Good sexual health is fundamental to the overall health and well-being of individuals, couples, and families, and to the social and economic development of communities and countries. According to World Health Organization (WHO), sexual health is relevant throughout a person’s life, through to adolescence and into older age – not only during their reproductive years.
It is determined by the quality and safety of people’s relationships: with oneself and other individuals, with family and friends, and the society in which we live, including the gender norms that shape our experiences. These relationships are themselves dependent on whether everyone’s human rights related to their sexuality are realized and protected.
WHO’s working definition of sexual health emphasizes a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, which is much more than just physical – one that cannot be separated from sexual well-being. The organization defines sexual health as a state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being related to sexuality; and not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity.
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. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected, and fulfilled.
“Sexual health is not a fixed state of being, and every person’s needs will change across the life course. This is why it is crucial to undertake a range of activities across this continuum: from the support of sexual well-being to prevention and management of disease,” said Ian Askew, former Director of the WHO Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research, including the United Nations Special Research Programme HRP, and co-author of a new publication exploring the role of sexual pleasure in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programming
As we head over to Valentine’s Day (14th February 2022), a new analysis was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on the need to consider sexual pleasure, not only risk of disease, in designing sexual health programmes. A systematic review and meta-analysis show this can be an important success factor for improving knowledge around sex and uptake of safer sex practices such as condom use. Looking at outcomes from various initiatives, the research recommends redesigning sexual education and health interventions to incorporate sexual pleasure considerations, including when promoting safer sex. This means acknowledging the reasons why people have sex – and recognizing that sexual experiences can and should be pleasurable.
“Sexual health education and services have traditionally promoted safer sex practices by focusing on risk reduction and preventing disease, without acknowledging how safer sex can also promote intimacy, pleasure, consent, and wellbeing. This review provides a simple message: programmes that better reflect the reasons people have sex – including for pleasure – see better health outcomes. The hope is that these results galvanize the sexual and reproductive health and rights community to promote services that educate and equip users to engage in sex that is safe, consensual, and pleasurable,” said Dr. Lianne Gonsalves, World Health Organization, paper co-author.
Interventions specifically intended to improve sexual well-being are gradually emerging. A major milestone is the new edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) which has a chapter on sexual health for the first time. By providing the latest evidence-based definitions, WHO is facilitating the diagnosis and appropriate management for a wide variety of conditions related to sexual health. Countries began using this chapter in January 2022.
Another recommendation is for policy-makers to integrate brief sexuality-related communication when possible, a clinical tool for behavior change that takes a holistic and positive understanding of sexual health and sexuality. WHO said it is committed to identifying and promoting sexual health itself, so that everyone, everywhere is able to fulfill their human rights related to their sexuality and sexual well-being.
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