What does sexually active mean? Why do doctors ask this? Is there a one-size fits all sexually active definition? Read on for more clarity!
What Does Sexually Active Mean To Your Doctor?
The most common context in which you will be asked if you are sexually active is at your doctor’s office. But what does sexually active mean in this context?
To clear this up, we need to go over why doctors ask this question. They aren’t trying to be invasive; they are trying to assess your risk for particular health conditions, namely pregnancy (if you’re able to get pregnant) and STDs.
It follows, then, that what your doctor wants to know is if you’re engaging or have recently engaged in any sexual behaviors with one or more partners that could expose you to these risks. While only penile-vaginal intercourse can lead to pregnancy, other sexual activities can expose you to STD risks:
- Manual stimulation refers to when anyone is directly touching anyone else’s genitals or genital area. While lower-risk than many other sexual activities, there are certain STDs and infections that you can transmit this way.
- Anal sex (with a partner of any gender) can also expose you to STDs.
- Oral sex (again, with a partner of any gender) also poses STD risks.
If you are engaging in any of these activities (vaginal intercourse, anal intercourse, oral sex, or manual stimulation), then the answer to the doctor’s question is “yes,” because you are being exposed to someone else’s sexy bodily fluids, and thus, potentially to STDs. This is true even if you are using barrier protection like condoms.
Note, however, that for the purposes of the doctor’s office, solo masturbation does not make you sexually active. (Neither does side-by-side masturbation with another person—i.e., everyone is touching their own genitals and not anyone else’s.) That doesn’t mean that these aren’t sexual activities, but for the purposes of a doctor, you probably wouldn’t be considered sexually active.
Kissing, dry humping, and anything happening over clothes or underwear also does not make you sexually active according to the medical world. Again, this doesn’t mean that these activities aren’t sexual. They just don’t carry the same kinds of risks that direct contact with genitals does, which is what the doctor really cares about.
If you do say that yes, you are sexually active, it’s best practice for a provider to follow-up by asking the following questions:
- Are you are sexually active with men, women, or both?
- How many partners do you have?
- What sort(s) of sexual activities are you engaging in?
- What kind of protection and/or birth control are you using (as necessary)?
This slate of questions will give the provider a pretty clear idea of what particular STDs you could be at risk of, and your pregnancy risk.
Unfortunately, however, providers don’t always behave in an ideal and sensitive manner. It’s entirely possible that if you say “yes,” you are sexually active, that the provider will not ask any follow-up questions and just assume that you are in a heterosexual relationship having penile-vaginal intercourse. Thus, some people like to respond with the provider’s initial question with additional information: if you’re a lesbian, you might say, “yes, with my girlfriend.” If you’re only having oral sex, you can say, “yes, oral sex only,” and so on. This can help prevent confusion.
Also note that it’s always perfectly fine to ask your doctor for clarification. You can say something like “My partner has fingered me, but we haven’t had intercourse” or “What do you mean specifically by sexually active?” if you aren’t sure what your doctor needs to know.
Another tricky question: what if you have engaged in sexual activity, but not recently? In this case, it’s probably best to simply disclose the timeline to your doctor. You can say, “yes, six months ago,” or whatever is accurate. Then your provider will be able to ask follow-up questions to assess your health risks and make informed recommendations to you.
A good doctor won’t judge any of your answers. If you do feel judged or made uncomfortable by your doctor, consider seeing a different provider if possible.
What Does It Mean to Be Sexually Active? The Bottom Line
What does sexually active mean? When a doctor asks you if you are sexually active, they are typically wondering if you have engaged in the following behaviors with anyone else:
- Manual stimulation (direct hand-to-genital contact with another person)
- Anal intercourse
- Oral sex
- Vaginal intercourse
Even if you are using condoms and/or birth control, the answer is still “yes” if you are engaging in these behaviors.
This doesn’t mean that excluded behaviors don’t count as sexual activity. If you consider dry-humping a sexual activity for you, then it is! But your doctor doesn’t really need to know that for the purposes of assessing STD and pregnancy risk.
A good provider will ask follow-up questions to assess your specific risks, but you can also voluntarily provide extra information to stave off confusion. And remember that you can always ask for clarification!