By Angela Golden, STAR Community Education Director in Baton Rouge
We live in a world that tells us in order to promote, advertise and sell anything, we must use sex! We see sex in movies, television shows and on social media. It is portrayed as this amazing experience between people without any reference to sexual health. And as these images invade our screens throughout America, we are either taught that abstinence is the best and surest way to stay safe, or we are not taught anything at all about how to protect ourselves or our partners. Beyond that, sexual health conversations often only focus on the “dangers” of sex, like unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases or infections (STD/STIs). Unfortunately, these conversations fail to discuss pleasure, boundaries, or consent when it comes to developing a healthy sexual relationship. September is Sexual Health Awareness Month and STAR is committed to bringing attention to what healthy sexuality means.
As an educator, the most common misconception I hear from parents is that talking about sex will lead to their kids having sex. On the flip side of that fear, many of those same parents think that their teens are learning everything they need to know about sex in school and that they are relieved from having the perceived awkward and uncomfortable conversation about sex with their kids. Even in our work with schools and youth serving organizations, we at STAR have to be very strategic in our delivery of healthy sexuality information. The truth of the matter is, most school districts only require the bare minimum of sex education and rely on the fear of STD/STIs as scare tactic into waiting (seemingly indefinitely) to have sex. While abstinence is a completely acceptable choice that many may make for religious or personal reasons, it is not inherently realistic. A better option instead is to focus on healthy sexual behaviors for all students and to teach a truly comprehensive sex education course.
To have a better understanding of sexual health, let’s break down it’s definition. According to the World Health Organization (WHO):
“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. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled” (WHO 2018).
So, what does that mean? It means that sexual health encompasses more than just the basic information about sexual reproduction or protection against STDs/STIs. Teaching sexual health includes providing comprehensive education and skill-building on communication, trust, boundaries, consent, sexual rights and pleasure, and sexual coercion and violence within intimate relationships.
Whether familial, romantic or platonic, communication is important in all relationships and connects with every part of healthy sexuality. When we are able to effectively communicate, we create connections with each other and are able to express ourselves in a clear and comfortable manner. However, it is often difficult to communicate desires when we don’t have the necessary tools or knowledge to express ourselves. This makes education an important factor as we strive to improve beliefs and attitudes regarding sexual health.
Teaching kids about sexual health should begin with youth learning the names for all their body parts, such as penis and vagina, at an early age. By doing so, we are removing the stigma that these body parts are shameful or unclean in some way. We also create a level of comfort for our youth to have conversations without any discomfort or embarrassment. Darkness to Light offers a great video explaining the importance of normalizing names of all body parts (Sellars, 2016). By learning about their bodies, this helps protects children. If there are any instances of abuse or sexual violence, kids and teens will be equipped with the correct terms to use to communicate these violations to an adult. Also, by starting early, we can help youth better understand the intricacies of reproduction, gain knowledge of STDs/STIs and adequately know of and how to use a variety of safety and protection methods for sex as they grow into young adults. Communication and education thus creates dialogue where questions are asked without hesitation and fear and answers are given without judgment.
Trust is a key component of sexual health. When we look at the relationship between partners, we know that trust plays a pivotal role in creating a healthy bond and feelings of safety. To trust our partner(s) is to know they are adequately communicating their sexual history, boundaries, expectations and feelings while respecting our own. According to the CDC, “half of all new STDs reported each year are among young people 15 to 24” and “more than 46% of sexually active high school students did not use a condom the last time they had sex” (CDC 2020). Teaching trust as a fundamental part of sexual health ensures that we are being transparent about our health status and/or any possible STD exposure to our partner(s). Trust in a sexually healthy relationship also ensures that we can express our sexual desires, fantasies or sexually perform in a way that we know is kept between active partners. This level of comfort is built and earned over time.
Boundaries and Consent
Boundaries are limitations or how far we are willing to go with a partner and respect allows for those boundaries to be maintained. Boundary conversations should take place before any sexual activity happens. And anything outside of those boundaries should be consented to before they are performed with a sexual partner. When we consent, we communicate our willingness to participate in a particular sexual activity. Consent can be given and revoked at any time; it is ongoing and requires everyone to be of age and of sound mind (i.e., free from drug or alcohol influence). However, because there is limited education regarding all sexual activity, it is hard to understand where our boundaries lie and know all the activity in which we are willing to participate. Sexual activity encompasses more than just vaginal, anal or oral sex. Healthy sexuality affirms that hugging, kissing, or mutual masturbation, etc. are all activities that should be discussed and agreed to before they take place. Any time consent is not given for any of those sexual activities, that is considered sexual assault.
Sexual Rights and Pleasure
Our sexual rights include our ability to communicate what we like and don’t like. Sex is not a “one method fits all” activity. We are all different people, who may like and respond to different things based on our bodies, experience and what feels good. What is pleasurable for one may not be pleasurable for another, talking through this before engaging in sexual activity will remove stress and tension as well as create a meaningful interaction for all involved. Knowing what we find pleasurable is also vital because it helps us to determine if a particular sexual relationship is one to continue or end. Essentially, healthy sexuality evolves from us constantly learning and growing with each other.
Sexual Coercion and Violence
The idea that a random kiss without permission is sexy and desirable feeds into the narrative that aggressive tactics are the only ways to satisfy our sexual desires. This notion perpetuates and reinforces sexual coercion and violence as normal. We also know that talking about sex can have stigma in itself, but we may be unsure of how to get started. To help navigate this conversation, STAR created STARt Here, an informative website that helps to promote healthy sexuality and provides a guided conversation about having “The Talk” with a sexual partner, consent, sexual boundaries, types of dating abuse and more.
Do you have questions about anything discussed in this blog? You can submit your question at starthere.star.ngo. Also, visit our FAQ page to see questions that have been submitted and answered.
Defining sexual health. (2018, February 05). Retrieved from https://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/topics/sexual_health/sh_definitions/en/.
Sexual Risk Behaviors Can Lead to HIV, STDS, & Teen Pregnancy. (2020, March 25). Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/sexualbehaviors/index.htm.
Sellars, P. (2016, February 18). Teaching Proper Names for Body Parts. Retrieved from https://www.d2l.org/teaching-proper-names-for-body-parts/.