What is sexual health?

A fascinating guide to quick understanding and discussion

Sexual health is much, much more than awkward conversations about sex.

Even hearing the words ‘Sexual health’ may make your body feel uncomfortable and your throat close up. Embarrassing memories of having “talks” with your parents about private parts might jump into your mind. Even the thought of talking about it with your doctor could make you cringe and want to think about other things.

Hiyos is here to say that sexual health doesn’t have to be an embarrassing or awkward topic of conversation. We should all be able to have open, honest, and frank discussions about sexual health without wanting the ground to swallow us up!

Honestly, the words “sexual health” are pretty misleading. It’s not all about having sex or talking about our private parts. It’s so much more.

While sexual health used to refer solely to the absence of sexual dysfunction or sexually transmitted infections (STIs), it has expanded to include socioemotional factors such as attraction (someone you like) and pleasure (what makes you feel good).

Sexual health is such a broad term. It covers things like pregnancy and birth control, but it also covers relationships, identity, and even your happiness. Everything is linked together, and ignoring your sexual health is ignoring a side of you that is nothing to be ashamed of. It is normal and natural.

Plus, it’s important to remember that Sexual Health is not all doom-and-gloom. It’s not just about diseases and uncomfortable feelings — it’s about finding out more about who you are as a person. It’s about learning more about the world around you in terms of how and who they love.

As the WHO state, Sexual health involves your self-perception as a person, your capacity to accept and enjoy your sexuality, and your sense of true ownership over your behaviours and choices. 

Even when it involves a person’s sex life, talking about sexual health allows the person to safeguard their body, such as by using condoms or birth control to avoid pregnancy. Plus, it teaches people that a healthy sex life exists when a person has sex when they want it without putting pressure on another person, spreading STIs, or neglecting their own needs.

There’s so much to talk positively about when it comes to sexual health. These conversations don’t have to be hidden. They just need to be spoken about differently. Disease, illness, infection, virus, and sickness are all terms that are frequently used in conjunction with sexual health. It’s also linked to morals, evoking sentiments of guilt, sin, and filth.

This isn’t the case. As odd as it sounds, pleasure, closeness, and even family are linked to sexual health. Read on to find out more about what sexual health really is about:

some common questions you may be asking

Isn’t sexual health just about private parts?

Nope! In the past, many doctors (us at Hiyos included!) only really talked about sexual health as something physical that can go wrong. 

The problem with talking that way is that we never gave enough time, space, and energy talking about sexual health as more than private parts and when sexual health is going right!

It covers so much more than physical illnesses such as STIs. It involves a whole world of identity and having the freedom to talk to yourself and others about what you are feeling, what you are thinking, and how you would like to live your life. There’s something extraordinary about that!

Isn’t sexual health about having risky and ‘inappropriate’ sex?

Not at all! Having sex may be what you think of when you hear ‘sexual health’ — but names can be misleading!

Sexual health is actually far from the perception of being a ‘quick-fix cure’ for a mistake someone feels they have made. It is not only about treating sexual diseases once a person thinks they have one. It is about everything that comes before having sex.

Exploring and researching more about sexual health is a sign of maturity and responsibility. It is taking the future into your own hands and making sure that you will be safe no matter what comes. It’s not just about taking action after you’ve caught something. It can involve a well-thought-out plan that sets your boundaries, so you’re prepared for every situation — if a situation even happens at all!

Is learning about sexual health wrong?

Not in the slightest!

You have the freedom to choose whether or not to have sex, but you owe it to yourself to investigate why you are feeling this way, mainly because there are so many advantages to having a healthy sex life.


What about gender and sexual orientation?

Sexual health can cover parts of this too!

What even is ‘sexual orientation’? Sexual orientation can sound a bit confusing. It’s really not! It’s easiest to think of it as, ‘who likes who’, or ‘who someone is attracted to’. As long as that someone is an appropriate age, there is no right or wrong person to be attracted to. Individuals can find themselves attracted to a person regardless of that person’s gender and the individual’s sexual orientation. Even if some people want to spend their whole lives with one person, that doesn’t mean love and attraction is exclusive to a specific gender! 

Even though our sexual orientation or gender does not define us, they are essential aspects of who we are and how we interact with the world. Whether you’re straight, gay, trans, cis, something else, or still figuring things out, all of these genders orientations deserve the same respect as each other.

If you need more help understanding sexual orientation, check out this in-depth article by Planned Parenthood that will provide a lot more information.

What about relationships and sex?

Relationships and sex are very closely linked. However, that does not mean you have to have sex frequently (or ever!) to have a loving, sexual relationship with another person. Learning about sexual health gives you the confidence to know that each of us has our preferences, levels of comfort, and control over our bodies. It is a human right to have this control, and it is never okay for someone to take that away or decide something for you.

This is why it is vitally important to take the time to be open with your feelings and communicate with people, whether that be a partner, a loved one, or your doctor. Talking about these natural thoughts, feelings, and desires will help you have a love life that is healthy, joyful, and fulfilling. (One study even found that people who maintained good sexual health during the Covid pandemic were much less anxious!)

Healthy relationships can provide us joy and connection in a huge number of ways. Sex can play a big part in that—healthy, pleasurable sex aids in the formation of a strong emotional link in a partnership. And the advantages of being so close go far beyond the bedroom. The psychological and emotional benefits of sexual closeness and satisfaction are just as significant as the physical rewards. 

What about my health and wellbeing?

Sexual health is crucial because it allows people to take control of their sexual and reproductive health and emotional well-being in intimate relationships.

You can’t take care of yourself if these parts of yourself aren’t in excellent shape or can be spoken about. The first steps to opening up and feeling free entail getting to know your body and scheduling frequent check-ups with your doctor, as well as dealing with any additional concerns that may arise.

What on earth are sexual rights?

You may have heard the phrase, “Consent is beautiful!”

As well as being a crucial mindset to adopt, the phrase is an example of how having control over our bodies is a fundamental right that must always be respected.

Sexual health is an essential part of everyone’s human rights. 

Think about it this way: You’d talk about how you weren’t treated fairly in various ways. And you wouldn’t let your right to food, drink, and shelter slip through your fingers.

Having your body, your preferences, and your decisions respected is the same. It’s your body, so it’s your rules.

Someone who is sexually healthy not only understands that sexual pleasure is permissible but also feels confident in setting limits — you don’t have to have sex today, tomorrow, or even ever!

Plus, everyone has varied tastes regarding who they like, what they like sexually, and how they use their bodies. It’s critical to accept everyone’s preferences, even if they differ from your own! It’s all down to what you want. That has to be respected by everyone you meet and know, including partners.

Always remember: Consent is beautiful!

Find out more about sexual rights

communication – with healthcare providers and partners

Although being open about your sexual health might be frightening, it is necessary to establish good relationships with yourself and others.

When you first start talking about your sexual health more honestly and directly, it is best to speak about it with your doctor or intimate partners. 

The more honest you are with your doctor, the more likely you will obtain the best available treatment if you need it. While discussing such a frightening subject may seem awkward, the more open you are, the more a doctor will be able to give educated, effective treatment.

Requesting to see a specific doctor to discuss such issues is completely okay and completely understandable. You may feel more comfortable talking with a doctor of a particular gender — and that doesn’t mean they have to be the same gender as you, even if you feel like that’s ‘what society says you have to do’. Again: it’s your body, so it’s your rules!

Sexual health goes beyond culture, class, and gender. It is tied to something that we all naturally have inside us. Even if we see it differently because of the way we were raised, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It just means we’ve gotten used to seeing things in a certain way, and it may be more beneficial to try seeing it from a new perspective.

The more honest you are with your partner(s) about your needs, expectations, and boundaries, the more relationships thrive.

This is because the keys to living a sexually healthy, genuine life include physical and mental safety and enjoyment for everyone in a sexual connection. Sexually healthy people are often willing to communicate their wishes while also respecting the choices of others.

Keep these crucial lines of communication open so that you can feel at ease informing your partner that you prefer or strongly dislike a particular sex position, have an STI, or that you do not want to have sex. The stronger a relationship is, the more at ease both parties are with one other.

Even if you open up about your sexual health, speaking about delicate topics with a sexual partner can be challenging. Individuals may disregard their own or their partner’s needs due to shame and bad societal conditioning. 

Speaking with a therapist familiar with and supportive of sexual health issues may be helpful to combat this. A therapist can provide someone with the tools they need to articulate their limits and expectations in a polite, judgment-free way.

Still not sure? The science doesn’t lie:

If you need to talk to someone about your sexual health urgently, feel free to contact any of the services listed:

  • British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) – advice regarding contraception, abortion and sexual health. Call 03457 30 40 30, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
  • Brook – for under-25s looking for advice, support and information about your nearest sexual health clinic
  • FPA – information about contraception, STIs, pregnancy choices, abortion and planning a pregnancy
  • Switchboard: the LGBT+ helpline – service for lesbians, gay men, bisexual and trans people. Call the helpline on 0300 330 0630, open 10am to 11pm daily
  • Terrence Higgins Trust – advice about HIV and sexual health. Call 0808 802 1221, open 10am to 8pm Monday to Friday

resources

NHS Haringey: An open and honest guide to sexual health for young people

Planned parenthood: health and wellness

World Association for Sexual Health: sexual health and sexual rights for all

references

Sexual health DG: what is sexual health?

NHS: sexually transmitted infections

NCBI: understanding sexual health

Planned parenthood: sexual orientation

Science direct: Benefits of Sexual Activity on Psychological, Relational, and Sexual Health During the COVID-19 Breakout

Oxford Online Pharmacy: how often should you check your health

APA Psycnet: A systematic review of sexual satisfaction