There’s a popular saying that “practice makes perfect.” And when it comes to pleasurable sexual intimacy with a spouse or committed partner, this saying is in line with research on pleasure, given that it can take time to learn the sexual pleasure landscape of your partner/spouse. And yet, for folks who – for many reasons – aren’t in a place or space to gain practical experience with sexual intimacy, does this mean that they can’t learn about sex, intimacy, and other sexual health topics?
As a sexual health educator, I know that the answer is a strong “no.”
Whether it is due to a recent ending of a relationship, the choice to be unpartnered for now, managing chronic pain within a relationship, or the choice to remain sexually abstinent until marriage, there is a myriad of reasons why folks may not be engaging in sexual activity. What’s important is that if we fall into one of these or other categories, the lack of sexual activity does not mean that we can’t learn about and become empowered with our sexual health. So, let’s explore what this means.
First of all, there’s a HUGE misconception that sexual health is solely defined as sex (having intercourse) when it is much more than that! The World Health Organization (WHO) defines sexual health as a “state of physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality….not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction, or infirmity” (WHO, 2006)  . The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) adapted the WHO definition to include a spiritual dimension and to reflect its importance across the life span: “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.”
When we make these definitions practical, we can understand sexual health as referring to knowing our reproductive systems; sexual development over the lifespan; primary care and physical check-ups; healthy vs. unhealthy vs. abusive relationships; understanding sexual response; fertility and family planning; sexual pleasure; and so much more. To narrow down the topic of sexual health to only sex (having intercourse) not only is inaccurate, but it feeds into the impression that there’s “nothing” to learn about until you’re sexually active, and this simply is not true.
As a sexual health educator working within faith-based contexts, I often come across folks who want to learn about sexual health but aren’t sure how.
The following are 5 practical steps you can take to embark on your own sexual health journey
1. Set intentions
It can be very tempting to jump into learning without grounding ourselves with our “why.” Take a few moments – with some peace and quiet around you – to reflect on why you’d like to embark on this journey. Perhaps you’ve never had sexual health education before, or you realize that you don’t know much about your body and this bothers you. Setting intentions can also serve to address any fear or shame about this process of learning since when you write or state your intentions out loud, you’re putting language to a topic that often feels disconnected from who you are.
2. Reflect on what you would like to learn; what you already know; and where you’ve learned it from
As explained above, sexual health is a HUGE field, so it can help to narrow down the specific topics you’d like to learn. At the same time, for those who’ve never received any formal or official sexual health education, you probably have internalized some information (most commonly from inaccurate sources, such as friends or social media) that needs to be unlearned. For example, if you want to learn about menstruation and fertility, reflect on what you already know and where this information came from. From there, be curious about what else you’d like to learn, especially to question what you already know if you realize it came from an inaccurate source.
3. Find accurate and holistic sources of information
While there’s so much sexual health content online and especially on social media, some are more accurate than others. Just as you wouldn’t learn about any other topic from someone who was not trained professionally in it, the same goes with sexual health.
To find accurate sources of information online, the following are recommended:
- Clinics, medical associations, and organizations such as Planned Parenthood are considered to be accurate sources of information.
- If you’re accessing information from a generic website, check to see if the author is mentioned and what their credentials are. Some websites will state that a medical professional has checked the article for accuracy – these can be trusted more than others who don’t have this mentioned.
- If you’re accessing information from someone who states that they’re a sexual health educator/therapist/professional, double check their credentials by visiting their website or LinkedIn profile. A Google search about them may also help. Social media allows anyone to “give out” information and credentials can’t always be verified.
- If the content seems very narrow-minded, uses an angry or judgmental tone, and/or there are no references cited for where they gained their information from, you may want to question the authenticity of what’s being shared. Online content should source citations for folks who want to learn more and give credit to other people’s work they drew from or were inspired by.
4. Compare what you’re learning what with you already know
As you learn more about the topic you’re exploring, compare this to what you already know based on your reflections from step two. This way, you can figure out what needs to be unlearned and relearned. For example, on the topic of menstruation, some folks may hold the belief that it’s a dirty and impure process.
If we access information that states otherwise, we should compare this to what we know and notice how it makes us feel. Using our reasoning process, we can figure out a healthier and more holistic way to understand the topic. For example, “I may have been taught that when I menstruate, it’s a dirty and impure process, but now I see that menstruation is an incredible process, and it’s a sign that things are working as they should!
The discharged blood isn’t dirty or impure – it’s part of a monthly process that prepares my body for conception, should it occur.” In other words, you can incorporate what you’ve learned into new understandings about your sexual health.
5. Implement any practical components into your everyday life
Understanding is one step – practically implementing it is another. This looks different for each of us and can depend on the topic we’re exploring. For example, if we’re learning about menstruation and fertility, we can explore tracking our LH levels to figure out when our fertile window is. Or, if we’re learning about our vulva, we may want to perform a self-exam to identify the organs and to recall what their functions are. The more we know, the more empowered we hopefully feel as well.
Our sexual health grows and develops with us, as we mature and change physically and mentally. This is why it’s important to see sexual health as being relevant across our lifespan, and not limited to any one topic or stage of life. We can learn about sexual health – which is a HUGE topic area – without being sexually active, and ideally, we’re learning about sexual health before we enter into a relationship. Why? Because gaining sexual health knowledge is ideally focused on self-empowerment, and the more we invest in ourselves, the more likely our future relationship(s) will be healthy and grounded in all of its aspects.
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