Whenever we talk about sexual health, we tend to think about things like ‘no glove, no love’ or descriptions of unpleasant infections. Sexual health became a big topic of focus in the early days of HIV and AIDS and its role in schools or homes has really been about preventing illness of unwanted pregnancy.
This view of sexual health though, is pretty narrow. Sexual health, as defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) is “…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”
Why I think that this definition is important is that it shifts the focus away from merely avoiding a sexually transmitted illness (STI) and towards all the things that encompass a healthy relationship with sex and sexuality such as having a healthy and positive approach to sexuality and making special note of coercion and violence. It also alludes to sexual health being about sex as a positive thing rather than something that is stigmatised or shameful.
The reason that this holistic approach to sex and sexuality is important is that research has shown an open and broad approach to sexual health, including sex education, is an important factor in physical sexual health. This might include asking a partner to use protection or being able to set boundaries of what is safe for that individual and give consent. A supportive environment where sex is able to be talked about may reduce the chances of people engaging in behaviours that risk their physical or emotional health.
The other way in which our traditional view of sexual health can be problematic is with people who belong to groups that are quite vulnerable in terms of their sexual health. These include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, LGBTIQ+ people, those with a disability or people from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Traditional sexual health education and healthcare probably doesn’t serve these people in the ways in which they need which can risk their health and wellbeing.
With all this in mind, what do we need to keep in mind when we talk about sexual health? Sexual health should encompass these factors, as a minimum:
- Preventing illness
- Early detection and treatment of STIs or other illnesses associated with sex
- Supportive social environments
- Health education that is culturally appropriate and all-encompassing
- Vaccination (for HPV for example)
- Contraception including making it available, accessible and affordable to all people
- Cervical cancer screening
- Family planning including unwanted pregnancies, good antenatal and postnatal care
- Fertility issues
- Intimate partner violence
- Body image
- Genital mutilation
- Positive aspects of sex and sexual relationships
Whatever your age, or your concern or needs your GP will be able to help you confidentially and sensitively with maintaining or attaining good sexual health in all its forms.