Sexual Health. Two words that conjure up images of a gym teacher in front of a blackboard, rows of foil wrapped condoms, and PSAs about preventing HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).
Are all of those visions included in the world of sexual health? Sure. But there’s a lot more to it; I’ve spent my life (or at least the majority of it) getting people to not only broaden their definition of sexual health, but to understand that sexual health is part of their overall health. It’s hard to have one without the other. So why do this again now? It’s not as if we haven’t heard this before.
September 4th is World Sexual Health Day; that may seem like just another public service announcement about why it is important to use condoms, but to me, it is so much more. Sexual health is the foundation for who we are and how we operate in our lives. And when I heard that my friends at the American Social Health Association were going to devote an entire month to providing information, fact based as well as personal perspectives on sexual health, I was in.
So just to give you some background, I am a sexuality educator. Teaching is what I do and what I love. But my goal has always been to get students to redefine the concept of sexual health. In my lectures, I like to frame it as a larger concept with six pillars. I like to think of these pillars – which create a true understanding of sexual health- as: physical, emotional, intellectual/cognitive, relational, political (yes, political), and cultural. If that doesn’t make sense (and it may not right away), consider the following:
Physical sexual health includes: taking care of your overall health, using protection (condoms, dams, or other barriers) regularly, using contraception until you decide that you want to become pregnant, having pleasure or the potential for pleasure, getting tested regularly for STIs, and treating or curing an STI that you may currently have.
Emotional sexual health includes: feeling comfortable with your decisions (to engage or not engage in sexual activities), feeling good about your sexual orientation, owning your sense of gender and gender identity, having self-confidence, feeling good about your body, feeling fulfilled (not just in a relationship but on your own, too), feeling comfortable talking about your sexuality and sexual health to partners and healthcare providers alike.
Intellectual/Cognitive sexual health: being familiar with how your body works (including your genitals and reproductive systems), knowing about the outcomes (positive and potentially negative) of different sexual behaviors, knowing how to use condoms correctly, knowing where to access reproductive health services, knowing about different contraceptive methods and how they work, having the information to make smart decisions about all sex behaviors.
Relational sexual health (the health of our “relationships”): this answers the question “Is my relationship/partnership healthy?” Do you have a voice in your relationship? Can you speak up about pleasure? Protection? Your emotional and physical needs? Does my partner respect my needs and/or boundaries? Is there balance, equality, and mutual respect in my relationship? Can I talk to my partner about STIs and my personal sexual health status? Do we communicate well? How is the general quality of my relationship?
Political sexual health: Okay, so a little personal monologue here (these thoughts are merely my own). While I would love for people of all ages to be concerned with how they approach their sexuality, sexual health, and their relationships, we are severely challenged in this area on a grand scale. Don’t take my word for it - it’s election time. Look at how we tackle issues of personal responsibility, health, sexuality, and reproduction. It’s detestable, really. Sexual health isn’t just about what we do; it’s about what is done to us. Which means that it is impossible to be sexually healthy if our culture/political structure puts up physical or metaphorical barriers to accessing tools/places/services that contribute to our sexual health. So while you may have different values than me, the following issues all affect our ability to be sexually healthy: sexuality education, access emergency contraception, affordable contraception, reproductive health services, preventative care, abortion, same sex marriage, and conscience clauses (if you haven’t heard about those, a Google-search will inform you, for sure), to name a few.
Cultural sexual health: Every culture has its own standards and belief systems when it comes to sex and sexuality. In a perfect world, those standards enhance our sexual health, but in many cases, these systems hinder it. Consider the effects of perpetuating the sexual double standard or the sexualization of women and girls. Think about how treatment of same sex couples or our transgender population impacts sexual health. Media messages - cultural messages matter.
In a perfect world, we are satisfied and empowered by all of these sexual health pillars. Because sexual health isn’t simply about using condoms (though that is definitely important). I believe that at any age we have the ability to be sexually healthy. We have an opportunity to do better for our young people and for ourselves. World Sexual Health Day should be every day, but if you only started to think about it today, that’s okay. There’s no better time to make a change in our lives.
--Logan Levkoff, PhD
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