Here's How Experts Define Good Sexual Health

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When we hear the words sexual health, some of our brains might immediately go to the physical aspect of sexual health like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and annual gynecological exams. While staying on top of these things is important, there's more to sexual health than knowing your STI status or whether or not everything is on the up and up with your vulva. Like many sex-related topics, there's a lot more to unpack.

"The phrase 'sexual health' has traditionally encompassed a narrow range of topics around the prevention of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy as it pertains to the act of sex," Irene Fehr, sex and intimacy coach, tells Bustle. "While these are still relevant and important, they are the tip of the iceberg. To understand good sexual health, we have to take a wider lens to the relationship between sexuality and emotional wellbeing."

But that doesn't mean that the physical part of it should be any less important, of course. "On the physical side, good sexual health is tending to and optimizing the functioning of the body, hormones and supporting systems, taking preventative action against sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancy, and seeking care and treatment when needed," Fehr says. "We also have to stop defining sexual health as preventing being unwell. That is a low bar to achieve. Good sexual health is equally about thriving and the fullest expression of who we are as sexual beings."

Here are eight ways experts define good sexual health.

1. It's Being Sexually Knowledgable

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While you may not need a doctorate in sexuality to be sexually healthy, it's important to have a basic understanding of the physical end of things, meaning the anatomy of your sexual organs, as well as the mental part of it.

"Good sexual health is being sexually knowledgeable, introspective, and self-compassionate," CalExotics’ resident sexologist, Dr. Jill McDevitt, tells Bustle. "It’s about feeling good sexually and emotionally, and extending that knowledge and compassion to others."

2. It's Making Space For Sexual Pleasure In Your Life

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You don't have to be in a relationship to enjoy sexual pleasure, nor do you have to have a partner to make it a part of your daily life. Sexual pleasure isn't just a big part of being human, but masturbation, for example, is a form of self-care.

"Allowing oneself to experience sexual pleasure and desire either alone or with a partner is good sexual health," sex therapist Stefani Threadgill tells Bustle. "[As is] communicating sexual pleasure and desire, and engaging in and/or creating sexual pleasure for your partner — meaning allowing your partner to feel desired."

3. It's Free Of Shame

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It may be 2019, but that doesn't mean shame, when it comes to sexuality, still doesn't exist for some people. If you have any amount of shame when it comes to your sexuality — all aspects of it — then it may be struggle to be sexually healthy. And, sadly, it's women who tend to struggle more than men because society is more likely to shame women for their sexuality.

"Good sexual health has to include our mental, emotional, and physical sexual health," certified love coach and host of Ready for Love Radio, Nikki Leigh, tells Bustle. "For all of those to be good, we have to start by giving ourselves permission to fully embrace and enjoy our sexuality — without guilt and shame."

4. It's About Autonomy

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"Body and psyche work in tandem — and impact each other," Fehr says. "Which is why at the core of good sexual health is also having sovereignty (decision-making power) over your body and your sexual choices and having agency to carry out these decisions. [This means] taking action that honors and respects you and your body, and that leaves you feeling congruent and in integrity with yourself."

While we may live in a country where a woman's autonomy over her body feels like an uphill battle we can, at least, maintain that agency in our personal lives.

"Being sexually healthy is about feeling good about who you are sexually, making decisions that are right for your body, and aligned with your values," Fehr says. "[It's also] engaging in safe and respectful relationships, and not having to do anything sexually that you don't want to do. "

5. It's Not Just About Your STI Status

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"I think people often mix up what 'good' sexual health is," therapist Lisa Hochberger, M.Ed. tells Bustle. "They think that if they don't have an STI or some sort of sexual dysfunction then they are healthy."

But while staying on top of your STI status and being healthy in that regard is a part of being sexually healthy, it doesn't stop there.

"For me, signs of good sexual health manifest in a person's approach to sexuality," Hochberger says. "They feel positive and confident about having consensual, safe, and pleasurable sexual experiences. They have the correct language to communicate the kind of sexual pleasure they want to give and receive, and it is done in a respectful way."

6. It's About Feeling Comfortable In Your Sexual Expression

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"[Good sexual health is] about being comfortable giving and receiving pleasure, and feeling good in your body," Fehr says. "Be it through kissing, touch, stimulation, penetration, or orgasm; and feeling good about how you expressed yourself and not regretting what happened."

It's not always easy to be able to express our sexual needs and desires, especially if they tend to lean on the kinky side of the spectrum, but when you get to the point where you can be honest with both yourself and your partner about this part of who you are, then you're one step closer to good sexual health.

7. It's About More Than Just Pleasure

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While pleasure is definitely an aspect of it, as Threadgill points out, it's important to recognize that good sexual health extends past that, encompassing other elements.

"Sexual health includes how we feel about our sexuality," Hochberger says. "Sexuality goes beyond our sexual feelings or the act of penetration. It's a part of who we are as a person and who we will become. It includes our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with our gender, attractiveness, feelings of love, feelings of well-being in a relationship, as well as sexual intimacy, and sensual and sexual activity. It's how we enjoy the world through our five senses."

According to Hochberger, it's when we have a clear and understanding of all of this, that we've reached the definition of good sexual health.

8. It's About Understanding Consent Versus Pleasure

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Although it goes without saying that consent would be part of good sexual health, understanding consent and how it differs from pleasure, according to Fehr, is a key factor in good sexual health.

"I want to differentiate consent from pleasure because I think consent has been linked to good sexual health," Fehr says. "Consent talks to a participant’s level of engagement. Pleasure, however, refers to their level of enjoyment."

So while people may consent to something, it doesn't necessarily mean they're enjoying it. Yes, sex is a give and take, but no one should do something they don't enjoy.

"Consent is important; pleasure is also," Fehr says. "While not enjoying your experience is not necessarily bad sexual health; continuously engaging in activity that does not bring enjoyment and pleasure may result in decreased sexual desire and functioning, which directly impact sexual health."

Maintaining good sexual health is paramount because it affects more than just our sexuality, but all corners of our life. It's all interconnected and like any well-oiled machine, when one part is off or not up to par, the other parts can suffer as well.

"Sexual health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality," Hochberger says. "It 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."