Defining sexual health
The phrase “sexual health” means two things to most people: birth control and sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention. But sexual health is so much more than that. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sexual health 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 pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.
That’s a lot more to unpack than what you learned in sixth grade health class, isn’t it? Sexual health is a part of every person’s health profile, old or young and sexually active or not. All of the following (and more) fall under the umbrella of sexual health:
- Gender identity and expression
- Sexual orientation
- Body image and self-esteem
- Sexual and reproductive healthcare
- Experiences of unwanted violence and coercion
- Consent and boundaries
- Relationships and intimacy
- Sexual and reproductive anatomy
The processes of your sexual health do not occur in a vacuum – they interact with the systems that keep your body functioning, from filling your lungs with oxygen to pumping blood through your veins. Sex itself (whether solo or partnered) has ample benefits to your mental and physical health including improved pelvic floor strength, improved cardiac health, more manageable menstrual cramps and improved cognitive function.
Conversely, failure to manage your sexual health can have serious health implications. Take chlamydia. Chlamydia is the most commonly contracted, curable STI. If caught early, it’s quickly eradicated with a dose of antibiotics. If left untreated, chlamydia can cause pelvic inflammatory disease, higher risk of ectopic pregnancy, severe infection, arthritis and even infertility.
And all of this could be prevented by a simple STI screening.
The risks of leaving an STI untreated might be news to you, but you are probably familiar with the danger of detecting cancer when it’s too late. Maintaining your sexual health includes screening for reproductive and gynecologic cancers such as prostate, breast, cervical and ovarian cancers. Comfort discussing symptoms in these areas with your medical provider just might save your life.
The characteristics of a sexually healthy person
While sexual health itself casts a wide net, the characteristics of a sexually healthy person are clearly defined by the American Sexual Health Association as someone who:
- Understands that sexuality is a natural part of life involving more than sexual behavior
- Recognizes that everyone has sexual rights
- Has access to sex education, information and resources to care for sexual health issues
- Can experience sexual pleasure, satisfaction and intimacy when they desire those experiences
- Communicates their sexual health needs with intimate partners and health care providers as necessary
Not everyone will check each of these boxes at any given time, and that’s ok. Every individual has a unique understanding of their own sexuality, preferences and the role of sexuality in their life. But generally speaking, the American Sexual Health Association believes physical and emotional safety and happiness for those involved in a sexual relationship are the key to living a sexually healthy life.
There is no shame in feeling discomfort discussing sex, sexuality and sexual health. A myriad of variables contribute to any given person’s relationship with sex, from culture to religious affiliation to family dynamic and personal trauma. But by taking steps to manage your sexual health, you’re taking steps towards a healthier, more holistic self.