The Myths and Realities of Sexual Health
Sex is by far the most controversial topic ever discussed by human beings, if ever discussed at all. We all know about sex; bits and pieces that we stumble on as we find our ways through life. But, we never really talk about it and, more importantly, we are never educated about it. Sex is a myth, a series of conceptions that cling to our minds from our accumulated exposures to different media messages. What we generally know about sex is completely selective and not solid or evidence-based. Consequently, we have no idea what the definition of ‘Sexually Healthy’ is, if we know such a term exists in the first place.
Sex is vital for good health. It is definitely good for us and the reasons for that are countless and need an article on their own. But how do we define sexual health? What are the criteria upon which such a term is based? How can a person say, “I am a sexually healthy individual”? And can a person who is not sexually active be sexually healthy?
The World Health Organization (WHO) describes health as the state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction and infirmity. Therefore, sexual health requires a positive, 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 and needs of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled in a monogamous relationship. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles and relationships.
Human beings respond to sexual stimulation as early as infancy, but at birth, we respond to sexual stimulation based solely on instinct. If we feel safe and our basic material needs are met, we will most likely respond to sexual stimuli very easily. This is perhaps why the simple acts of nursing and exposing the genitals to air result in sexual arousal in infants, and perhaps that explains why babies are happier when they are naked. In the pre-pubertal phase, orgasm is controlled more by physical stimuli than mental thought processes and it is a simple physical reflex response.
At puberty, we are probably taught how to “appropriately” respond to sexual stimulation. We perhaps know that any sexual response is bad and we are so isolated from our physical sexual selves that we are not even aware of it when we are sexually aroused, and this is truer of girls than boys. A major misconception that results from that is perceiving sexual arousal as “being in love.” We are incapable of separating between the two and refuse to believe that we can feel sexually attracted to a person we have no intimate feelings towards. A perfect example of that is how both, men and women, find certain celebrities attractive. Take Brad Pitt as an example; he is worshiped by woman from the four corners of the globe but, how many of these women can actually say that they love him? And those who do are basing that emotion on their conception of who he is simply because there is no way they could know him in person and fall in love with his true character. So basically, what they are feeling is physical attraction towards his good looks and charismatic movie roles.
A sexually healthy person, male or female, feels desire, experiences stimulation and arousal and responds to them. The myth that males are naturally more sexually active than women is untrue. Men and women are born the same in that regard, but what makes a man more sexually open than a woman is the way he was raised and the cultural givens he grows up into. Blaming testosterone is unfair because estrogen responds the same way towards sexual stimuli and the fact that women suppress it more skillfully has nothing to do with human physiology.
Another sign of sexual health is masturbation. Yes, masturbation is normal. It is a healthy behavior that most people do at some point in their lives, male and female, although some never do. It is normal if a person masturbates, and it is normal if a person chooses not to. Frequent masturbation cannot harm a person physically or psychologically. Masturbation can actually teach people how their bodies respond to sexual stimulation and can help people know what to expect during actual sex with a partner.
Scientists have broken the sexual response cycle into four phases:
1. Excitement: an initial stimulation phase where there is an increase in the blood flow to the genitals. The speed and intensity of arousal varies greatly from one person to another
2. Plateau: a more or less steady state of high arousal which is still not so intense as to trigger orgasm
3. Orgasm: the physical and emotional sensation experienced at the peak of sexual excitation; the climax
4. Resolution: the state of satisfaction, euphoria and relaxation accompanied by the decrease in the blood flow to the sex organs and relaxation of muscle tone
During the orgasm phase, there are slight differences between males and females. Men are incapable of achieving multiple orgasms during a single sexual performance, while women are. There are also differences in the resolution phase. Males experience a refractory period after an orgasm in which it is impossible to be aroused again before the duration of that period in complete. Females, on the other hand, can be aroused again without having to go through the refractory period that males do. The media messages we are exposed to have always revealed the opposite and many find it surprising to know that it is actually the other way round.
Researching, reading and learning about sex are vital to achieve sexual health. A person cannot assess whether or not they are sexually healthy if they do not know the basic interpretation of the term. It should not be taboo to talk about sex, as long as it is done in an educational and respectable manner. It may be a bit embarrassing, but it certainly is beneficial. There are so many more aspects to sexual health than the ones mentioned here and going into them can take up the whole issue. But the bottom line is, the information is out there, all you have to do is look for it. Just like we are keen to know about the health of our babies or of particular organs in our bodies like the digestive system or the kidneys, we must be just as keen to know about sexual health so as to have the power that comes along with knowledge and to help ourselves lead healthier lives.