What is sexual health?
If somebody asked you to describe your vision of health you probably would find an easy answer. You would say eating well, getting enough exercise, reducing stress, and so on and so forth. If someone asked you what is your vision of sexual health, you may have a more difficult time coming up with an answer.
In fact, you may answer this question with a question. Are you talking about sexually transmitted infections? Are you asking me about ways to plan or prevent a pregnancy? Do you mean something about my menstrual cycle?
Most people have a hard time expressing their vision about positive sexual health because it is something that is not discussed much in our country. However, sexual health is an essential component of your overall health and your personal well-being
Sexual health is not just about avoiding infections or unwanted pregnancy (even though this is important), but it also about the right to safe, respectful, pleasurable sexual experiences that are free from pressure, coercion, or harm. It is also the right to have access to evidenced based health care and education to help you achieve these goals.
In 2006 the Who Health Organization(WHO) defined sexual health as:
“…… 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.”
This definition, from a human rights perspective, is really about pleasure and safety. Health must be viewed from a physical, mental, spiritual as well as sexual perspective. You have a right to accurate information about sex as well as to engage in consensual, satisfying experiences.
Only recently did the United States, via the Centers for Disease Control(CDC), adopt the WHO definition of sexual health. In the past, they had intentionally removed the word “pleasure” and replaced it with “understanding the benefits”. It is unclear what the motivation was for the CDC to update their position on sexual health, but it is a step in the right direction. Currently in our country there is no mandate to have evidenced based sexuality education in the schools. Therefore scientifically proven ways to prevent pregnancy and honor consensual, non-coercive, pleasurable sexuality is not mainstreamed. As a result the United States has some of the highest rates of unplanned pregnancy(although this rate decreased for the first time this past year) and sexual infection in the developed world and 1 out of 6 Americans will be the victim of sexual violence during their lifetime (1, 2, 3).
So why is it important to devote time discussing sexual health with your health care provider? Here are a few reasons:
1. It is a basic human right. Every person deserves the right to safe, consensual, and pleasurable experiences (4). If you have concerns about your sexual health you have the right to discuss these issues with a knowledgeable health care provider and get respectful and evidenced based advice.
2. It allows you to achieve better health. The four basic pillars necessary for good health are physical, emotional, spiritual, and sexual. Sex should not be minimized. Healthy sexuality leads to better health: less stress, better sleep, etc., etc. Access to quality sex education and health care is imperative to help you stay healthy. The more you understand about how your body works and what it needs, the better you will be at advocating for your health needs. If you have sexual concerns such as pain, low desire, issues with your sexual orientation or gender identity, or are experiencing coercion, for example, it is hard to feel well on any level. Learning about your body, trusting your instincts, and getting health care which is focused on every component of who you are will help feel as good as you can.
3. Sex should be fun. Unfortunately it can be stressful. It is hard to feel the joy if you are worried about unintended pregnancy, infection, pain, or being forced to do something you do not want to do. Every person has the right to attain the highest level of sexual health that is pleasurable and right for them.
Susan Kamin, CNM, MSN, MPH opened Lifecycle Women’s Health in order to provide sensitive and equitable women’s health care in a safe and non-rushed environment. Her focus is on sexual health and well body care for all women from adolescence past menopause. She works in partnership with her clients to achieve optimal wellness by encouraging lifestyle changes and incorporating natural as well as medical remedies as needed.
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