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Sexual health is both a lay expression and a technical term defined in national and international legal and public policy documents. As employed by social scientists, sexual health generally refers to a state of physical and emotional well-being in which an individual enjoys freedom from sexually related disease, dysfunction, coercion, and shame, and thus the ability to enjoy and act on sexual feelings. Sociological studies of sexual health employ both quantitative and qualitative methods, with the former being more common, especially for issues deemed relevant to public health.
Although scholars and policy makers have treated sexuality as a public health issue since the mid-1800s, few used the expression “sexual health” before the mid-1990s. Originally, reproductive health and sexual health were treated as a single issue, with the emphasis on reproduction. In the 1960s, however, effective new contraceptives, increasing secularization, and social acceptance of nonmarital sexuality in many societies facilitated a sharper distinction. Leading sexologists’ use of biomedical models to legitimize sex research and therapy also helped to construct sexuality as a health issue. The increasing popularity of the term “sexual health” among North American, Australian, European, and Latin American scholars may reflect attempts to circumvent increasing conservative opposition, insofar as research on sexuality is deemed more justifiable when focused on health.
In 1975, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally defined sexual health in fundamentally social, rather than biomedical, terms as entailing the “right to sexual information and.. .pleasure,” the “capacity to . . . control sexual and reproductive behavior,” “freedom from . . . psychological factors inhibiting sexual response and … relationship,” and “freedom from organic disorders, diseases, and deficiencies that interfere with sexual and reproductive functions.” These elements have been central components of all subsequent major definitions of sexual health, whether scholarly or lay.
In 2002, responding to concerns about social diversity and critiques from women’s health and development NGOs, the WHO issued a revised definition of sexual health as: a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being related to sexuality . . . 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.
The WHO further declared that attaining sexual health depended on having the “sexual rights of all persons . . . respected, protected and fulfilled.” The exact relationship among sexual health, reproductive health, and sexual rights remains contested, however.
For much of the twentieth century, prevailing moral codes/attitudes meant that most studies of sexual health focused on married couples of reproductive age or heterosexual adolescents (whose sexuality is presumed to be problematic) and tended to treat White middle-class people as paragons of health and normalcy while framing economically disadvantaged people and/or members of racial/ ethnic minorities as deviant or unhealthy. Study populations have become increasingly diverse since the 1970s, as have the range of issues explored.
Feminism has inspired research into power, gendered expectations, reproduction, and rape; with studies of men’s sexual health proliferating since the 1990s. GLBTQ activism has encouraged research on gay men’s health, especially HIV/AIDS, lesbians’ use of health services, and sexuality-related hate crimes. The aging of western societies and expanding pharmaceutical industry have drawn attention to sexual dysfunction and sexual activity after menopause/climacteric. Contemporary research also addresses female genital mutilation (FGM), sexuality and chronic illnesses, and sexuality education.
- Edwards, W. M., & Coleman, E. (2004) Defining sexual health: a descriptive overview. Archives of Sexual Behavior 33 (3): 189-95.
- Giami, (2002) Sexual health: the emergence, development, and diversity of a concept. Annual Review of Sex Research 13: 1-35.
- World Health Organization (2002) Definition of Sexual Health: http://www.who.int/reproductivehealth/en/ accessed July 3, 2016.
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