Defining Sexual Health and Understanding Its Importance
Sexual health isn't all about sexually transmitted diseases. It isn't only about performance or dysfunction. It incorporates your physical, emotional, mental, social, behavioral and spiritual well-being.
It's vital for people to understand sexual health in social, economic and political contexts as well, as it's an integral component of your overall health.
Let's examine why understanding and achieving good sexual health is important.
How can we define sexual health?
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines 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."
Sexual health is:
- Applicable to every age group
- Respecting yourself and your sexual partners
- Being able to be free from discrimination
- Being able to be free from sexual violence
- The ability to express yourself through diverse sexualities
- The ability to feel comfortable identifying with a gender of your choice
- Having the right to have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences if you choose to
- Having access to sexual health services
- Knowledge and empowerment to live a healthy and fulfilled life
Why sexual health matters
"Sexual health is an important part of overall health. It can affect physical, mental and emotional health," explained Amir Marashi, M.D., an OB-GYN and board-certified cosmetic gynecologist/pelvic pain specialist licensed to practice in New York, California, Texas and Florida.
Sexual health services can change lives. Having access to sexual health information gives people the knowledge they need to make informed choices about their own bodies. Without this support, people can find themselves faced with the following:
- Unhealthy sexual relationships
- Sexually transmitted infections (STIs)
- Lifelong conditions, such as cancer or infertility, caused by untreated STIs or unsafe sex
- Unintended pregnancy
- Unsafe pregnancy and childbirth
- Sexual dysfunction
- Mental health complications
- Relationship problems
- Sexual coercion, abuse or violence
- Harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation
Sexuality and sexual health
Sexuality isn't just about sex. It encompasses your preferences, thoughts, feelings, behaviors, attractions, kinks, likes and dislikes toward other people. Sexuality is an essential piece of the puzzle of who we are. It influences other aspects of our lives and is diverse and personal to each individual.
Sexuality also represents our thoughts and feelings about our:
Sexuality can change at every stage of our lives.
"Sexuality is fluid, constantly growing and evolving throughout your and your partner's life, as well as your relationship," explained Susie Gronski, D.P.T., a sex educator in Asheville, North Carolina, who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT) and serves as a medical advisor for Aeroflow Urology.
Gender identity refers to a person's sense of their self and gender, Marashi explained.
"Gender isn't about anatomy," he said. "Instead, it's about how a person knows themselves to be."
According to Marashi, gender identities include (but are not limited to) female, male, transgender, gender neutral, nonbinary, agender, pangender, genderqueer, two-spirit and third gender. Some people may identify with a combination of these—or none at all.
An excellent resource for exploring concepts in gender identity is Teen Talk, as recommended by Marashi.
Gender and sex are different. Your gender identity does not always match your sex assigned at birth; it is about how you think and feel about the sex you are. It is self-determined and can sometimes change over your lifetime.
Myths and misconceptions about sexual health
You might hear many misconceptions and urban myths about sexual health. Five of them are dispelled here:
Myth: I don't have an STI because I don't have any symptoms
"Sexually transmitted infections and sexually transmitted diseases are two terms that refer to the same thing: infections that are transmitted from one person to another during sexual intercourse," Marashi explained.
You may think that if you have an STI, you'll know it, but in fact, that isn't always the case. Just because you don't have symptoms doesn't mean there isn't a problem. STIs that often don't show symptoms include chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis, HIV, herpes, syphilis, HPV, and hepatitis A, B and C.
Untreated STIs can lead to chronic pelvic pain, infertility, ectopic pregnancy, cervical cancer, neurological complications, cardiac complications, a compromised immune system and more.
Myth: You can't get an STI if you wear a condom
Condoms are your best protection against STIs if you are sexually active. However, it's good to remember that condoms work only on the covered area, which means you need to know how to use a condom correctly. Plus, condoms can become damaged or break. It's also important to understand that some STIs can be passed even if there's no intercourse, during acts such as oral sex.
If you have any sores or ulcers from an STI in a location that the condom doesn't cover, you can still pass it to your partner.
Myth: Infertility is much more common among women
Infertility is not just a women's issue. It affects men and women equally. One in 7 couples are affected by infertility. Of those cases:
- 30 percent are attributed solely to the female
- 30 percent are attributed solely to the male
- 30 percent are due to a combination of factors in both partners
- 10 percent have an unknown cause
Myth: Men can't get HPV
Human papillomavirus (HPV) is a common virus that affects men and women. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 2 in 5 people ages 15 to 59 get HPV. Most people get HPV at some point in their lives.
Men often don't experience symptoms of HPV. The infection tends to go away on its own and doesn't cause any health problems.
But for some men, if HPV doesn't go away, it can cause health problems such as genital warts or certain cancers.
Myth: You're either gay or straight
There are many different types of sexual orientation, and many different factors can influence it. These include sexual attraction, sexual behaviors, sexual fantasies, emotional preferences, social preferences, lifestyle and self-identification.
Sexual orientation can be fluid. People can be gay, lesbian, heterosexual, bisexual, pansexual, asexual and more. But you don't have to put a label on it if you'd rather not.
Future Giddy stories will discuss sexual health by gender, how mental and physical health influence sexual health, libido, fertility and more.