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What Is Sexual Health?

by Adena Galinsky

Most people in the public health community agree that sexual health is more than the absence of disease and violence. We all agree that, as the WHO says on its website, "Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality."

But what exactly does that mean?

When it comes to naming specific characteristics of sexual health, there's actually a wide diversity of opinion. According to the consensus documents produced by international sexual health experts, sexual health is a state—or it's a process. Sexually healthy people have certain kinds of feelings and values, and levels and kinds of desires—or they just know and accept themselves.

To move from opinion to fact, we need rigorous scientific study. This field is in its infancy. There is so much we don't know about the interconnections among sexual behavior, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and the state or process we call well-being.

One strategy is to define sexual well-being as those sexual feelings and attitudes that are associated with other kinds of health. We can then build models and theories of positive sexual health and conduct research to test our theories about the links between sexual pleasure and positive attitudes, and physical health, psychological health and healthy relationships. Such studies will probably not reveal universal truths, but they will help us understand the patterns within particular societies.

Results from these studies can be used to develop better programs and policies. It may be that reducing disparities in sexual health could contribute to improvement in other domains of human health and vice versa.

This exciting new field may hold the key to the next generation of public health success.