There are few buzzwords as hot as the word “healthy.” Is this healthy? Am I healthy? Buy this: it will make you healthier! Health is the holy grail for many: striving for it, achieving it and maintaining it at all costs. Yet, what is health? Can it be defined? Is the mainstream definition problematic? And what about sexual health? Where does that fit in.
Sexual Health: Why It May Not Mean What You Think It Does (and Why That's a Good Thing)
Of course, sexual health is a component of health. Think about how having a great sex life is a major life goal for people of all ages and then combine that with our desire for the ever-elusive “perfect healthy lifestyle.”This is why so much time, energy and marketing go towards sexual health. As a sexologist, I see this all the time in my work. From clients fretting over the quality of their orgasm to buying all sorts of snake oil in the sexual products marketplace, there is always someone telling you to be faster, slower, stronger or more virile, all in the name of your sexual "well-being." The problem is that most of these products won’t do a darn thing. And, perhaps more importantly, the entire way we look at sexuality and health is both ableist and colonized.
Sexual Health Doesn't Have Just One Definition
Sexual health itself has no one single definition. Yet, there are a number of national and international organizations who've tried to define it:
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as:
“…a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality. It 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.”
The America Sexual Health Association goes further by providing examples and stating:
“Sexual health is the ability to embrace and enjoy our sexuality throughout our lives. It is an important part of our physical and emotional health. Being sexually healthy means:
- Understanding that sexuality is a natural part of life and involves more than sexual behavior.
- Recognizing and respecting the sexual rights we all share.
- Having access to sexual health information, education and care.
- Making an effort to prevent unintended pregnancies and STDs and seek care and treatment when needed.
- Being able to experience sexual pleasure, satisfaction and intimacy when desired.
- Being able to communicate about sexual health with others including sexual partners and healthcare providers.”
The World Association for Sexual Health, which gives us a sexual bill of rights, defines sexual health as:
“Sexual health is the experience of the ongoing process of physical, psychological and social-cultural well-being related to sexuality. Sexual health is evidenced in the free and responsible expressions of sexual capabilities that foster harmonious personal and social wellness, enriching individual and social life. It is not merely the absence of dysfunction, disease and/or infirmity. For sexual health to be attained and maintained it is necessary that the sexual rights of all people be recognized and upheld.”
Why the Definitions of Sexual Health Are Restrictive
These are all beautiful examples of what sexual health can and should include. However, despite all of these good intentions and messages, many individuals and healthcare providers still exist in a restrictive and negative view of who is allowed to enjoy sexual health. Take, for example, those who have physical disabilities, differences, or illness.
Can you be sexually healthy if you don’t have sensation in your genitals or if you have a lifelong STI?
I've seen a number of clients who fear that being diagnosed with an STI, one that does not currently have a cure, means that they are exiled to live a life of sexual exclusion and loneliness. Or students whose bodies do not fit into the mainstream narrative of what sex should look or feel like and who then believe that what feels good to them doesn’t qualify as sex. These individuals go on to carry the heavy burden of sexual shame and stigma that they will never be deemed “sexually healthy” and therefore are undesirable.
This also includes age differences. Where we are in the life cycle means that sex and romance can look different from what others perceive. We are not less sexually healthy because orgasms or arousal looks different than it did years ago, that we may not last as long, or have as many orgasms because we are still learning what works for us. There are millions of dollars to be made from telling people that they need to be more sexually “mature” or that they need to regain their youthful responsiveness. As consumers, we get to say what we will and won’t buy into.
The myth that there is only one version of sexual health is one to avoid.
Letting Go of Socially Dictated Sexual Health Stereotypes
Our culture also dictates how we are socialized to view sex. Is one culture more or less sexually healthy because they are more public with affection? Or because some cultures kiss and other don’t? Even what we desire, the body parts we are told are private or sexy, is entirely different depending on the part of the world in which we were raised. How often, what positions, and what pleasure looks like are all topics that must be de-colonized and culturally diversified in order to create a true sexual health conversation.
True Sexual Health Is a Holistic Model
Sexual health must be viewed from a holistic model. To be healthy does not mean able-bodied or disease-free. It means you're supported with resources and capabilities to live the best version of mental, physical and spiritual sexual wellness that you desire. This includes people of different body weights, or whose sexual responses are unique and customized to their abilities. So, a sexually healthy life also involves one in which doctors and professionals embrace and encourage these truths. Defining if one is sexually healthy should be a completely personalized answer that is as unique as our individual fingerprints. In other words, you get to define what's sexually healthy for you.
Dr. Laura McGuire (they/them or she/her) is an internationally recognized consultant, survivor, researcher, seminarian, and author of the book Creating Cultures of Consent (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021).
Dr. McGuire is a certified full-spectrum doula, professional teacher, a certified sexual health educator, and a vinyasa yoga instructor. Their experience includes both public and private sectors, middle schools, high schools, and university settings.
They currently are earning their Masters of Divinity at Earlham Seminary where they are studying the intersections of Judaism, trauma-informed care, and restorative-justice in faith settings. Dr. McGuire lives in the United States, where they work as an adjunct professor at Widener University and consultant at The National Center for Equity and Agency.