What is sexual health definition

Deborah C. Escalante

Sexual health is fundamental to the overall health and well-being of individuals, couples and families, and to the social and economic development of communities and countries. Sexual health, when viewed affirmatively, requires a positive and respectfulapproach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. The ability of men and women to achieve sexual health and well-being dependson their:

  • access to comprehensive, good-quality information about sex and sexuality;
  • knowledge about the risks they may face and their vulnerability to adverse consequences of unprotected sexual activity;
  • ability to access sexual health care;
  • living in an environment that affirms and promotes sexual health.

Sexual health-related issues are wide-ranging, and encompass sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual expression, relationships, and pleasure. They also include negative consequences or conditions such as:

  • infections with human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and reproductive tract infections (RTIs) and their adverse outcomes (such as cancer and infertility);
  • unintended pregnancy and abortion;
  • sexual dysfunction;
  • sexual violence; and
  • harmful practices (such as female genital mutilation, FGM).


WHO has been working in the area of sexual health since atleast 1974, when the deliberations of an expert committee resulted inthe publication of a technical report entitled “Education and treatmentin human sexuality” (WHO, 1975).

In 2000, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) and WHOconvened a number of expert consultations to review terminology andidentify programme options.In the course of these meetings, the working definitions of key termsused here were developed. In a subsequent meeting, organized by PAHO andthe World Association for Sexual Health (WAS), a number of sexualhealth concerns were addressed with respect to body integrity, sexualsafety, eroticism, gender, sexual orientation, emotional attachment andreproduction.

Working definitions


Sex refers to the biological characteristics that definehumans as female or male. While these sets of biological characteristicsare not mutually exclusive, as there are individuals who possess both,they tend to differentiate humans as males and females. In general use in many languages, the term sex is often used to mean “sexual activity”, but for technicalpurposes in the context of sexuality and sexual health discussions, the above definition is preferred.

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Sexual health

According to the current working definition, sexual health is:

“…a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is notmerely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive andrespectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of havingpleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. Forsexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected,protected and fulfilled.” (WHO, 2006a)


Sexual health cannot be defined, understood or madeoperational without a broad consideration of sexuality, which underliesimportant behaviours and outcomes related to sexual health. The workingdefinition of sexuality is:

“…a central aspect of being human throughout life encompasses sex, gender identitiesand roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality isexperienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours,practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not allof them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction ofbiological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious andspiritual factors.” (WHO, 2006a)

Sexual rights

There is a growing consensus that sexual health cannot be achieved and maintained without respectfor, and protection of, certain human rights. The working definition of sexual rights given below is acontribution to the continuing dialogue on human rights related to sexual health (1).

“The fulfilment of sexual health is tied to the extent to which human rights are respected,protected and fulfilled. Sexual rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognizedin international and regional human rights documents and other consensus documents and innational laws.
Rights critical to the realization of sexual health include:

  • Rights critical to the realization of sexual health include:
  • the rights to equality and non-discrimination
  • the right to be free from torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment
  • the right to privacy
  • the rights to the highest attainable standard of health (including sexual health) and socialsecurity
  • the right to marry and to found a family and enter into marriage with the free and full consentof the intending spouses, and to equality in and at the dissolution of marriage
  • the right to decide the number and spacing of one’s children
  • the rights to information, as well as education
  • the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and
  • the right to an effective remedy for violations of fundamental rights.
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The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.

The application of existing human rights to sexuality and sexual health constitute sexual rights.Sexual rights protect all people’s rights to fulfil and express their sexuality and enjoy sexualhealth, with due regard for the rights of others and within a framework of protection againstdiscrimination.” (WHO, 2006a, updated 2010)

(1) It should be noted that this definition does not represent an official WHO position and should not be used or quotedas such. It is offered instead as a contribution to ongoing discussion about sexual health.


There are many types of health including physical health, mental health, spiritual health, cultural health, social health, financial health, environmental health, etc. Plus all these types of health can impact each other. For instance, if you are trying to prevent pregnancy and are able to access the birth control you need (physical health), this may help to create a more positive mood (emotional health), which may also positively impact your sense of sexual confidence and sexual self-esteem (sexual health).

Sexual health is as valuable as any other type of health. How important it is will be different for each person. Sometimes depending on where you are in the world and your upbringing, sexual health may not be as recognized as other types of health and there may even be shame, embarrassment, fear, and confusion with sexual health. This is very common as there, unfortunately, can be a lot of shame attached to things associated with “sex”. For example, it might feel more comfortable talking about a common cold or flu with family, friends or a doctor than it might be to talk about questions around sexual health. On the other hand, you may be very comfortable talking and learning about sexual health. Take a moment to think about how the topic of sexual health makes you feel?

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No matter where you are coming from, WE ARE HERE to help bring Sexual Health into a more positive and empowering place. A place where hopefully you can learn the sexual health information you would like, see or speak to a professional in the field whether on the Sex Sense Line or at one of our many clinics throughout BC, and come away knowing that sexual health is a natural part of being human.

Options for Sexual Health champions and celebrates sexual health including an individual’s freedom of sexual expression, the diversity of human sexuality, and a positive sexual self-image for individuals throughout life. 

What influences Sexual Health?

How we define sexual health will be different for each person. The reason is that sexual health is influenced by many personal and social factors such as:

  • Our values and beliefs


  • Upbringing

  • Culture

  • Religion

  • Indigenous Status

  • Spirituality

  • The people around us

  • Our personal experiences

  • Societal expectations

  • Legal and/or sexual rights

Think about what factors influence your sexual health? What messages have you been given about sexual health from…(if applicable)…..your family? friends? society? culture? religion? spirituality? What are some of your own values and beliefs?

How we experience our sexual health is also part of how we experience the world. For example, there are many factors that health researchers have identified that can impact our health including sexual health. These are known as the ‘social determinants of health’ and include how health is affected by income, education, employment, childhood development, food, housing, health services, gender, race, disability, Indigenous status, social marginalization, and social services. (adapted from http://www.purposesociety.org/health-programs/)

If someone’s gender identity/identities are not recognized this can impact their sexual health and experiences of social marginalization. Another example is if someone is a newcomer to Canada and may not speak the language or have the health care card that will allow them to access the sexual health services they need.

As you can see, our sexual health is as individual and complicated as the various dynamics of our lives.

Human sexuality rarely falls into neat categories or lends itself to simple labeling, but rather is a rich and complex area of human experience.

Sexual health is personal, psychological, relational, cultural, spiritual, physical, and emotional.

So what does “sexual health” mean to you?

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