My sexual health means more to me than free condoms and a pamphlet from an event, or getting tested a few times a year.
What’s going on in the rest of my life has a major impact on the decisions I make around sex, the amount of sex that I have, and the way that I feel about it before, during, and after. I want to share my thoughts on a few things that can help support our mental health, our sexual health, and have a positive impact on our overall wellbeing:
- accessible and competent services and service providers, and
- spaces to deconstruct and process stigma and discrimination.
It is important to discuss these things because sexuality is often disconnected from other parts of our lives. Making this connection is necessary to explore the ways in which our mental health and our sexual health are interrelated.
It is necessary that medical professionals ask us about what is going on in the rest of our lives. When they do, they have a better understanding of how our relationships, our social lives, our work and school impact our health and wellbeing. If health services are not culturally safe or socially informed, especially when it comes to gender and sexual minorities, people may not receive the level of care that they require and deserve. For example, this might mean that we don’t get the right swabs during routine STI testing. It could also mean trans men not being asked about birth control due to heteronormative assumptions about the sex that they are having. Or, it might look like gay, bi, and queer men not gaining access to PrEP when they need it, even though they are the most disproportionately affected population by HIV in Canada.
Increasing access to HIV treatment, PrEP, and contraception can be a means of confidence and comfort for people when it comes to sex, and it also has a direct impact on our sexual and mental health. With less worry about HIV or pregnancy, this may mean less stress or anxiety for some people. But it could also mean we have a greater opportunity to have conversations with our partners about the sex that we want, and feel confident that we have the tools and support to make it happen.
Access to competent mental health service providers is equally important. I wish I were more shocked to hear stories of people seeing a therapist (sometimes for years) and never being asked about sex or sexuality. If we can’t speak about our sexual identities in a space as safe as a therapy session, we can’t use therapy to connect sexual identity to other parts of our life.
There are broader consequences of not being able to speak openly and honestly to your doctor, your therapist, or the clinician at the sexual health clinic. Beyond the immediate impact on our wellbeing, and specifically on our sexual health, it perpetuates the idea that discretion is the basis of a normal and expected rapport with one’s practitioner. It also fails to normalize sex and sexuality as an integral topic when discussing a healthy human life.
It is important to identify and deconstruct stigma within our communities. Stigmatizing language within our own communities has broad negative impacts. For example, sex between men is continually described through a lens of risk rather than pleasure, which perpetuates the idea that people within, or associated with, these communities are a threat to public health. On an individual level, people from within those communities may internalize these messages and regard their actions or behaviours in a negative way.
Consider how stigma has impacted different aspects of your life. When we constantly hear stigmatized language and use it when we speak about the sex that we have, what impact does this have on our wellbeing? How might this change the way that we speak about sex with our partners, or how might it influence the types of sex that we have compared to the sex that we want? When I have spaces to speak about and normalize queer sex and mental health challenges, I have the opportunity to deconstruct some of the anxiety and shame that can come from internalizing stigmatizing language.
This has been a key factor in how I understand my own queer sexuality beyond sex. It helps me feel that my value as a queer person is not based on how sexually desirable I am, and that my ability to establish and nurture relationships is not based on the sex that I’m having or not having. When I feel mentally healthy, and I’m able to affirm these sentiments for myself, I have confidence in the choices that I make around my sexual health.
Supporting mental health and normalizing challenges with mental health must be a component in our approach to sexual health and sex education. This may seem like a lot to take on when mental health services are often inaccessible. But we have the capacity to support more positive attitudes around mental health in our organizations, in our schools, and in our communities. If we are conscious of the ways that mental health is important to our sexual health, then we can use this understanding to be responsive to stigmatizing language, develop programs and curriculum that recognize and reflect the importance of holistic sexual health, and advocate for policies that ensure this link on institutional and structural levels.
I don’t have a definite prescription for how to address all these issues in one blog post, as they are so interconnected to many broader social, political, and economic issues. But I wanted to briefly reflect on a few ways that leaving sexuality out of discussions about our mental health and wellbeing can disconnect people from thinking about their sexual health more holistically.
Having a good therapist and a good doctor is only part of supporting our wellbeing. Building and connecting to community can help abate feelings of loneliness and isolation, and let us know that queer people deserve space and that queer sexuality is valid. But this is important for everyone at every intersection. Sexual health is social, and we must not dismiss parts of our wellbeing as we aim for better sexual health for ourselves and for our communities.