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Redefining life-long benefits of sexual health – WHO

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In Viet Nam, an elderly couple in their 80s enjoying life.

From adolescence to old age, sexual health constantly needs to be revaluated in the light of every individual’s changing circumstances, the UN health agency said on Friday.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), sexual health is determined by the quality and safety of people’s relationships: with oneself and other individuals, with family and friends, and the society in which we live, including the gender norms that shape our experiences.

“Sexual health is not a fixed state of being, and every person’s needs will change across the life course,” said Ian Askew, former Director of WHO Sexual and Reproductive Health and Research, and co-author of a new publication exploring the role of sexual pleasure in sexual and reproductive health and rights programming. 

More than physical

Sexual relationships are themselves dependent on whether everyone’s human rights related to their sexuality are realized and protected, according to WHO.

The UN health agency’s working definition of sexual health emphasizes a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships that is much more than just physical.

“This is why it is crucial to undertake a range of activities across this continuum: from support of sexual well-being, to prevention and management of disease,” said Mr. Askew.

Integrating pleasure

Ahead of Valentine’s Day, on Monday, a new analysis was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on the importance of including sexual pleasure and not only disease risks, when designing sexual health programmes. 

“Sexual health education and services have traditionally promoted safer sex practices by focusing on risk reduction and preventing disease, without acknowledging how safer sex can also promote intimacy, pleasure, consent, and wellbeing,” said Lianne Gonsalves, WHO paper co-author. 

Sexual health linked to sexual well-being

  • It is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being, related to sexuality.
  • Sexual health is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity.
  • It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships.
  • Good sexual health offers pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence.
  • It respects, protects and fulfills the sexual rights of all persons.
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“This review provides a simple message: programmes which better reflect the reasons people have sex – including for pleasure – see better health outcomes”.

The hope is that these results will galvanize the sexual and reproductive health and rights community, to promote services that educate and equip people to engage in sex that is safe, consensual, and pleasurable.

Redefining life-long benefits of sexual health – WHO

Emerging interventions

Interventions specifically intended to improve sexual well-being are gradually emerging.

This year’s new edition of the International Classification of Diseases, for the first time, has a chapter devoted to sexual health.

By providing the latest evidence-based definitions, WHO is facilitating the diagnosis and appropriate management for a wide variety of conditions related to sexual health.

Unhealthy reality

Unfortunately, many women, girls and gender-diverse persons, go through the ordeal of experiencing non-consensual and violent sex.

WHO is supporting national efforts globally to prevent and manage the consequences of all forms of sexual violence.

And to eliminate diseases that affect sexual health, the UN health agency is developing new global strategies to address sexually transmitted diseases, while taking into account the current pandemic-induced health system disruptions.

Being human

WHO maintains that good sexual health is “fundamental to the overall health and well-being of individuals, couples and families, and to the social and economic development of communities and countries”.

As such, it is committed to identifying and promoting sexual health itself, so that everyone, everywhere is able to fulfil their human rights related to their sexuality and sexual well-being.

Redefining life-long benefits of sexual health – WHO

Gay couple at an LGBT Pride event in Cambodia.

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