Sexual health. For some people any sex topic is off-limits. But others, including the World Health Organization, consider sexual health an essential dimension of human health and well-being. From concern over how to have comfortable, enjoyable sex to questions about testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and their prevention, many important topics come under the broad umbrella of sexual health.
“Sexual health is an essential and beneficial dimension of being human,” emphasizes Michael McGee, MEd, a certified sexual health educator and adjunct professor at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J. “People have a right to sexual health, sexual health information including public policy that supports sexual health, and the right to pleasure.”
In addition to teaching and advocating about sexual health, McGee counsels individuals and couples on sexual health issues. He says the most common, fundamental question he encounters is, “Am I normal?”
This, he argues, is the best reason to be educated about sexual health: to have a realistic understanding of what sexual health is — what the wide range of “normal” is — as well as being better able to take care of your own health and pleasure and that of your partner.
Increase Your Sexual Health Awareness
Premature ejaculation and a woman’s ability to achieve orgasm are topics that McGee says his clients often worry about — and appreciate learning how to manage. Other aspects of sexual health that people should be educated about include:
- Sex basics. Understanding the cycle of desire, stimulation, and response improves sexual health, says McGee.
- Reproductive issues. Sexual health is intimately related to reproduction. Birth control choices to prevent pregnancy and the steps couples need to take to have a healthy pregnancy are all aspects of sexual health.
- Vaginal dryness. As women go through changes in their lives, such as pregnancy and childbirth or menopause, they may experience a lack of vagina lubrication. This makes sexual intercourse unpleasant, but there are solutions to this problem.
- Lack of desire. A frequent source of conflict between couples, says McGee, is a “discrepancy in desire — one partner wants sex more often than the other.”
- Erectile dysfunction. There are various physical and emotional reasons why men may not be able to achieve an erection for the duration of sexual intercourse.
- Physical challenges. Physical impairment, health concerns, and other conditions may require creative problem solving in order to have sexual intercourse.
Sexual Health: Guarding Against Infection
Sex can be pleasurable, but it can also be risky. Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) can be uncomfortable or painful; they can have severe, long-term effects that include the loss of fertility and have the potential to be life-threatening. Learning about sexual health means learning about STDs:
- STD identification. Learn about the signs and symptoms of STDs as well as the consequences of infection.
- Prevention. Taking steps to prevent the spread of STDs protects your health and the health of others.
- STD testing. STD testing is a crucial part of your sexual health plan. Finding out whether you have an STD enables you to start treating the infection and protecting your sexual partners.
- Living with an STD. Some STDs will be with you for life, such as hepatitis, herpes, and HIV/AIDS. For people living with STDs, sexual health encompasses coping with these infections over the long term.
- Intimate partner violence. Safety within sexual relationships continues to be a concern. Women may be particularly at risk for sexual violence.
How to Get Help for Intimate Issues
Unfortunately, many people wait a long time before seeking a solution to their sexual health concerns, notes McGee: “By the time they come to a professional, usually it has become a pressing need. And it is sometimes very difficult.” McGee recommends seeking help as soon as you have concerns rather than waiting and hoping the problem will go away.
McGee is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT) as a sexual health educator. Depending on the problems you want to resolve, your sexual health team could include a variety of health professionals, such as:
- Primary care doctor
- Physical therapist
- Mental health professional
Whether it’s knowledge about your body or information about treating a specific condition, take the right steps to get education and any counseling you might need to protect your sexual health.