What is sexual health?

Four red condoms in packets
The focus on health in relation to sex has got inextricably linked with two things.  Not getting a transmittable infection and not getting pregnant.  But these things should not be the limit of what sexual health is all about. So, why do we think they are?  There are a few good reasons.  Firstly, education around sexual health is sadly lacking in most contexts.  It usually focuses on only one kind of sex – the penis in vagina kind – and it focuses on the aforementioned risks.  Queer students rarely hear about anything resembling the kind of sex they might have – except, perhaps, in relation to HIV prevention.  All in all the educational experience leaves youngsters ill equipped to have conversations about sexual health that move beyond risk and into desire and pleasure.  Despite being surrounded by sexual images and the proliferation of sexual advertising, discussions of sexual pleasure are rare. For the most part, our culture doesn’t support discussions of sexuality and sexual health outside the clinical setting of STI clinics and safer sex services.

Yet the World Health Organisation went so far as to say that sexual health is an inextricable part of human health. Rather than framing this as an absence of disease, ill-function or infirmity; the WHO defines sexual health as:

“a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.”

In a recent sexual health workshop, run by Pink Therapy, Douglas Braun-Harvey outlined his six principles, adapted from  WHO definition.  Each of these deserves a full post of its own, but they are:

  1. Consent – ensuring everyone involved in a sexual encounter is a willing participant.
  2. Non-exploitative – ensuring agreements are honoured and that no-one is advancing their agenda at the expense of someone else involved in the encounter or relationship.
  3. Protection from HIV, STIs, and unwanted pregnancy – ensuring that everyone is aware of the risk they are taking and steps to manage that risk.
  4. Honesty – ensuring that participants are honest with themselves and partners about their desires, fantasies, limits and fears.
  5. Shared Values – finding shared understanding of the meaning of sex between the participants.
  6. Mutually Pleasurable – making sure that everyone is enjoying the sex (which, given the orgasm gap referred to in the last post, might be of particular concern in heterosexual relationships).

If you prefer seeing these in pictorial form, I have put them into a mind map:

Mind map of sexual health concepts
Sexual health mind map, based on Douglas Braun-Harvey six principles of sexual health.
You’ll notice that our current sexual health education is focused on just one of these things, but all of them are critically important to fulfilling and healthy sex.  Look out for future posts addressing some things to think about in each area!

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