Sexual Health in a Sex Positive World: Are We There Yet?

Written by Sarah Heron

Let’s talk about sex, baby. 

Sex is everywhere. We may not realise it, but every day we are consuming bite-sized messages of “sex makes the world go round”. And to an extent, it does. 

From heteronormative advertising where women lie at the feet of a man donning a designer suit, to internet pop-ups that advertise hot single moms (in your area!).  From “boys are sex-crazy” to “girls don’t like it as much”, it’s lurking around every corner. 

Are these messages healthy? No, not always. Are they facilitating mature, open conversations surrounding sex? Rarely. 

Sexual Health, What’s The Deal? 

When people think of sexual health, they often link it to their overall health status. Do they have an STI? Are they having safe sex? These are, of course, completely relevant and a massive aspect of having a healthy, honest sex life. But that’s just the surface, and it’s imperative that we go deeper. 

Despite what many people may think, sexual health is far greater than knowing if you’ve contracted something from somebody. It spans across a wide variety of touch points that all work together to create a safer, healthier idea of what sex is, what it can be and what it absolutely shouldn’t be. 

There have been plenty of statements made by health professionals and organizations that deal with public health and safety describing what sexual health encompasses. The most recent one comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Health Resources and Services Administration Advisory Committee on HIV, Viral Hepatitis, and STD Prevention and Treatment (CHAC): 

“Sexual health is a state of well-being in relation to sexuality across the life span that involves physical, emotional, mental, social, and spiritual dimensions. Sexual health is an intrinsic element of human health and is based on a positive, equitable, and respectful approach to sexuality, relationships, and reproduction, that is free of coercion, fear, discrimination, stigma, shame, and violence. It includes the ability to understand the benefits, risks, and responsibilities of sexual behaviour; the prevention and care of disease and other adverse outcomes; and the possibility of fulfilling sexual relationships. Sexual health is impacted by socioeconomic and cultural contexts—including policies, practices, and services—that support healthy outcomes for individuals, families, and their communities.

I like it, I really do. I think it represents every aspect of who we are as sexual beings: complicated, responsible, and socially unequal (the last part is not a part I like, but I like that it is being acknowledged). The accessibility to sexual health care and resources that somebody would have when growing up in wealthier suburbia would be vastly different to the resources available to somebody in a poor socio-economic background. 

Sex is an integral part of human nature and whilst we may not see how it affects us across nearly every aspect of our existence, it does. In 2022, we collectively need to bridge the gap and take responsibility for our own sexual health in order to live safe, satisfactory lives. 

Looking After Your Sexual Health 

Know Your Status 

I once had a friend who found something on their genitals. I suggested we go to the doctor - you know, like normal and responsible people do. That was a fruitless mission. 

That was until one day we were at a festival and they bumped into a friend of theirs who happened to be doing his community service to become a doctor. Note: not a doctor yet. Cue the first porta-potty consult I’ve ever borne witness to. 

Nearly-doctor-friend took a drunken look, slapped them on the back and said “You’re good to go, mate”. No referral to a, you know, licensed doctor. No pushing them to get tested. Just some festival camaraderie and a jiggy. 

And that was that. That was the extent this person was willing to go to know about their sexual health. That’s what I believe to be the attitude of the majority of young South Africans; if you don’t know, you don’t have to tell. 

Knowing your status for any STI is unbelievably important. The number one symptom for STI’s is…no symptoms at all. So whilst you believe you may be in the clear, there could very well be a virus lying dormant in your body. It’s advised you go for a full panel screening every six months, and even more often if you’re having casual sex with multiple partners. 

And if you test positive for anything from Chlamydia to HSV, it’s okay (trust me, I’ve been there). You’re a human being who caught a virus for doing something completely natural. I promise you, the world will not stop turning and you’ll be surprised at how empowering it feels to know exactly what’s going in your body. 

Trust Your Gut 

A huge part of a healthy sex life is going into each sexual relationship with a resounding “YES”. Sure, there may be nerves and a little anxiety but it’s important to be able to differentiate between butterflies and a gut feeling that something isn’t sitting right with you. 

When we enter into situations we know aren’t right for us, we start to betray our own intuition piece by piece. We start to feel resentful about the decisions we make and the people we make them with. 

You don’t owe anybody anything, whether that be a pretty smile or jumping into bed. Sexual health means understanding what your heart is telling you and following it without question. It means giving yourself the option to stay or leave without guilt. 

Coercion, shame and fear play a damaging role in sexual health and place us further away from the sexual experiences that we crave. 

Communicate With Your Partner 

If you’re not ready to communicate with your partner, you’re not ready to be having sex with them. 

Whether you’re asking about their sexual health or disclosing your own, honesty is the best way to keep both of you (or three of you, four of you etc) fulfilled and most importantly, safe. 

Our day to day lives are hectic and it may feel like there isn’t any time to talk about sex. Or maybe it isn’t a time issue but rather an issue of how one of you was raised, your sexual history or any stigma you have attached to sex in general. 

Without proper communication, something will always feel lacking. 

Educate Yourself On The Gender Spectrum and Sexuality 

Sexual health isn’t just an individual issue, it’s a community issue. We all have a responsibility to treat each other with respect regardless of gender identity and sexual orientation. 

In South Africa, we still have a long way to go when it comes to unlearning the colonial view of what sex should be, and what relationships should look like. 

The gender binary that we have been taught (man and woman, girl and boy, feminine traits and masculine traits) are not as natural as you may believe. Everything we know has been created by the people before us, and Western culture has played a significant role in diminishing gender and sexuality into a black and white picture that doesn’t fit the way a lot of people feel. 

Trying to fit into a mould that doesn’t bring you the utmost joy is always going to negatively affect your sexual health. Not being true to your desires and orientation is the number one way to make sex spiritually and emotionally harmful. 

Repeat After Me

Sex does not define me. I am allowed to enjoy sex. I will do my very best to learn more about my body, my needs and my wants. I will do my very best to communicate these with my partner. I will look after my health and keep on top of my status. 

I will reject shame and stigma, and I will bask in the glory of what it means to be a sexual being. 

Let’s do it. Let’s talk about sex, baby.

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