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?
"Everything in the world is about sex, except sex, which is about power."
Yes, sex is sometimes about power. But sex can be about many different things. For some people it means "I can still get sex," or "I can still get sex from a good-looking man/woman, or "I can still get sex from you." I guess these are about power in a way, especially that last one.
Here are a few more reasons that people want sex: to get attention, to get touching, to feel taken care of, to feel attractive, to challenge taboos, to assert autonomy. For some people, there's no better way to say "you are not the boss of me" than to have unauthorized or ill-advised sex. It doesn't matter if the "you" is alive, dead, or knows about the sex.
So why does this matter?
It matters because if what you want is touching, or attention, or validation, there are many other, usually more effective ways to get them than sex. We all need a variety of ways to get our emotional needs met. Then, if one way doesn't work—like our partner doesn't want sex at a given time—we still have other ways of asking for what we want.
I've had patients who asked their partner for sex when it was obvious their partner was going to say no—but they asked anyway. They were so desperate to feel noticed or wanted that they just couldn't hold back from asking, even when they knew they'd probably be turned down. Besides, they all say, "there was a one-in-a-million chance that he or she would say yes, and I didn't want to miss it, no matter how unlikely."
That kind of "reasoning" makes sense when you're desperate—not for sex, but to fill an emotional need.
Let's say that what you really want is to feel connected to your partner. How many ways do you have to create that feeling? Possibilities include giving him or her a small gift (say, watching their favorite show with them); offering to help do one of their chores (say, cleaning out their car—with them, not for them); bringing up a favorite shared memory ("hey honey, remember when we…"?); and simply asking for some connection in a friendly, direct way (hey, could we both stop doing our own thing now and pay a little attention to each other now?).
Sex can be very enjoyable under the right circumstances. That includes being honest with your partner about the kind of experience you want to have, and not using sex to fill one emotional void after another. That makes sex way too complicated, and sets people up for disappointment when sex can't deliver the goods.
So to help make sex more enjoyable, don't turn it into your all-purpose go-to for every emotional situation. Find other ways in addition to sex to connect, to express yourself, and to feel validated, so sex can be simpler and easier.
After all, what's the difference between sex and feeling cared about? People can go for days without sex.
Purity Balls are more popular than ever. That's the religious ceremony in which a girl (usually about 12) pledges her "purity" to her father and to God until she marries. Balls are like group weddings: dozens of dads wear tuxedos, girls wear (typically white) ball gowns, dads put gold bands on their daughters' wedding finger, and then the couple has a First Dance together.
The average age of first marriage in America is now over 27. That would make the non-sexual Purity Zone (from pledge to marriage) some 15 years long. If we adjust the figure for the demographics of highly religious communities, a typical age of marriage would still be 20. That would make the Danger Zone—um, I mean Purity Zone—eight years long, still plenty of time to develop massive guilt or shame about the sexual feelings and even mild experimentation that's almost inevitable in such a situation.
And just to make the Purity Challenge even more interesting, Purity means no kissing. Not just no genital sex—no anything. Compared to this standard, "Lie back and think of England" was a coke-fueled Vegas orgy.
If you're not completely creeped-out yet, here are ten problems that this medieval arrangement invites:
* It places all the emphasis on female virginity and none on male virginity.
* It puts one's future marriage at unnecessary risk by preventing any inquiry about sexual compatibility—or even about whether people like each other's smell.
* Because very few people actually keep virginity pledges until marriage, guilt or shame for breaking this promise is almost guaranteed.
* It supposedly precludes the need for proper sex education, and so teens go through puberty completely unprepared. Instruction about contraception is not just unnecessary, it's offensive to God, which increases the chance of unintended pregnancy.
* It eroticizes the father-daughter relationship without allowing any balance from dating or a boyfriend. And it privileges the father-daughter relationship without a comparable mother-daughter relationship.
* It sees virginity as the crucial measure of a female's worth.
* It sees sex as impure and immoral, something to be avoided at all cost for many years.
* It creates unrealistic expectations of marriage: that the husband will somehow create an ideal sexual relationship for the couple, and that he'll feel thrilled that his new wife is sexually ignorant (and often quite frightened). * It creates unrealistic expectations about how adolescents and young women will deal with their urges to kiss, be touched, masturbate, or feel like a couple: pray the urges away.
* It forces most young women to eventually choose between satisfying their own desires or their father's, and between denying their own desires and disappointing God.
According to a study in the Journal of Public Health, fully half of 14,000 adolescents who took virginity pledges broke them. Another study revealed that almost 2/3 of undergraduates broke their virginity pledges—and that a significant number of the self-identified abstainers had oral sex.
At the Purity Ball's climax, father and daughter sign a Covenant: that as High Priest of the household, he will now protect her virginity. The ceremony's wording is explicit: "Keep this ring on your finger. You are now married to the Lord, and your father is your boyfriend."