According to the World Health Organization (WHO) sexual health relies upon 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." This definition provides an excellent framework, yet how many of us were provided with the tools we needed growing up to understand the many domains that affect sexual health such as physical (how does sex work?), and social and psychological implications? Herman & Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute co-founder Holly Herman has been a long-time proponent of sexual health and function, and in courses, she might be heard asking participants to consider most individuals first sexual encounter: was it relaxed, were both parties informed, was the experience pleasurable? Regardless of a person's stance on when an individual should first engage in sexual activity and with whom, developing a life-long healthful approach to our own sexuality is clearly an integral part of optimizing quality of life.
Ff we expand this concept to the pelvic rehabilitation caseload we often face, how can we best meet the needs of our patients if our own education in sexuality was limited? How can we best understand the varied approaches to sexual health and function if the approaches do not match our own? Our world has fortunately shifted to include the recommendation that healthy sexuality begins in childhood. The American Academy of Pediatrics states that a simple step in childhood sexual development is in using the correct anatomical names for genitalia. How can youth and adolescent sexual health education and support be improved to further promote lifelong healthy sexuality?
An article published last year in the journal Public Health Reports addresses a paradigm shift from teenage pregnancy prevention to youth sexual health. The Oregon Youth Sexual Health Plan was developed in 2009 following a collaborative effort from state agencies and private partners, and focuses on "development of young people" and embracing "sexuality as a natural part of adolescent development." This article lends historical perspective to the advancement of the concept that adolescents have a right to sexual health knowledge, not simply in relation to reproduction and sexually transmitted disease, but also in relation to quality of life and interpersonal relations. The researchers also point out the failure of abstinence-only sex education to produce significant evidence of efficacy.
Goals of the youth sexual health plan include having young people use "accurate information and well-developed skills to make thoughtful choices about relationships and sexual health." Additional goals include that sexual health inequities are removed, rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases are reduced, and non-consensual sexual behaviors are reduced. The Oregon Youth Sexual Health Plan is public policy, and one that may pave the road for other states seeking to move from a negative stance that focuses on potentially harmful impacts of sexuality to a positive sharing of needed information, knowledge, skills, and support in developing a healthy view of sexuality. If you would like to learn more about sexual health and sexual medicine, join Holly Herman at her course titled Sexual Medicine for Men and Women. The next opportunity to take this course is in January in Houston!