Overview of Sexual Health

Sexual health refers to a state of good health and well-being in regards to the physical, mental, emotional, and social aspects of sexuality. Sexual health involves reproduction, contraception (birth control), sexually transmitted disease (STD) prevention, safety, and healthy sexuality.

The term "sexual health" implies the ability to engage in, enjoy, and control sexual behavior within personal and social expectations and limitations. It also implies the absence of certain medical conditions (e.g., sexually transmitted diseases and infections, sexual dysfunction, unplanned pregnancy) and psychological factors (e.g., fear, guilt, shame, anger) that can affect health and impair sexual relationships.

While healthy sexuality can have a positive impact on wellness, unhealthy or irresponsible sexuality can have a number of negative consequences. High-risk sexual behavior can result in serious problems, including HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and infections (STIs), unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, infertility, and violence. Unhealthy sexuality also can lead to sexual abuse, sexual addiction (including pornography), sexual discrimination, and sexual exploitation, and can increase the risk for drug and alcohol abuse.

Human Sexuality

Conceptions about sexuality are influenced by several factors, including personal and social attitudes, and expectations and experiences regarding sexuality and sexual behavior. Sexual health requires good physical, mental, and emotional health, as well as a reasonable, respectful attitude toward sexuality.

Although sexuality can be an important part of loving, mature, intimate relationships, it also can be a source of significant stress within these relationships. Healthy sexuality involves physical (physiological) and mental (psychological) responses, open communication, and an emotional connection that includes positive feelings and conceptions about sexuality, self-image, and sexual partners. Developing an understanding about the different aspects of human sexuality can help sexual partners achieve and maintain a safe, responsible, healthy, and satisfying sex life.

Human sexuality involves the following:

  • Biological sex characteristics (features that differentiate males from females; many people possess characteristics of both genders)
  • Eroticism (sexual desire)
  • Gender roles and identities (often influenced by biological, social, cultural, legal, historical, and religious factors)
  • Intimacy (ability to establish and maintain a close, loving, sexual relationship)
  • Reproduction (process of producing an offspring)
  • Sexual dysfunction (inability to enjoy sexual activity or experience normal sexual response)
  • Sexual orientation (gender to which a person is sexually attracted)
  • Sexual response (e.g., desire, arousal, orgasm, satisfaction)
  • Sexual rights (e.g., the right to decide whether or not to be sexually active; the right to choose a sexual partner; the right to engage in consensual sexual behavior; the right to safe, satisfying sexual activity; the right to sexual education and sexual health care)

Many people have concerns about their sexuality and about what sexual behaviors are considered "normal." Healthy sexuality is influenced by numerous social, cultural, religious, and personal factors, and encompasses a wide range of behavior. Satisfaction within the relationship, as well as the prevention of physical, mental, or emotional disorders related to sexual behavior are important aspects of healthy sexuality.

Sexual Assault Prevention

Sexual assaults are a growing problem—especially on college campuses. To learn more about strengthening sexual assault prevention efforts on college campuses, please visit Culture of Respect.org.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 05 Dec 2008

Last Modified: 05 Oct 2015