Sexual health is an issue affecting everyone. In 2019 alone, more than 2.74 million people in England attended a sexual health clinic. And every year, hundreds of thousands of Britons are diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection (STI). Over a lifetime, many of us will need to seek sexual health support.
Yet despite how common sexual health problems are, most of us are reluctant to talk about them. For example recent research found that Britons most commonly do their google searches about STIs and screening in the early hours. This finding reflects a sense of shame and taboo – that it is in our most isolated moments that we seek answers to these questions.
For Sexual Health Awareness Week 2022, we spoke to Dr Albert Aka, Consultant Gynaecologist at The Gynae Centre and renowned expert on sexual health, about why we need increased awareness.
Why is there still such a taboo around sexual health?
How would you define sexual health?
“First and foremost, sexual health means defence against disease, including HIV and STIs such as chlamydia or gonorrhoea,’ Dr Aka says. ‘But such protection depends upon access to accurate information about infection transmission and STI testing – not to mention access to the testing and healthcare itself.
“In this spirit, the World Health Organisation’s characterisation of sexual health is much broader than the absence of STDs or reproductive tract infections (such as bacterial vaginosis) which if left untreated may lead to fertility problems or other serious health concerns. The WHO makes clear that sexual health also concerns freedom from coercion or discrimination, and the ability to make one’s own choices and access clear information.”
Why is sexual health important?
Sexual health is central to quality of life. As the World Health Organisation makes clear, it’s about much more than the absence of disease, covering wider wellbeing. That said, of course protection against infection is hugely important. Dr Aka says: “The problem with STIs like gonorrhoea for example, is not only the symptoms they can create, but the longer-term consequences associated with them. For example if left untreated, infections like gonorrhoea or chlamydia can lead to Pelvic Inflammatory Disease (PID) which can cause problems such as infertility and ectopic pregnancy.” This is where healthcare access and information come in to improve sexual health.
Why do destigmatising efforts matter? Because sexual health taboos and STI stigma can cause people to avoid getting tested, and accordingly treated. Stigma can also prevent people disclosing an infection to previous or current sexual partners who may also be infected. In other words, stigma can actually encourage the spread of infection.
“There are still so many myths and so much misinformation,” Dr Aka says. “Heterosexual women are more likely to get STIs only because such infections are more easily transmitted to them from male partners. And yet historically it is women who have borne the brunt of sexual health stigma.”
In 2022 sexual health awareness efforts are as important as ever, because there is evidence that while casual sex continues to be popular, condom use is in decline.
How do you know if your sexual health is good?
Data shows that women tend to be more likely to get tested than men but are also more likely to catch STIs because in heterosexual couplings, these infections are more easily transmitted from man to woman than vice versa.
While many STIs come with symptoms, some can dwell in the body with no signs, including chlamydia, the most commonly diagnosed STI. So, while here at The Gynae Centre we have produced helpful resources such as a vaginal discharge guide to help spot potential problems, there is no absolute peace of mind without testing.
Sexual health best practice means using condoms with a new partner until both of you have been tested and given the all-clear. As a woman, it also means getting your regular cervical smear tests and paying attention to your body, because for example, some changes to vaginal discharge can signal an infection (e.g. bacterial vaginosis) that may not have come from sexual intercourse, but that can lead to complications if left untreated.
Good sexual health also means listening to yourself and your own needs and wants. In other words, good sexual health is good self-care.