Sexual Health

What is Sexual Health?

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health 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. (WHO working definition, 2002). For additional definitions, please see our definitions page.

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What is Sexuality?

  • Awareness, acceptance of and comfort with one’s own body; physiological and psychological enjoyment of one’s own body and the bodies of others.
  • The ability and need to experience emotional closeness to another human being and have it returned.
  • The use of sexuality to influence, control or manipulate others.
  • A sense of gender identity or expression that is anywhere from male to female or somewhere in between.
  • Attitudes and behaviors related to producing children, care and maintenance of sex and reproductive organs, and health outcomes of sexual behavior.

Courtesy of Advocates for Youth

What needs to change for good sexual and reproductive health?

Working at multiple levels:
Sexual and reproductive health is more than simply what individual people experience. Sexual and reproductive health is shaped by factors at different levels of society, such as laws that affect what we do, social factors such as poverty, community norms, and what services are available to us. In order to improve sexual and reproductive health, we need to consider, and act on, the drivers of sexual and reproductive ill health at these different levels. The different levels can be summarized in this way:

  • individuals, peers, relationships and households
  • community norms, social attitudes, values and beliefs
  • services
  • policies and structures

Based on learning from behavior change and health promotion theory and practice, it is helpful to think about what needs to change at these different levels in order to improve sexual and reproductive health. This helps us to organize our ideas and plans and to increase the effectiveness of our efforts.

Most people think about their sexual and reproductive lives in a holistic way with HIV or STIs as only one aspect. Working for broader sexual and reproductive well-being opens up many more opportunities to prevent HIV and STI infection and provide care for people with HIV, as well as improving sexual and reproductive health in its own right.

Examples of Sexual Health Programming:

  • Women living with HIV who are pregnant, often feel worried about informing healthcare providers as they may disapprove of the woman having a baby. By accessing user-friendly family planning and prenatal services, she can enjoy sex and be able to plan whether or when to have children, and to have healthy children.

  • Audiences are growing steadily for the BBC World Service Trust’s radio phone-ins on sexual health in Cambodia because they provide an opportunity for vulnerable groups to ask questions anonymously that they might not ask face-to-face. Surveys show that exposure to radio and TV programs increases knowledge of the benefits of condoms and creates support for discussing and using them.

  • Promote safer sex that protects individuals from HIV, STIs and unintended pregnancy (dual protection). Provide individuals with the knowledge, attitudes, skills and confidence to enjoy safer, healthier and happier sexual lives. At the levels of social change, services and policy, create enabling environments for sexual and reproductive health and rights and HIV education as well as broader poverty reduction. For example, facilitate comprehensive sexuality and lifeskills sessions with young people and work with community leaders and parents to support healthy behavior.

Why does sexuality matter?

It matters because our sexuality encompasses more than s-e-x. It’s an important piece of who we are as humans, and it influences and is influenced by other aspects of our lives. Our sexuality does not exist in a vacuum.

Resources (Attention: Non-MDH links)

PLEASE NOTE: You will be leaving the MDH Web site. The views and information offiered on external Web sites do not neccessarily reflect the views of MDH. Materials found on some external Web sites regarding sexual health may be objectionable to some audiences.

A Public Health Approach for Advancing Sexual Health in the United States: Rationale and Options for Implementation: 2011 (PDF: 7MB/44 pages)

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexual Health

Characteristics of Sexually Healthy Adults

Circles of Sexuality: Dennis Dailey, Ph.D.- (PDF: 58KB/1 page)

From World Health Organization (WHO) 2002:  Gender and Human Rights - Sexual Health Introduction (PDF: 55KB/3 pages)

Integration of HIV and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights: Good Practice Guide

Kaiser Family Foundation - Women's Health

Mayo Clinic - Sexual Health Basics

Minnesota Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Databook 2012 (PDF:4.47MB/62pgs), produced by the Maternal and Child Health Program of the Minnesota Department of Health

MN Family Planning and STD Hotline

Sex Ed Library

Teenwise Minnesota

U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus - Sexual Health

World Health Organization Publications on Sexual Health

World Association for Sexual Health

Updated Monday, October 01, 2012 at 12:55PM