Let's Talk (Intelligently) About Sex

What are the Risks of Vaginal Intercourse?

When people are talking about safe sex, and doing sex education, often the default understanding of the word “sex” is heterosexual vaginal intercourse. However, there are many ways to have sex other than vaginal intercourse – including anal sex, oral sex, fingering, and even mutual masturbation. Since the risks of each of those behaviors are often called out separately, it also seems important to specifically discuss the risks of vaginal sex.

In particular, this article will be focusing on the specific risks of heterosexual vaginal intercourse, sex involving the insertion of a penis into a vagina. There are other ways to have vaginal sex, such as through the use of sex toys, but those forms of vaginal sex have different risks.

The two primary physical risks of vaginal intercourse are pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

Risk 1: Pregnancy

Pregnancy occurs when sperm from the male partner fertilizes an egg from the female partner, and the resulting embryo successfully implants into the uterus. For a pregnancy to occur, both sperm and egg must be present inside the uterus at the same time, and the uterus must be ready for implantation.

Pregnancy risk can be reduced by using any of a number of effective forms of contraception, including:

  • sterilization
  • intrauterine devices (IUDs)
  • hormonal contraception in the form of the pill, ring, or patch
  • cervical barriers such as the diaphragm, cervical cap, or sponge
  • male and female condoms
Emergency contraception can also be used to prevent a pregnancy for a few days after vaginal sex has occurred. However, the more quickly it is used, the more effective it will be.

If a woman becomes pregnant, possible outcomes include her carrying the pregnancy to term and having a baby, choosing to terminate the pregnancy with an elective abortion, or experiencing a spontaneous abortion. A spontaneous abortion is also known as a miscarriage.

Risk 2: Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Just about every sexually transmitted disease can be transmitted during vaginal sex. This includes all of the major STDs including:

  • chlamydia
  • gonorrhea
  • syphilis
  • herpes
  • HIV
  • HPV
  • trichomoniasis

The risk of transmission of all of these STDs can be reduced by consistently using male or female condoms. Although these methods will not perfectly protect against STDs that are transmitted from skin-to-skin, they will reduce transmission risk, and they are highly effective in preventing diseases  that are transmitted through bodily fluids, such as HIV.

It’s important to know that although sexual transmission won’t occur every time an infected person has sex, that doesn’t mean it isn’t important to practice safe sex as reliably as possible. It just means that if you miss one chance to use protection, it’s still a good idea to use it the next time. Although some people assume that if they haven’t used a condom once they might as well never bother again, that couldn’t be more untrue. It’s always a good idea to use protection, even after forgetting to do so. After all, you might have gotten lucky once, but that doesn’t mean you’ll get lucky again.

In order to make good decisions about your STD risk, it’s important to discuss your STD testing history with any potential partners. You will want to talk about when you were last tested, what specific conditions you were tested for, what your results were, and whether you’ve had any potentially risky encounters since your last test. However, it’s important to know that test results aren’t a perfect way of knowing whether you may be at risk during a sexual encounter. STD test results may be inaccurate, the test may not have been performed correctly, and people often think they’ve been tested when they haven’t.

Psychological Risks of Vaginal Sex

Not all of the risks of vaginal sex are physical. Intercourse can be a difficult emotional experience, particularly for people who have strong feelings about virginity and other moral concerns about sexuality. For example, some young people are extremely paranoid about pregnancy, and choosing to have vaginal intercourse may lead to obsessive worries and fears about what an unwanted pregnancy might do to their lives.

Because of the potential physical and emotional consequences of sex, it is important to make active choices about all forms of physical intimacy, including vaginal sex, to make certain that you’re doing what’s right for you. If you choose to have sex, it should be because it’s something you want to do and something that you are excited about. It shouldn’t be because sex something you think you’re supposed to do or because you didn’t quite figure out how to say no.