National Women's Health Policy

Contraception and safe sex

Page last updated: 07 February 2011

Whether or not women use contraceptives or have safe sex is not a straightforward matter. Women generally bear the primary responsibility for contraception but differences in
gender relations mean that women do not always feel they have power to insist on male contraceptive use.209

Knowledge about contraceptive methods and access to them is important for reducing the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and risk of unplanned pregnancies.

In 2001, 71 per cent of women surveyed in the Australian Study on Health and Relationships were reported to use some form of contraception.210 The most common contraceptive methods were oral contraceptives (34 per cent), tubal ligation/hysterectomy (23 per cent), condom (21 per cent) and vasectomy of partner (19 per cent).211 Whether contraception is used and the type that is then chosen varies according to age and life stage of the woman; for example, if she is single, partnered, pregnant or post-menopausal.

Education and access to sexual and reproductive health services (including contraceptives) is especially important for young women. The median age of first sexual intercourse has declined from 19 to 16 years for women.212 In 2008, 78 per cent of students (in year 10 and 12) had experienced some form of sexual activity with 43 per cent of young women having experienced sexual intercourse.213 Of the sexually active young women, 27 per cent reported having had three partners or more in the past year in 2008, up from 17 per cent in 2002.214 Same-sex attracted young people are more likely to be sexually active earlier than their heterosexual peers (often with people of the opposite sex).215

For young women, at last sexual encounter 65 per cent used a condom as the type of contraceptive method, 53.7 per cent pill, 10.8 per cent withdrawal method, 9 per cent morning after pill.216 At their most recent sexual encounter 65 per cent of young women reported having a condom available and 60 per cent reported that a condom was used.217 Trusting their partner and knowing their sexual history were the most common reasons why young women did not ask their partner to use a condom.218

The Australian Longitudinal Study on Women’s Health found that, whilst the majority of women reported their pregnancy as planned, 31 per cent of first pregnancies were recalled as unplanned, 29 per cent were unwanted at the time, and 11 per cent as resulting from contraceptive failure.219

Comprehensive support services, including skilled non-directive counselling, should be freely available and accessible to all women making decisions about unintended pregnancies, and are an essential component of effective health services for women.