Sexual health is an essential part of health — each individual person’s health, and the health of society as a whole.
Sexual health relates to many different parts of the body, aspects of life, and areas of society, in various ways that may be obvious or not so obvious.
The World Health Organization defines sexual health as “a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”
We have boiled down this definition to five basic elements. Stated positively, the five elements are:
- The ability to have control over one’s own sexual behavior and experiences
- The ability to decide freely on whether, and when, to procreate
- Freedom from discrimination and violence related to sexuality and gender
- Experience of sexual pleasure and satisfaction
- Freedom from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.
This positive, holistic way of thinking about sexual health is different from how sexual health was viewed historically. Until about 10 years ago, most doctors and public health experts thought of sexual health in terms of disease and reproduction only.
Leading medical and public health authorities in the United States now accept this broad, positively focused view of sexual health, and are taking real action based on it. It is informing changes in national health policy, in the education of doctors, and even the marketing of consumer products.
A variety of things affect sexual health, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Some, but not all, of these things have to do with personal choices and actions. Laws and policies, culture, education, and health care systems affect every person’s sexual health in some way. These things may not be under any one person’s control, but they are changeable.
We need to be able to measure the sexual health of populations in order to know how all these factors relate to one another, to understand differences between populations, and to tell what’s working and what isn’t when we try to improve sexual health.
The Sexual Health Rankings™ index folds many different statistics into one simple sexual health score. Ranking states by score helps to show how they compare. The index also pulls together many scattered data sources and organizes them in a way that permits users to do more detailed analyses.
Sexual Health Rankings™ uses data that are currently available, but it’s not an ideal data set. A lot of what we want to know about sexual health in America simply is not routinely measured and tracked. What’s missing mainly has to do with the positive aspects of sexual health — sexual pleasure and satisfaction — which until recently weren’t considered important enough to study and monitor routinely.
More and better indicators of sexual health are needed. We want to spur the development of such indicators. As better indicators become available, the makeup of the composite will adapt to include them.
The indicators we do have may not be perfect, but they are good. We can act now to promote and improve sexual health in this country based on what we know now.
Sexual Health Rankings™ is at the root a research initiative. But that’s not all it is. We envision it as a platform for creating positive change. We want people to use the Rankings as a tool to identify needs and take positive action to improve sexual health in the United States.