Holistic Sexual Health Education: Addressing Taboos And Misconceptions For Safer Practice

  • Regina LopesSenior Nursing Assistant, Health and Social Care, The Open University

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Introduction

Overview of the importance of holistic sexual health education

According to the Cambridge Dictionary, the term holistic refers to: “dealing with or treating the whole of something or someone and not just a part”.1 Addressing sexual health from a holistic approach is crucial as we take into account aspects of the individual that go beyond the physical, we give importance to their emotions, the influence that the environment has due to social and cultural factors. Paying attention to each of these elements facilitates the attainment of positive outcomes in terms of sexual health prevention and promotion.

Brief explanation of why addressing taboos and misconceptions is crucial

Taboos and misconceptions around sexual health can be harmful to people since these tend to be linked to people’s cultural beliefs, and these can shape how many things are done. For instance, those countries where sexual education is taboo and the school and parents do not agree on who has to provide sexual education to schoolers end up having a non-sexually educated population.2 That translates into more STIs, undesired pregnancies, infertility, and psychiatric and physical sequelae.3,4

Addressing taboos and misconceptions leads to a more sexually educated population that makes better decisions and asks for help when needed.

Understanding sexual health

Definition of sexual health and its significance

Beginning with the definition of sexual health many people can be confused, some could just believe that non-having an STI is being sexually healthy. But let’s look at the World Health Organization's definition for Sexual Health:

“…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.5

So, based on that definition we can understand that for having sexual health we need to have all the aspects that affect our sexual behaviour.

Taboos surrounding sexual health

Cultural and societal taboos related to discussing sexual health

In some societies, patients may refrain from discussing issues related to sexual health due to the sexual schemas prevalent in their societies, the fear of being judged, gender stereotypes, and learned sexual shame.

Impact of taboos on seeking information and accessing healthcare services

In many societies, especially those that are highly religious, individuals often refrain from accessing sexual health services or seeking advice from healthcare professionals. What's worse, they avoid discussing their sexuality with their partners out of fear of judgement. In some cases, individuals from very religious families feel ashamed to discuss anything related to their sexual health.

Even healthcare providers may shy away from addressing sexual health aspects with patients, especially if they are of the opposite sex. Gender roles also play a significant role, people who may not be in optimal sexual well-being may focus on satisfying their partner because it is deemed their duty according to societal norms.6

The stigma and discrimination against individuals in the LGBTQ+ community or those living with HIV/AIDS and other STIs can often deter them from seeking healthcare services or engaging in sexual and emotional interactions with others.7

Addressing misconceptions

The misconceptions about sexual health transcend age, gender, nationality, and religion. I remember being surprised at a young age when I advised a person over 45 to be careful and use condoms in their sexual encounters to prevent sexually transmitted infections or unintended pregnancies. Their response was that the partners they were with didn't look sick and wouldn't get pregnant because after intercourse, they would stand up, semen would come out, and the partner would urinate.

Below is a table showing some misconceptions and the reality regarding them:

MisconceptionFact
Every virgin person assigned as female at birth has an intact hymenSome can be born without a hymen or it can break during other activities like riding a bike, gymnastics, masturbation, inserting a tampon and others8
Every person assigned as female at birth living with HIV who becomes pregnant will have babies with HIVA person taking antiretroviral therapy who adheres to treatment can prevent HIV transmission to the baby9
Using two condoms provides extra protectionUsing two condoms is worse due to plastic friction against plastic and increases the likelihood of breakage
If the penis is withdrawn from the vagina before ejaculation, the partner will not get pregnantEven if the penis is withdrawn before ejaculation, pregnancy can still occur as pre-ejaculate fluid may contain mobile sperm capable of fertilising the egg10
Without penetration there is no orgasmMost people assigned female at birth reach orgasm just with the stimulation of the clitoris11
The larger the penis, the betterPeople assigned female at birth find slightly larger-than-average penises attractive, and as they get larger, they lose attractiveness12
Premature ejaculation occurs due to lack of experiencePremature ejaculation can occur at any age regardless of experience13
Only people assigned male at birth do masturbatePeople assigned female at birth also masturbate
A person living with HIV necessarily transmits the virus to their sexual partnerA person living with HIV who adheres to antiretroviral therapy achieves such minimal levels of the virus in blood and other fluids, even undetectable, that they cannot transmit the virus to their partner14
Oral sex does not transmit STIsSTIs can be transmitted through oral sex, as the mouth is covered with thin skin and provides an ideal environment for certain organisms that can cause STIs
STIs only happen to gay peopleSTIs can be transmitted to all humans regardless of their sexual preferences
Whenever unprotected sex occurs, emergency contraception should be used to prevent pregnancyEmergency contraception is not a method of family planning. A family planning method should be chosen instead

Importance of safer sexual practices

Living a fulfilling sexual life is the goal of many. To achieve this, it is necessary to ensure adherence to safe sexual practices, address aspects of our sexual life that may raise doubts, and develop sufficient trust with our partner to express those things that limit and embarrass us. Additionally, seeking help from healthcare services when we notice something abnormal or when we have doubts.

Using protection during sexual intercourse, choosing appropriate contraceptive methods for family planning; always in conjunction with healthcare professionals, trying to educate ourselves, acquiring knowledge about sexuality on sites like this and in qualified healthcare services, are some of the things that can help us have better sexual health and eliminate many myths from our minds that are ingrained in our lives due to culture or general habits.

One aspect that should be given special attention is the need to ensure that our sexual relationships are based on mutual consent. Even if it's your girlfriend, boyfriend, wife, husband, sexual relations should be consensual. This will ensure enjoyment of the relationship, strengthen the emotional bond, and prevent the creation of emotional sequelae.

Resources and support

If you're interested in obtaining more information about sexual health, and accessing services such as STI testing or family planning, these sites can be helpful to you:

FAQs

What is holistic sexual health education? 

Holistic sexual health education refers to an approach that considers not only the physical aspects of sexual health but also emotional, social, and cultural factors.

Why is it important to address taboos and misconceptions in sexual health?

Addressing taboos and misconceptions is crucial because they can lead to harmful practices, increased risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unwanted pregnancies.

How does societal stigma affect sexual health discussions? 

Societal stigma often leads to reluctance in discussing sexual health, contributing to discrimination and hindering access to necessary support and resources.

What role do misconceptions play in sexual health education?

Misconceptions perpetuate harmful beliefs and practices, making it essential to debunk them to promote informed decision-making and healthier sexual practices.

How can individuals ensure safer sexual practices? 

Safer sexual practices involve using protection during intercourse, choosing appropriate contraceptive methods, and prioritising mutual consent in sexual activity.

Where can individuals find support and resources for sexual health?

Reputable organisations and hotlines provide assistance for those seeking sexual health services, including testing, family planning, and guidance on safer practices.

What does it mean to have a holistic understanding of sexual health? 

A holistic understanding of sexual health goes beyond disease prevention, encompassing physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality.

How do cultural taboos impact sexual health discussions? 

Cultural taboos can create barriers to discussing sexual health openly, leading to misinformation and hindering access to necessary education and support.

Why is mutual consent important in sexual relationships? 

Mutual consent ensures that sexual encounters are consensual, promoting enjoyment, emotional well-being, and preventing the creation of emotional sequelae.

How can individuals contribute to promoting sexual health education? 

Individuals can contribute to promoting sexual health education by advocating for comprehensive approaches, challenging stigma and misconceptions, and seeking knowledge from reputable sources.

Summary

Holistic sexual health education is essential for promoting well-being in individuals, encompassing emotional, social, and cultural aspects. By addressing taboos and misconceptions, we can create a more informed and empowered society, capable of making healthier decisions regarding sexual health. It is imperative to combat stigma and discrimination, allowing individuals to access support and resources without fear of judgement.

Emphasising safer sexual practices, including protection and mutual consent, is fundamental for fostering fulfilling and satisfying sexual lives. As we continue to educate ourselves and advocate for sexual health, we move towards a future where everyone can enjoy healthy and respectful relationships.

References

  1. holistic [Internet]. 2024 [cited 2024 May 14]. Available from: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/holistic
  2. Lee J, Jezewski MA. Attitudes toward oral contraceptive use among women of reproductive age: a systematic review. ANS Adv Nurs Sci. 2007;30(1):E85-103.
  3. Singh RK, Patra S. What Factors are Responsible for Higher Prevalence of HIV Infection among Urban Women than Rural Women in Tanzania? Ethiop J Health Sci [Internet]. 2015 Oct [cited 2024 May 14];25(4):321–8. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4762970/
  4. Gueye A, Speizer IS, Corroon M, Okigbo CC. Belief in Family Planning Myths at the Individual And Community Levels and Modern Contraceptive Use in Urban Africa. Int Perspect Sex Reprod Health [Internet]. 2015 Dec [cited 2024 May 14];41(4):191–9. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858446/
  5. Sexual health [Internet]. [cited 2024 May 14]. Available from: https://www.who.int/health-topics/sexual-health
  6. Zangeneh S, Savabi-Esfahani M, Taleghani F, Sharbafchi MR, Salehi M. A silence full of words: sociocultural beliefs behind the sexual health of Iranian women undergoing breast cancer treatment, a qualitative study. Support Care Cancer [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2024 May 14];31(1):84. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC9792940/
  7. Baxter R. ISSM. 2024 [cited 2024 May 14]. How Do Cultural or Societal Factors Impact Sexual Health? Available from: https://www.issm.info/sexual-health-qa/how-do-cultural-or-societal-factors-impact-sexual-health
  8. Cleveland Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2024 May 14]. Hymen: Overview, Function & Anatomy. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/22718-hymen
  9. Etowa EB, Wong JPH, Omorodion F, Etowa J, Luginaah I. Addressing HIV Misconceptions among Heterosexual Black Men and Communities in Ontario. Healthcare (Basel) [Internet]. 2023 Mar 31 [cited 2024 May 14];11(7):997. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10094559/
  10. Killick SR, Leary C, Trussell J, Guthrie KA. Sperm content of pre-ejaculatory fluid. Human Fertility [Internet]. 2011 Mar [cited 2024 May 14];14(1):48–52. Available from: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.3109/14647273.2010.520798
  11. Mayo Clinic [Internet]. [cited 2024 May 14]. Expert tips to help women reach climax. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/female-sexual-dysfunction/expert-answers/female-orgasm/faq-20058215
  12. Nuzzo R. Bigger not always better for penis size. Nature [Internet]. 2013 Apr 8 [cited 2024 May 14]; Available from: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature.2013.12770
  13. Practitioners TRAC of general. Australian Family Physician. The Royal Australian College of general Practitioners; [cited 2024 May 14]. Premature ejaculation: A clinical review for the general physician. Available from: https://www.racgp.org.au/afp/2015/october/premature-ejaculation-a-clinical-review-for-the-ge
  14. Protecting Others | Living With HIV | HIV Basics | HIV/AIDS | CDC [Internet]. 2023 [cited 2024 May 14]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/hiv/basics/livingwithhiv/protecting-others.html

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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Raul D' Alexander Contreras Leyba

Master of Research in Cardiovascular Science in Health and Disease - MRes, Newcastle University, England

Doctor of Medicine, Autonomous University of Santo Domingo (UASD), Dominican Republic

Raul has a diverse background in medicine and research. His medical experience includes practical involvement in general practice, specialized care in sexually transmitted diseases, and coordination of clinical research studies.

In addition to his clinical expertise, Raul has contributed to the healthcare field through roles in teaching, medical insurance, and biomedical research. His multifaceted experience reflects a passion for both the practical and academic aspects of medicine.

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