World Sexual Health Day 2014

According to the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), today is World Sexual Health Day. Adopted along with the UN, here’s their definition of sexual health.

Some of the key challenges to sexual health in the U.S. today include:

* Childhood sexual exploitation:
It can alienate people from their bodies and from sex, entangle sex with coercion, entangle attention with shame and pain, and create lifelong secrets or hatred.

* Shame about our bodies, learned from an early age:
No baby is born ashamed of her or his body. And no baby thinks their genitalia is any different than any other body part. Young children have to learn to feel dirty, to feel guilty, to feel ashamed. Too many parents are eager to teach these lessons (and too many others do it inadvertently). Thirty years later, children trained to have these feelings end up in my therapy office. Note to world: it’s a penis, not a woo-woo or a willie; it’s a vulva, not a woo-woo or down there.

* The deliberate withholding of sexual information and health services from young people:
American sex education is better than what kids learn in, say, Muslim Saudi Arabia, Catholic Croatia, or psychotic Russia. But that’s setting the bar pathetically low. Our sex education is simply third-rate (usually incomplete, often inaccurate) compared with other modern countries like Sweden and Holland.

* The criminalization of and other obstacles to safe reproductive services and information:
It’s astounding that a modern democracy still privileges “religious” ideas about private behavior over humanist, secular, and frankly crazy ones. Maintaining unwanted pregnancy, mandatory childbirth, and disease exposure as the price for sexual activity disapproved by organized Christianity helps maintain an underclass of poverty, unemployment, and domestic violence.

* Binge drinking in college:
It allows women and men to have sex about which they feel ambivalent, it make contraception difficult, it makes communication almost impossible, and it invites conflict about whether the sex was consensual.

* The cultural refusal to acknowledge and validate masturbation:
Masturbation is the primary sexual expression of virtually all children and adults. Instilling fear and shame in people for this most basic activity undermines partner sexuality.

* Moral panics about pornography, sex work, and sexual entertainment:
A great deal of scientific knowledge exists to show that these adult activities are mostly harmless–except for the iatrogenic effects of laws that invite shame, isolation, and criminal elements into consumers’ lives. Moral panics thrive on emotion, reject science, and demand simple answers to complex problems.

* Religious teachings about sexual normality, proper reasons for or configurations of sex, the value of our sexual bodies:
Every traditional religion attempts to control the sexuality of its adherents, almost always by saying that sex itself is dirty unless redeemed by religious rituals (such as marriage or post-menstrual purification). If there is a god or gods, it/they are surely too busy—and too sophisticated—to care about which orifice or sexual partner people enjoy.

* * *
How is anyone to develop sexual health—the information, emotional skills, physical self-awareness, capacity for pleasure and intimacy—in such an environment?

From the far left (anti-porn activists, campus speech-code activists) to the far right (anti-sex education forces, anti-birth control forces), groups of Americans are successfully controlling other Americans’ sexual expression, health care, and access to information. With Election Day coming up, feel free to ask candidates, to comment on blogs you read, and to write letters to the editor about a sexual health topic you care about.

Closer to home, how’s the state of your sexual health? To improve it, what conversation do you need to have with your partner or health care provider?

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