Guide to Sexual Health

When someone hears the term, “sexual health,” they may think it refers only to avoiding an unplanned pregnancy or preventing STIs. While preventing unplanned pregnancy and staying STI-free are both parts of sexual health, sexual health is really an umbrella term that encompasses many different facets of a person’s physical and emotional well-being surrounding sex and sexuality.

On September 4th, 2012, the World Association of Sexual Health launched World Sexual Health Day to bring awareness to these issues and to help people of all sexual orientations fully understand what it all means to be a sexually healthy person.

What are the characteristics of a sexually healthy person?

The American Sexual Health Association defines someone who is sexually healthy as possessing the following characteristics, behaviors, and belief systems around sex and relationships:

  • They understand that sexuality is a natural part of someone’s life, and sexuality involves more than just sexual behavior.
  • A person who is sexually healthy can recognize that everyone has sexual rights.
  • Sexually healthy people make safe, reliable efforts to prevent unintended pregnancy, STIs, and also seek care and treatment when they are needed.
  • Sexually healthy people have access to sex education, information, and resources to care for sexual health issues.
  • A sexually healthy person can experience sexual pleasure, satisfaction, and intimacy when they desire those experiences.
  • People who are sexually healthy can openly communicate about their sexual health and needs with intimate partners and healthcare providers when needed.

These are worthy goals to set and obtain for people who want to make sexual health a priority in their lives. Not everyone will be able to check off each item from the list, and that’s not necessarily an indicator that a person is lacking in sexual health or is otherwise unhealthy. Each person has different ideas and standards for sexual health, and it is an incredibly personal part of a person’s identity and behavior. But generally, safety, both physical and emotional, and happiness for everyone in a sexual relationship are the keys to living a sexually healthy, authentic life.

Why is sexual health so important?

There are several paths to becoming sexually healthy, and they include education, safety, and also communication with healthcare providers and intimate partners. Sexual health is important because it enables people to take charge of their reproductive health, and their emotional well-being surrounding their intimate relationships. Having healthy, fulfilling relationships can improve a person’s quality of life, improve their physical and mental health, and even extend their life.

1. Education

Most people in the U.S. learn about the physical aspects of sex and sexuality when they are young and in school. They will learn about the risks of unintended pregnancy and unprotected sex, and how to prevent STIs and unwanted pregnancy. Most likely, they will also learn about sexual abuse, and consensually versus non-consensual sexual acts. It’s crucial that people continue to learn about sex and sexuality as they age so that they can make informed, healthy decisions about romantic relationships and their reproductive health.

2. Sexual Safety

Safety can refer to preventing pregnancy and STIs. It can also refer to staying safe from sexual abuse, assault, rape, or sexual exploitation.

While many birth control methods are incredibly effective at preventing unintended pregnancy, most forms of birth control do not prevent against the spread of STIs. Over half of all adults will contract an STI at some point in their lives. STIs can be spread through vaginal, anal, and oral sex.

Unfortunately, some STIs do not even cause any symptoms. It’s possible to spread an asymptomatic STI to an unsuspecting partner if a person does not use an effective barrier method during sex. Latex condoms and abstinence are the only effective methods for preventing the spread of STIs during sexual activity. It’s important to use barrier methods and get regularly tested for STIs if someone is sexually active. Untreated STIs can cause pain, infertility, and they can even kill.

Women who are sexually active may want to consider a hormonal birth control method in addition to condoms to prevent unintended pregnancy. Birth control pills, patches, shots, implants, and rings are incredibly effective at preventing pregnancy, and they also offer numerous health benefits as well. Women who take birth control pills lower their risk of getting ovarian and uterine cancers.

3. Communication

Communication is a significant part of sexual health. When a person becomes sexually active, it’s vital that they communicate with their doctors and healthcare team. A doctor can inform of their risks, what types of safety measures to take, and how to prevent sexual health risks. Supportive, knowledgeable healthcare officials can also answer questions relating to sexual health, and prescribe birth control if it fits a person’s lifestyle and is safe to take. Sometimes, people may have a sexual restriction or a sexual health issue. An informed doctor can prescribe medications to help with any problems that may limit a person’s sexual functioning and lower their quality of life.

So, not only is communication with a healthcare team an important part of sexual health, so is healthy communication with sexual partners. Relationships thrive when both partners are respectful, and communicate their needs, expectations, and their boundaries. A sexually healthy person is someone that is respectful of their partner’s boundaries. It’s vital for their sexual health to be in a relationship with someone who does not pressure them into doing something that makes them uncomfortable.

For healthy sexual relationships, both partners need to have open lines of communication about pregnancy, and safe sex practices. Sexually healthy people will tell their partners if they have been diagnosed with an STI so that their partners can get tested and receive treatment. Being in good sexual health means that someone is informed, respectful to themselves and others, and practices safe sex. Sexual health also means that someone can enjoy a sexual relationship without fear or coercion.

How else is sexual health defined?

In clinical settings, sex is often defined as a risk that needs to be counseled against. But in the realm of sexual health, sex is becoming established as part of the human experience. Sexual health is considered a state of emotional, mental, physical, and social well-being that relates to sexuality. Sexual health isn’t just the absence of a disease or referring to sexual dysfunction or infirmity.

Moving into the future, sexual health will come to define a positive, respectful approach to sexual behavior and relationships. In addition, the possibility of having safe, pleasurable experiences will also become part of the realm of sexual health, where partners are free of violence, discrimination, and coercion. For everyone to maintain positive and healthy sexuality, the sexual rights of all people will need to be recognized and protected. Universally, sexual health is an integral part of the universe of sexual rights.

Unfortunately, the fact that new definitions of sexual health must include an absence of coercion or discrimination shows just how far society needs to move forward for more people to be considered sexually healthy. The prevalence of so many negatives regarding sexuality in the average person’s life is a testament to how important improving sexual health is.

What are the consequences of poor sexual health?

Poor sexual health can lead to a host of adverse consequences. Coercion, and also a lack of education or sexual health resources can lead to unintended pregnancy and STIs. Failing to communicate with doctors can also cause long-term physical health consequences. An unknown, untreated STI can cause the disease to spread, and even cause permanent health issues in the patient. Being unable to communicate in sexual and romantic relationships can cause emotional pain and distress, and severely impact the quality of someone’s life.

How can someone improve their sexual health?

Education and communication are the keys to leading a sexual health life. There are many self-help books and resources available, and it’s important to speak to a romantic partner about boundaries and needs.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to speak about sensitive subjects to a sexual partner. Shame and negative social conditioning can cause people to ignore their needs or the needs of their partner. In some cases, it can be beneficial to speak to a therapist or counselor who is knowledgeable and supportive of sexual health.

Talk therapy or one-on-one therapy, and even couples counseling can help people wade through these issues and come out the other side in better sexual health. Therapy can give people the tools they need to communicate their boundaries and expectations respectfully, and in a safe, judgment-free environment.

It’s also important to speak to a doctor about sexual health needs. Many different organizations are primarily geared toward serving the patient’s sexual health needs. These organizations can help someone choose the right type of birth control for their lifestyle, and also offer STI and pregnancy testing.

Sexual health is an integral part of living an authentic life. Making sexual health a priority can significantly improve a person’s emotional, physical, and mental well-being, as well as enhance their intimate relationships and quality of life. If you’re looking to improve your sexual health, please reach out a qualified counselor or doctor today.