Your sexuality is an important part of who you are, and it changes as you move through different stages of life. Girls become young women, many of whom will become mothers. And then there is menopause to consider. And all the while, it’s important to maintain your sexual and cervical health.
Girls and gender identity
Girls begin to develop a sense of gender identity from around two years of age. They begin to understand the differences between boys and girls. Gender roles become important for children aged 6–10 years. Boys tend to play with the boys and girls tend to play with the girls and the groups typically stay quite separate.
Puberty for girls
is when you change from a girl into a young woman. It often starts at around 10 years of age but you probably won’t notice any physical changes for a while. Once puberty starts, it usually takes around two years for your period
to start. You may start noticing other changes in your body, including:
- growing taller
- your breasts starting to develop
- hair growing in your pubic area and under your arms. The hair on your arms and legs might become darker too
- your hips widening and becoming curvy
- your skin may become oily. You might also start getting pimples on your face
- a whitish discharge from your vagina – this is normal and nothing to worry about.
Puberty is different for everyone. You might be one of the first of your friends to get your period. Or you might be one of the last. If you are worried about any of the changes that happen to you (or don’t happen), talk to your mum or another trusted adult. You could also talk to your doctor.
Having sex for the first time
Only you can decide when you are ready to have sex for the first time. It can be fun. It can feel good. It can also be a little awkward. It might even hurt a bit.
Most young women say feeling ready and being with the right person at the right time is very important.
Having sex for the first time because you feel pressured by your partner, or because you feel like everyone else is doing it, or because you are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs may mean that you regret your decision afterwards. So think carefully before you decide to have sex.
- both partners need to agree to have sex (this is called giving consent)
- no-one has the right to force you to have sex
- you always have the right to say no, and so does your partner
- it is okay to change your mind, even if you have already started
- always use a condom.
Visit Lawstuff for information about age, consent and the law.
Your sexual partner
Most women are sexually attracted to men. But some women are attracted to women. Or to both men and women. And other women are not attracted to anyone.
There are many forms of sexuality – straight, gay, bisexual or asexual, just to name a few. And some women explore different types of sexuality, particularly when they are young.
If you are transsexual, you have body sex characteristics that do not match your gender identity (that is, your inner sense of being male, female or somewhere in between). You have gender dysphoria if this mismatch causes you severe distress. Better Health Channel has more information about transsexuality and where you can go if you need help.
Women and safe sex
Don’t make excuses. Protect yourself and your partner from sexually transmissible infections or an unplanned pregnancy. Use a condom. They don’t cost much and you can get them at chemists and supermarkets.
If you are in a committed, monogamous relationship, and neither you nor your partner has a sexually transmissible disease, you could think about other types of contraception, if necessary.
Safe sex doesn’t just mean contraception. It also means having sex that is enjoyable and respectful:
- having sex with the right person
- having sex when you are both ready
- having the kind of sex you both want and enjoy
- having sex at a time and place you are both happy with
- feeling good about the type of sex you are having.
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual behaviour or activity that makes the victim feel uncomfortable, frightened or threatened. It is sexual activity that the victim has not given consent to.
Sexual assault refers to a broad range of sexual behaviours, including the use or threat of violence to force another person to engage in sexual activity against their will.
Sexual assault includes rape, child sexual abuse and indecent assault. These crimes are about power and control, not desire and pleasure. They affect the victim in many different ways, including:
- shock and denial
- shame and embarrassment
- guilt and blame
- low self-esteem
- nightmares and flashbacks
- mood swings
- loss of confidence
- loss of trust.
If you have been the victim of sexual assault, help is available:
- If you need immediate help, call 000.
- If you have been sexually assaulted but you don’t want to report it to the police, you can call the Sexual Assault Crisis Line, or 1800RESPECT for help.
If you think you might need emergency contraception, see your doctor, or contact one of the services listed under ‘Where to get help’ [link to ‘Where to get help’ below] at the bottom of this article.
Women’s sexual health
If you are sexually active, it’s important to maintain your sexual and cervical health. Regular checkups will help you stay healthy.
You can help protect yourself from cervical cancer by having regular Pap tests. And talk to your doctor about vaccination against HPV. (In Australia, this vaccination is Gardasil.)
A Pap test is a quick and simple test that checks for changes to the cells around the cervix (that is, the opening of the uterus). Most Pap test results are normal. But a small number of tests show a change in some of the cells. When these changes are detected early, they are easy to treat. If they are left untreated, there is a chance that the changes could develop into cervical cancer.
So have a Pap test every two years. Don’t put it off.
Sexually transmissible infections
Sexually transmissible infections (STIs) include chlamydia, genital warts, public lice (also known as crabs), scabies, gonorrhoea, syphilis, genital herpes, hepatitis B and HIV. You can get an STI through any sexual contact including vaginal, anal and oral sex.
Some STIs can be cured with medication. Other STIs have no cure but can be treated to prevent them from getting worse. Visit your doctor or a sexual health centre if you think you may have an STI.
If you are pregnant, your body is experiencing major change.
But, sometimes pregnancy is not what you wanted. If your pregnancy is unplanned, you have options:
- You can continue with the pregnancy and keep the baby.
- You can continue with the pregnancy and offer the baby for adoption or foster care.
- You can terminate your pregnancy.
Your doctor or family planning clinic can explain your options and help you decide what to do next.
Planning for a baby
If you are planning to have a baby, you can do some things to help get your body ready:
- Experts recommend that women thinking about becoming pregnant take a folic acid tablet, containing at least 0.4 milligrams of folic acid, every day. Folic acid reduces the chance of your baby having spina bifida (a serious condition that stops the lower part of the spine from developing properly). Most pregnancy multivitamins contain the folic acid you need. But talk to a pharmacist if you have any questions.
- Check your vaccinations are up to date.
- If you have a chronic health problem (such as diabetes, asthma, hypertension, depression or epilepsy), talk to your doctor now about how you can stay healthy throughout your pregnancy.
- Book in for a check-up with your dentist. Talk to them about any elective dental procedures you may need. It is better to have these procedures done before you are pregnant. And double check your oral hygiene habits to make sure your teeth are healthy now.
Women and fertility problems
Many women experience difficulties falling pregnant. You are considered to have a fertility problem if you have been trying for a baby for a year and nothing has happened. You are not alone. Around one in five couples experience fertility problems. The good news is most couples can be helped with assisted reproductive technologies including:
Contact your doctor or family planning clinic for more information.
Menopause happens when you stop having your monthly period. It usually starts sometime between 45 and 55 years of age. Signs of menopause include:
- a less predictable period
- hot flushes
- sore joints
- low libido
- vaginal dryness.
Here are some things you can do to take care of yourself during menopause:
- Maintain a healthy diet, including a high calcium intake.
- Exercise regularly.
- Have regular health checks, including mammograms and Pap tests.
- Don't stop using contraception. You are not considered infertile until a year after your last period (if you are over 50) and two years after your last period (if you are under 50).
- Talk to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy (HRT). HRT can be an effective therapy for menopausal symptoms, particularly if you have moderate to severe symptoms. But there are risks associated with its long-term use.
Women and libido
Your libido is your sex drive or desire to have sex. Libido varies dramatically from one person to the next. And your libido will probably change over your life, depending on your age, health, lifestyle and relationship.
Here are some reasons why your sex drive may fall:
- sexual problems, such as painful sex, inability to reach orgasm, or sexual desire incompatibility
- health problems, such as arthritis, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, coronary artery disease and neurological diseases
- some medications, including antidepressants and anti-seizure medications
- overuse of alcohol and other drugs, including smoking
- some types of surgery
- fatigue, including exhaustion from caring for young children or ageing parents
- pregnancy and breastfeeding
- psychological causes, including anxiety, depression, stress, poor body image, low self-esteem
- previous negative sexual experiences
- relationship problems, including lack of connection with your partner, unresolved conflict or fights, poor communication and infidelity.
Sexuality as women get older
You are never too old to have sex. But things do change as you age.
Here are some tips to maintain a rewarding sex life:
- Keep talking to your partner. Share needs, desires and concerns.
- Stay healthy. Eat healthily. Try not to drink too much. Don’t smoke. Manage chronic conditions. And talk to your doctor about any particular sexual problems you might have.
- See a sex therapist. Ask your doctor for a referral.
- Intimacy is not just having sex. Try kissing, touching and other intimate contact.
- If you are planning to have sex with a new partner, use a condom. You are still at risk of STIs.
- Young girls have a sense of gender from around two years old.
- Most girls start puberty around 10 years old, but it can be earlier or later than that. Your body will go through big changes as you change from a girl into a young woman.
- Always practise safe sex.
- For some girls (and women), gender isn’t straightforward. If this is you, help is available if you need it.
- Pregnancy will change your body and your life. You have choices if your pregnancy is unplanned.
- Sometimes pregnancy does not happen easily. But help is available.
- Sexual assault can happen to anyone. Unwanted sexual activity is not okay.
- Have regular sexual and cervical health checks throughout your life.
- Menopause happens when you stop having your monthly period. It usually happens between 45 and 55 years old.
- You are never too old to have sex.
Where to get help