6 Aspects to Consider
By Carlyle Jansen
Health is important. The physical considerations are mostly what comes to mind: vitamins, fitness, diet, sleep are paramount. Mental health has more recently become an important aspect of overall health as well. Anxiety, depression, mood management, and other mental health challenges are coming out of the closet. It is becoming more widely accepted that mental health is another important aspect of overall health. Sex however is still largely in the closet. Although sex is used to sell everything from cars to success, we don’t talk about sexual health. What we learn in school is limited to birth control, condoms and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However sexual health is much more broad in scope. The following are markers of overall sexual health.
Communication: Communication is an essential part ot maintaining sexual health, and not only with partners. Sexually healthy people Interact and communicate with others of all genders (regarless of both individuals’ sexual orientation and gender identity) in appropriate and respectful ways. They can communicate, negotiate, and respect sexual desires’ limits before and during sex. They can respectfully and clearly convey desires to have sex and not to have sex- and anywhere in between. Sexually healthy people are further sensitive to non-verbal cues of others’ boundaries and limits; they recognize that not everyone has the ability to state clearly what they want. They also know that they and their partners can have a change in limits and desires at any time. Although it can be hard, they accept refusals of sex without hostility or feeling insulted- respecting another person’s desires and boundaries is paramount.
Sexually healthy people can also physically express feelings of attraction and desire in ways that do not focus on the genitals. For example, holding, caressing, and/or kissing a partner are all healthy sexual expressions but they do not always have to lead to genital touch. They can also present to their actual or potential partners their intentions for the relationship. Some are looking to date casually, others seek a life partner. Being open and up-front about one’s intentions is about respect for oneself and the other.
Relationships: Sexually healthy people have a multitude of relationships with honesty and respect. They develop friendships that do not necessarily have a sexual agenda. They avoid people who display exploitative behaviours and do not take advantage of others. They also endeavour to choose partners who are good for them: honest, responsible, trustworthy, respectful and thoughtful. They don’t ignore “red flags”. Relationships enhance their lives rather than drain them.
Self-Esteem and Self-Worth: An integral component to sexual health is self-esteem and self-worth. Sexually healthy people are aware of their emotions and responses and are able to remain conscious in their bodies. They can touch their own bodies for pleasure or be touched by another without feeling shame or disgust. Of course shame can easily arise around sex due to sex-negative messages prevalent in the world. Healthy people can talk about complicated feelings that arise around their sexuality. For many, past experiences may have negatively impacted their current experiences. Healthy folks take steps to address issues that have arisen as a result of these past experiences.
Sexually healthy people give themselves permission to enjoy sex and pleasure. They can nurture themselves, others, and accept selfless nurturing from others. They can allow themselves to be vulnerable in front of others and are comfortable with their sexual and gender identities and orientations as well as those of others. Of course they also understand that trust with new partners needs to be built and will take small gradual steps in trusting others with their vulnerabilities over time.
Education: Explicit and implicit messages about sex are everywhere: kinds of sex we are supposed to have and like, what makes someone attractive, what is “normal”. These messages are absorbed subconsciously often without critical thought. Sexually healthy people understand the impact of media messages on society’s and their own thoughts, feelings, values, and behaviors related to sexuality. They are able to reflect critically on what their own beliefs and desires are, untangled from mainstream pressures. They understand that a human sex drive is powerful and natural and can fit with other aspects of life in healthy and positive ways. They also respect the right of everyone to choose, engage in and enjoy their own choices of consensual sexual encounters.
Values: Most of us want our actions to be consistent with our values. When it comes to sex, sexually healthy adults use their personal values to make choices based on what is best for themselves. They also show acceptance and respect towards others by who have different values, preferences, ages, religions, sexual orientations and behaviours without feeling threatened.
Contraception, Protection, and Body Integrity: In terms of physical sexual health, healthy people take responsibility for their own bodies and their own pleasure and orgasms; they do not expect a partner to know what they want or how they orgasm. They use contraception where appropriate as well as barriers such as gloves, condoms and dental dams for preventing the transmission of STIs- to their partner and to themselves. They also engage in preventative measures such as having regular checkups, breast or testicular self-exams, and conduct regular and routine testing for STIs depending on sexual practices and risk.
A Tall Order? Yes, it is somewhat unrealistic to believe that we can all follow a flawless health regime. None of us follows our ideal sexual, mental, or physical health path perfectly. However if we do not set goals, we do not know what we are aiming for. These characteristics of sexually healthy adults are intentions that can help re-center ourselves. If we are unclear as to whether we are currently in a healthy relationship with ourselves and/or another, these characteristics can help us discern what we might want to improve or notice. They can be guidelines to discuss with a friend, lover, or family member. We are the ultimate caretakers of our own physical, mental and sexual health and can decide what our own priorities and actions are.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of Good For Her, a sexuality shop and workshop centre in Toronto. If you have questions or comments, email email@example.com or visit goodforher.com