The Lowdown On Sexual Health: What It Is And Who You Can Turn To
Sexual Health Day, Sexual Health Awareness week: September is a moment of the year to reflect on what sexual health really is about. So, at Smile Makers, we’ve dubbed it Sexual Health Awareness Month.
Understanding sexual health isn’t as simple as we may think. From the moment our teachers start to discuss sex at school, we are fronted with STI warnings, condoms on bananas and diagrams of our reproductive systems. Whilst knowing the importance of using contraception and all is undeniable, the meaning of sexual health may sometimes be misconstrued.
Let’s clear up any confusion to make it easier to talk about, seek help and know what professionals to turn to.
Sexual Health vs Reproductive Health
Even Google gets confused.
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 WHO definition does not mention anything to do with reproductivity, denoting that our overall health is impacted, and a holistic approach should be considered. However, in the UK, the Family Planning Association (FPA) places itself as ‘The Sexual Health Company’. This synonymous link can be misleading, as if the topics of family planning and sexual health are interchangeable.
Dr Jess from Insync Medical, a clinic that focuses on sexual wellness and health, has her reservations about the way we generally perceive sexual health and reproduction. When we think about reproductive health, it is generally centred around fertility such as the ability to conceive or difficulties with conceiving.
On the other hand, with sexual health, most think it is disease related. Dr Jess explains that this is nowhere near the full picture. It includes many issues that could involve anyone, vulva owners or penis havers, across their entire life span. From masturbation through to menopause or andropause. Furthermore, alongside life pillars, sexual health is about those day-to-day wellbeing issues that we all encounter such as self-pleasure, unsatisfied sex drive or debunking female orgasms. These concerns are out of sight and not talked about enough, and so it’s easy for people to forget just how much is involved in sexual health.
Not In This Alone
The thing about sexual health is that encompasses all manner of concerns, for everyone. If we’re in a relationship or have a sexual partner, it’s also a couple’s matter. Such things as pain during sexual intercourse, both penetrative or not, and problems communicating can be spoken about with sexual health experts.
So, Sexual Health Is Different From Gynaecology?
Yes! Gynaecology is a medical practice that focuses on the health and functions of the female reproductive system. Gynae is a very traditional practice, says Dr Jess, which is very busy and covers a lot; pregnancies, vaginal health, urinary infections, cancers and other diseases of the reproductive organs to name a few. So, gynaecologists cover reproductive health but may not have the time or capacity to cover the full scope of sexual wellness.
What Sexual Health Professionals Can We Turn To?
One reason why sexual health education is important, is so we know who to reach out to for what. The breath of issues requires time to consult and talk; an understanding of the connection between physical, mental and emotional wellbeing is fundamental. It’s a balance between physiological and biological factors, alongside psychological ones.
There’s sexual medicine that deals specifically with all things sexual wellness and wellbeing, as well as the treatment of things such as female sexual dysfunction, vaginismus and erectile dysfunction. In addition, physiotherapy can directly support pelvic floor health, which affects the functions of sex organs for both men and women. Other forms of therapy, such as sexologists and psychotherapists, deal with sexual health involving states of mind and being a hundred percent present, like when it comes to having intimacy problems.
Admittedly, most of us reach out to our internet browsers and search online before finding someone to speak to – and Dr Jess says this isn’t a bad thing. This habit sometimes acts as a filtering opportunity to see who the right person is for us.
- GPs – They say what they do on the tin, more general. They may not be ready to get into the specifics but will be able to guide our direction.
- Specialists – Like gynaecologists, experts that focus more on just vulva owners or penis havers, rather than both.
- Sexual wellness experts – Consider sexual medicine and health in a non-traditional manner; looking at both male and female sexuality, and couples in any couple setting be it hetero, homo etc. This all-inclusive approach gives leverage to these professionals as they can consider the complete interpretation of sexual health.
- Sexologists & therapist – Take into account matters of the mind, looking at the impact of sexual health on mental wellness and vice versa.
No matter who we decide to go to, we should always remember that everyone has a network of people – so getting in front of someone and starting the conversation is more significant than finding the correct expert instantly. Experts that deal with matters of sexual health will have a network of people they can recommend!
When Should We Seek Help About Our Sexual Health
Dr Jess stresses that if we find there is a concern that we just can’t shake off, we should talk about it. The thought of doing so is often more daunting then actually doing it, and a weight will lift when we address our concerns. One common worry is pain during intercourse; we may all feel this from time-to-time, but if it’s persistent don’t ignore it, seek assistance.
As we know, when it comes to sex, the best thing we can do is bring it out in the open – and that goes for our sexual health, too. Ask questions and create spaces to share vulnerabilities. Taking a pleasure-positive approach to sexual health education will allow us to seek out more answers to those day-to-day concerns.
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