Happy (World) Sexual Health Month, a month that, according to the New York State Department of Health celebrates “the ability to embrace and enjoy our sexuality throughout our lives…regardless of gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, or status.” What an evolved world we live in, that we can celebrate such an occasion, which we have officially been doing since 2010.
6 Goals of Sexual Health Month
- to educate people about safe sexual practices;
- to shed light on sexually transmitted infections and the importance of their treatment;
- to address sexual taboos, stigmas and myths;
- to encourage the use of contraceptives (and fertility awareness) to prevent unplanned pregnancies;
- to introduce people to LGBTQ+ community needs and rights;
- to focus on healthcare organizations, government officials and policy makers, who can make lasting investments in sexual health services.
A Glimpse Back: The Evolution of Sexual Health Awareness
Scrolling back through the years, however, it’s interesting to explore how we got here to begin with. When I got into the field of women’s health, it was 1980. A mere seven years earlier, in 1973, Roe v. Wade had passed a landmark Supreme Court ruling, which made abortion a right protected by the Constitution of the United States. Those were heady times, and women’s reproductive health was quickly on the rise to the forefront of the American psyche.
Suddenly we could talk about sex, contraception, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, and all that had been swept under the rug for decades.
Life Magazine and Time Magazine, the most popular and widely read weekly publications in the country at the time, had already featured articles on “The Pill,” meaning birth control pills, during the late 1960’s. But a new spin was emerging, wherein women’s reproductive choices began to be connected with sexual freedom and a brand-new term was born – women’s liberation.
Women’s Lib! That’s what they called it and what a concept it was. For generations of women who, despite the best efforts of the original suffragettes and radical political feminists, were still largely expected to stay home, have babies (the number of which was limited only by luck or the rhythm method) and be passive participants in their own lives and futures, there was liberation.
Between the availability of inexpensive and non-invasive contraception, and the ability to terminate an unplanned pregnancy, women suddenly had choices, and they could make them independently, in the privacy of their doctor’s office. It was a brave new world, that exhilarated some but threatened others.
The 1990s: A Decade of Liberation and Exploration
In the 1990’s I worked as a sexual health and awareness counselor and educator with another traditionally disenfranchised group, adolescents and young adults. Aside from much needed puberty and menstrual physiology education, this was a group that had a lot of questions and concerns about sexual orientation.
Whether it was a function of their youth or a sign of the times to come, I do not know, but we spent a lot of time talking about homosexuality (gay and lesbian), bisexuality, cross dressing and what we now call transsexuality. Though considered somewhat taboo, especially for the times, something in the culture of that decade, which was reflected in art, music, fashion, literature and film made the conversations relevant and important.
And much like the decades before, when women saw their sexual horizons broaden and their possibilities expand, young people in the 1990’s found a certain sexual liberation through gender bending cultural icons like George Michael, the Spice Girls, Madonna, Bjork, Prince and Marilyn Mason.
Their presence at award shows and on the red carpet normalized what kids saw in themselves and their peer groups and made it ok to be, and to express, who you were as a sexual person.
A Slippery Slope: Recent Setbacks in Sexual Health Rights
Flash forward to the present, and the last decade or so, when we have seen many of these hard fought and hard-won victories slip away. This month, we have elections in five important “swing states” where the issue of abortion is on the chopping block, following the stunning reversal by the Supreme Court of Roe v. Wade in 2022.
LGBTQ+ rights (though we did not call it that back in the day) are challenged every day.
Pride parades and gatherings are disrupted, and participants are threatened with hate speech and worse. Kids who identify as an alternative gender, or “cis” are bullied and ostracized. The culture has shifted to a place where there is less acceptance, less tolerance, less liberation, and more prejudice, more judging, more constriction.
Hence the importance of our celebration this month. Our sexual health is a reflection of our overall health and wellbeing. Only when we are allowed the right to express ourselves, our physical needs, our desires, our plans, our aspirations, are we truly liberated.
There was an iconic late 1970’s advertisement for, of all things, cigarettes, that were marketed directly to women, a groundbreaking concept at the time. The slogan captured the new found freedom of a generation:
You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby!
Let’s not backtrack. Let’s not lose our momentum. Sure, we’ve come a long way, we’ve got a long way to go.
As we stand at the crossroads of progress and adversity, World Sexual Health Month beckons us to reaffirm our commitment to the principles that define it. In a world where challenges threaten hard-fought victories, this celebration becomes not just a reminder of how far we’ve come but a call to action for the road ahead.
Let us not forget the battles fought and won, for they are the foundation on which we build our future. In preserving the essence of Sexual Health Month, we safeguard not just our right to express desires and aspirations but also champion the cause of collective freedom.
As the echoes of the past resonate in our present, may this celebration serve as a beacon, guiding us towards a future where the path to sexual liberation remains unyielding, and the strides we take today echo for generations to come.