Promoting sexual health is about more than access to care

My time in sex ed class as a student in the Maritimes was pretty typical. Our curriculum consisted mostly of creating grisly poster boards of untreated STIs that were posted in the bathrooms to strike fear into the hearts of anyone who dared to even dream of a sexual partner, and whispered stories of the social purgatory that awaited if you became pregnant.

Later, sitting in a university classroom I was introduced to the idea that health isn’t just about the absence of an ailment or disease. Rather, health is a complex set of factors that lead to overall wellbeing for the individual and the community. These ideas, created by women of colour and Indigenous women who saw the ways in which a pro-choice movement based only on access to care failed marginalized people and failed to address the root causes of inequity, were light-years away from the ideas of sexual health I had been taught in grade school.

Sexual health is not simply the absence of an unwanted pregnancy or STI. Promoting sexual health means cultivating a space where people are able to access the information they need to make decisions about their bodies, where social determinants of health are the basis of policy, and where friends, family, medical professionals, and service providers recognize and advocate for social justice that will allow people to make those decisions in a safe environment.

Sexual health, or a space where we can truly Heart Our Parts, is a space where not only do people have access to quality healthcare, but have access to evidence-based comprehensive sexual health education, affordable birth control, services close to their communities, medical professionals who understand queer and trans health, and an approach to services and education that addresses the ways that racism, colonialism and transphobia continue to impact the sexual health of individuals and communities.

For sexual health educators working in communities, it doesn’t take long to realize that effectively working towards building sexual health doesn’t just depend on having free condoms available (although that certainly helps!), it is a multifaceted fight.

While I worked as a sexual health educator in Nova Scotia, I met many young people who were desperate to find affordable birth control. With few options at the time, they were often not able to find what they needed. These young people were often at the intersection of poverty, rural isolation and youth. Unfortunately rather than seeing their health as a complex set of social factors, people in positions of power often judged them on the basis of whether or not they managed to avoid pregnancy, despite the barriers.

While being able to provide affordable birth control through programs like The Compassionate Contraceptive Assistance Program (CCAP) were critically important, it was necessary to simultaneously work alongside those activists and advocates working to address the factors that marginalized these young people.

At its best, sexual health education is an important tool of reproductive justice. Going beyond the birds and the bees or rushed condom demonstration, comprehensive sexuality health education can illuminate the broader social context of sex, sexuality and gender, and give young people the tools they need to grapple with power structures, gate keepers and the social context of their future sexual and romantic relationships.

It’s important to recognize that the majority of people working in sexual health or teaching it in schools in the Maritimes (including myself) are white. Racism and colonialism heavily impact sexual health. The experiences that people of colour and Indigenous peoples have at school, in the doctor’s office, and within the justice system, demonstrates that a sexual health strategy or program that fails to include the voices of people of colour or Indigenous peoples is insufficient.

Advocating for comprehensive sexuality education that includes discussion about social factors as well as access to services gives young people a chance to begin to learn about their bodies in a social context, and is a critical step in achieving sexual health for our communities.

It’s finally here: SRH Week 2015!

2014 was a milestone year for sexual health and rights in Canada. The Canadian Federation for Sexual Health (formerly Planned Parenthood Canada), Action Canada for Population and Development (ACPD) and Canadians for Choice joined to become one strong unified voice for sexual and reproductive health. The new organization, Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights is a progressive, pro-choice charity that is up and running and ready to speak up for sexual and reproductive health and rights in Canada and globally.

And speak up we will! As Action Canada, in partnership with the Canadian Public Health Association, we are excited to take on Sexual and Reproductive Health Awareness Week, the campaign formerly hosted by the Canadian Federation for Sexual Health that takes place every year from February 9th to the 13th.

We are thrilled to re-introduce the Heart Your Parts theme with a refreshed look and campaign website. The site will be available year-round with reliable, easy to access, up to date and comprehensive information on sexual and reproductive health.

As part of the campaign, we want to hear from you with lively discussions on how together, as a local, national and global community, we can better promote and support sexual and reproductive health.

Join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter using #HeartYourParts or send us your blog ideas.

Caring for our whole selves is an important and empowering part of positive relationships and good sexual health. And having access to accurate information is key to knowing how to care for our bodies. Browsing the Heart Your Parts campaign page, you’ll find a range of content: from simple health tips, to facts on issues like pregnancy and sexually transmissible infections (STIs) and discussions on consent and problem solving.

You’ll find a social media kit on the website too, to help you spread the word about sexual and reproductive health. Scan our Heart Your Parts avatars for a display picture or create your own! We also have youth friendly, inclusive, and sex-positive sample Tweets and Facebook posts for you to share with your networks. Have something else to say? We’d love to hear it! Tweet us at @SRHweek or use #HeartYourParts and let us know how you promote healthy sexualities.