Sexual health is a vital part of overall personal wellness. The ways in which you take care of yourself sexually can make a major difference in your quality of life. So to recognize Sexual Health and Awareness Month, we’ve compiled some information and tips to help you stay sexually healthy and empowered.
What Is Sexual Health?
According to the World Health Organization, sexual health, when viewed affirmatively, 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. A positive sexual experience is one that includes the most enjoyment for you and your partner while also reducing or eliminating any potential health risks through proper preparation and education.
Good sexual health depends on a number of factors, including:
- An environment and a view of self that promotes positive and affirming views of sexuality
- Access to factual, helpful and comprehensive information and resources about sexuality that leads to healthy behaviors
- Knowledge of the risks of unprotected sex and the actions you can take to make sexual activity as safe as possible
- Access to sexual health care
Ways to Practice Healthy Sexuality
Healthy and body-positive sexuality can often seem like a complicated and nuanced topic, but we’re here to break it down for you so you can be confident in you and your partner’s sexual wellness.
Nowadays, sexual protection comes in many different types, like condoms, intrauterine devices (IUDs), contraceptive shots and pills and fertility tracking. The type of protection that you and your partner use when engaging in sexual activity will depend on your individual needs and theirs. Your physician can recommend or prescribe solutions and help guide you to the right protection choices for you.
These forms of protection serve different functions, as well. Condoms (which should only be used once unless specifically indicated by the manufacturer) are an all-inclusive resource that help prevent both pregnancy and the transmission of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Contraceptives are used to prevent pregnancy, though they may be prescribed for a myriad of other reasons, such as alleviating PMS symptoms, managing acne and more.
The form of protection you and your partner use will depend on your preferences and level of personal comfort and wellness. Some prefer not to use condoms, but will need other forms of protection to prevent pregnancy or the transmission of STIs, and others may need multiple forms of protection due to allergies or special needs. You and your partner should consider allergies and problems with protection that may result from other forms of disease or physical irritation. Some people may be allergic to latex or the other ingredients of a condom, IUD or other form of contraception, meaning an alternate must be considered. Again, these decisions will depend on what you, your partner and your physicians decide is the right choice.
There are a lot of wellness conditions that may impede your sex life, from erectile dysfunction to the presence of STDs like HIV/AIDS to reproductive tract infections (RTIs). Finding the right treatment for these conditions will help increase you and your partner’s mutual comfort and satisfaction with sex. Also, partners who experience pain, limited libido, chronic exhaustion and even mental/emotional health conditions may benefit from medical advice about when or whether sexual activity is healthy. With a doctor’s help, many of these conditions can be significantly alleviated, or even eliminated over time.
Treatment for sexual illnesses or dysfunctions may seem to be a difficult topic to address with your doctor, but it’s a necessary step to sexual wellness, and confidentiality is a key aspect of such conversations. Sexual health specialists, and even general practitioners, are typically experienced in fielding these types of conversations and care about your comfort. If you feel nervous addressing these questions, just know your feelings are valid, and a caring physician will do everything they can to make the conversation as easy as possible.
Sex isn’t just about physicality. It’s also about emotional health, communication and mutual consent.
Consent involves each partner clearly communicating whether or not they want to engage in any form of sexual activity, which includes ensuring that each partner is above the legal age of consent (which in Virginia is age 18). If you’re exploring sexual activity with a partner, it’s always good to check in with them by asking if what’s happening is okay and pleasurable. Similarly, it’s always okay to express if something is not okay, or doesn’t feel the best. These kinds of conversations can help promote an overall better sexual experience that’s rooted in mutual consent and pleasure.
Sexual activity of any kind performed without partner consent, with someone under the age of consent or against someone’s will is abuse. Reporting it to the authorities is oftentimes a healing experience and can lead to justice, but we understand that this is often a challenging and incredibly vulnerable thing to do. If opening up about an assault to law enforcement is too difficult, consider reaching out for confidential support to a trusted friend, family member or nonprofit organization that assists with confronting sexual assault. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline for aid. And remember, even if legal action is not an option, it’s never too late to open up to someone about your experience and begin the process of healing.
Sex is for all ages of maturity above the legal age of consent, a fact that is especially true now that advances in modern medicine and knowledge of how to care for the human body are helping people be more active and healthier as they age. Whether you’re a young adult, a parent or an empty-nester, sex is an activity that can add enjoyment and fulfillment to life, along with reducing stress and enhancing intimacy between partners. Every age brings with it both potential challenges and excitement to sexual activity.
Young adults without children are often just beginning their years of sexual activity, and this can be an exciting time of discovering themselves and their identities, so long as sexual health is considered. Parents, especially those who are nursing or are managing pre-birth and postpartum hormones, may have varying views on diving back into sexual intimacy. Middle-aged and older partners may find their sexual desire increase or decrease depending on their life situation and hormonal changes, and may struggle with physical infirmity or sexual dysfunction. Each of these scenarios and more bring unique experiences to the bedroom. Therefore, it’s important to consult with your physician and partner if you have any concerns, because each person’s sexual needs and abilities are different and will vary according to their stage of life.
Communication is also important during sexual activity, because proper discussion of preferences and needs enhances pleasure and enjoyment for each partner. While it may take time to learn how you and your partner feel comfortable discussing sexuality, these conversations are hugely valuable in developing a healthy sexual relationship. It helps them feel safe and comfortable and deepens the intimacy of the act and the relationship, since sexual activity is usually at the center of a healthy intimate partner relationship. Communication can also enhance experiences of more casual encounters. Good communication during sex often leads to a heightened sexual experience. It’s also important to have these conversations outside of sexual activity, as this may be more comfortable for both you and your partner, and it may give you the opportunity to think thoroughly about how your sexual activity is affecting your individual sexual health.
Every gender and body type comes with unique sexual needs, and many are unrelated to physical sexual activity. Topics like reproductive health, fertility and pregnancy are important, as is getting tested for STIs as necessary. Hormones and physical wellness also play a role in sexual health for many people. Some people are monitoring fertility or menopause, while others are undergoing illness that affects sexual health. Also, some individuals are adjusting to and being physically healthy in a transgender, genderfluid, nonbinary or gender-nonconforming (GNC) identity.
Since gender identity is moving away from traditional binary views and becoming more inclusive, sexual health is beginning to look much different for many people. There are many factors to consider when discussing the sexual health of all people of all sexual and gender identities, from sexual transition treatment to mental and physical health to relationships with others. This can be an exciting time for each person to explore their sexuality and decide how sexuality and gender identity interact in their own lives, environments and intimate relationships. Discussing these topics with a physician and/or partner can help you begin a journey of sexual health, awareness and empowerment that suits your identity and needs. Different genders, forms of self-expression and personal or cultural belief systems can have a major impact on sexual health, so understanding your own sexuality and gender identity is a liberating aspect of walking your path of sexual wellness.
Body image is also an important issue of sexual health. Bodies come in all different shapes, sizes and types, and being confident in your body is a major part of sexual wellness. Those who are not comfortable in their bodies or who have received harmful messages from others about them may find themselves sexually limited by stereotypes, mental health issues and confusion. This can also result in changing hormones and unhealthy habits or lifestyles that can lead to poor sexual health, like addiction or substance abuse disorder, disordered eating, self-care decisions and even self-harm. Additionally, a large amount of scientific evidence has linked individuals’ lifestyle behaviors directly to their sexual health and performance.
However, accepting yourself and your body and learning to make positive, self-affirming choices regarding your overall wellness will help you become more confident and healthy in your sexuality. Healing from negative body image is a windy path, but one you can navigate with the right support and tools. It’s extremely rewarding to work toward a place of body neutrality, and even body positivity. Experiencing healthy sexual encounters can oftentimes contribute to finding freedom from negative body image. Many find that their sexual health improves when they focus on simple wellness choices, such as getting more active, getting quality rest, making healthier eating choices and pursuing positive and affirming relationships with others. And of course—it’s always good to remind yourself of things your body can do outside of how it looks. These decisions and thought pattern shifts will also make a big difference not just in your sexual health, but also on your overall wellness.
We’re Here to Help
At Community Access Network, we want everyone to feel welcome and to be comfortable with and educated about making good sexual health choices. Our physicians are here to guide, assist and empower you to live the sexual life that’s right for you and discuss paths that will keep you healthy and safe as you do. Contact us today to schedule an appointment!