginal intercourse or not from a sexual health point of view. Your risks from manual sex are obviously lesser than those from intercourse, but some do still exist that someone in charge of helping assure you stay healthy may want to be on the lookout for and test for.

The term "virgin" or "virginity" is actually completely meaningless when we're talking about health and physical (or emotional) risks. People who use those terms tend to define them in different ways, so since it doesn't really mean any one thing, were you to tell a sexual healthcare provider you were a virgin, that doesn't give them much information and leaves a lot of room for misunderstandings. Some people who have had anal intercourse, for instance, will identify themselves as virgins even though they have had all the same risks someone having vaginal intercourse has had. And some people who have had vaginal intercourse will also define themselves as virgins based on arbitrary standards.

You can also always specify how you are sexually active for clarity, such as, "Yes, I am, but with manual sex only." That's going to tell a doctor, nurse or other clinician that while they might, indeed, want to then offer you a visual genital exam, bimanual exam and pap smear (as those three things would tend to take care of looking for all the infections manual sex alone can present), you won't need a pregnancy test. They might ask if you want a birth control method, but know that you aren't in immediate need of one. Just like with any other aspect of your health or lifestyle factors that do or can impact your health, the more specific you can be with a healthcare provider, the better able they are to do their jobs well.

I know that can seem or feel awkward, but you get used to it in pretty short order. Heck, a lot of things about any kind of sex are or can be awkward, so it's just one more thing to go in that fumbling, bumbling pile.

written 28 Jul 2008 . updated 27 Jan 2014

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