Redefining sexual health for benefits throughout life

Sexual health is relevant throughout a person’s life, through to adolescence and into older age – not only during their reproductive years.

It 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. These relationships are themselves
dependent on whether everyone’s human rights related to their sexuality are realized and protected.

WHO’s working definition of sexual health emphasizes a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, that is much more than just physical – one that cannot be separated from sexual well-being:

Sexual health is a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity.

Sexual health requires 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. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

HRP at 50 logo“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 the WHO Sexual and Reproductive Health and
Research, including the United Nations Special Research Programme HRP, and co-author of a new publication exploring the role of sexual pleasure in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) programming. “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.”

Pleasure as a consideration for the success of sexual health interventions

Ahead of Valentine’s Day (14th February, 2022), a new analysis was published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on
the need to consider sexual pleasure, not only risk of disease, in designing sexual health programmes.

What is the added value of incorporating pleasure in sexual health interventions? A systematic review and meta-analysis shows
this can be an important success factor for improving knowledge around sex and uptake of safer sex practices such as condom use.

Looking at outcomes from various initiatives, the research recommends redesigning sexual education and health interventions to incorporate sexual pleasure considerations, including when promoting safer sex. This means acknowledging the reasons why people
have sex – and recognizing that sexual experiences can and should be pleasurable.

“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 Dr Lianne Gonsalves, World Health Organization, paper co-author. “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 galvanize the sexual and reproductive health and rights community to promote services that educate and equip users to engage in sex that is safe, consensual, and pleasurable.’

What next for sexual health and well-being?

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

A major milestone is the new edition of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) which has a chapter on sexual health for the first time. By providing the
latest evidence-based definitions, WHO is facilitating the diagnosis and appropriate management for a wide variety of conditions

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