Receive our Newsletter and Updates

Learn about upcoming events and read our staff members' blog posts!
Email address
Secure and Spam free...

What is Sexual Health?

By Jordan Ferranto, LCPC, ATR

When I ask clients about their definitions of sexual health, I often receive bashful stories about girls and boys being split up into different classrooms for lectures on the consequences of sex and demonstrations on applying condoms to phallic-shaped fruits and vegetables. It is a sad truth that many of us who received sex education in school are left with little more than panic-stricken instruction around avoiding STIs and unwanted pregnancies.

Safer sex practices are a crucial part of sex education. However, there are many other dimensions of sexual health. Focusing solely on STI and pregnancy prevention leaves our young ones with many unanswered questions and increased vulnerability to sexually harmful experiences as they fumble by navigating their sexualities.

Many young folks find alternative (not always reliable) methods for answering lingering questions about consent, pleasure, relationships, desire, arousal, fantasies, and attraction. Not only does this impede the sexual development of young people, but it also creates sexually unaware adults. 

What is the impact of this sexual ignorance? Well, suppose folks are having sex without a clear and thorough understanding of consent. In that case, they are more likely to experience or enact sexual harm in the form of consent or boundary violations. Many vulva owners who grew up without information about sexual pleasure experience challenges with desire and arousal, which often leads them to conclude that they are somehow “broken”.

Queer adolescents and adults who missed out on factual explanations around attraction, sexual identity, and non-heteronormative sex practices can experience a profound amount of shame about sexual urges that they perceive to be “pathological” or “perverse”. We are left with generations of people whose perceptions of their own sexuality are laced with trauma, dysfunction, and shame.

When a person finally makes the brave decision to go see a therapist about one of these sexual concerns, they often begin with a simple and long-overdue question: “am I normal?”.

Emily Nagoski expertly addresses this question in her book Come as You Are when she says, “Whatever you’re experiencing in your sexuality whether it’s challenges with arousal, desire, orgasm, pain, no sexual sensations is the result of your sexual response mechanism functioning appropriately…in an inappropriate world. You are normal; it is the world around you that’s broken.” 

How do we disrupt the sex-negative cycle created in part by incomplete sex education? We can start by expanding our understanding of what sexual health is. The Harvey Institute defines Six Principles of Sexual Health as consent, non-exploitative, honest, shared values, protection from STI and unwanted pregnancy, and pleasure.

Notice how protection for STIs and unwanted pregnancy is just one of the principles. The rest of the principles outlined here address many of the psychological factors involved in sex, which is a huge part of practicing healthy sexuality. When it comes to sex, it isn’t just about our physical health; it’s also about our mental health.

Our values, communication styles, emotional connections, and relationship styles/dynamics play a role in building a healthy sex life. And let’s not forget about pleasure! Creating a mutually satisfying sexual experience is fundamental in shaping our sexual desire. It is challenging to desire sex when we do not associate it with pleasure. And the pleasure and satisfaction we receive from sex can be physical, emotional, or both! 

If we consider this dimensional definition of sexual health, we can better address the various understandable challenges that come with living healthy sexual lives. We can also use this information to live more conscious sexual lives where we actively choose from the buffet of options rather than passively ingesting what is served to us.

In exploring these principles, we can address those unanswered questions, create working definitions of sexual health that fit our individual needs, and transform those awkward grade school anecdotes into shameless sexual liberation. 

If you are experiencing concerns about your sexuality, there is support for you. Click here to schedule an appointment or read more about our Intimacy Counseling.

Receive our Newsletter and Updates

Learn about upcoming events and read our staff members' blog posts!
Email address