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  • Writer's pictureKaren O'Moore

Sex Ed 101

For this month’s musing, thanks to a facebook picture, which gave a partial WHO definition of sexual health, I decided to visit the WHO website. What I found was very interesting and I am reproducing the text here:


“According to the current working definition, sexual health is:

“…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.” (WHO, 2006a)


Sexual health cannot be defined, understood or made operational without a broad consideration of sexuality, which underlies important behaviours and outcomes related to sexual health. The working definition of sexuality is:

“…a central aspect of being human throughout life encompasses sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction. Sexuality is experienced and expressed in thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviours, practices, roles and relationships. While sexuality can include all of these dimensions, not all of them are always experienced or expressed. Sexuality is influenced by the interaction of biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, legal, historical, religious and spiritual factors.” (WHO, 2006a)

Sexual rights

There is a growing consensus that sexual health cannot be achieved and maintained without respect for, and protection of, certain human rights. The working definition of sexual rights given below is a contribution to the continuing dialogue on human rights related to sexual health (1).

“The fulfilment of sexual health is tied to the extent to which human rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Sexual rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in international and regional human rights documents and other consensus documents and in national laws.

Rights critical to the realization of sexual health include:

- the rights to equality and non-discrimination

- the right to be free from torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment

- the right to privacy

- the rights to the highest attainable standard of health (including sexual health) and social security

- the right to marry and to found a family and enter into marriage with the free and full consent of the intending spouses, and to equality in and at the dissolution of marriage

- the right to decide the number and spacing of one's children

- the rights to information, as well as education

- the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, and

- the right to an effective remedy for violations of fundamental rights.

The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.

The application of existing human rights to sexuality and sexual health constitute sexual rights. Sexual rights protect all people's rights to fulfil and express their sexuality and enjoy sexual health, with due regard for the rights of others and within a framework of protection against discrimination." (WHO, 2006a, updated 2010)

(1) It should be noted that this definition does not represent an official WHO position and should not be used or quoted as such. It is offered instead as a contribution to ongoing discussion about sexual health. “

I wonder how many of us actually considered that sexual health was composed of more than the freedom from STI, dysfunction and infirmity? The WHO definition encompasses everything in this statement from fantasies to relationships, gender identity and sexual preferences. The definition in this statement:

“The responsible exercise of human rights requires that all persons respect the rights of others.”

The responsibility for this then is ours and while the rights are not an official position they are, I believe a good starting point. But I feel that even in the most “enlightened” of societies, these rights are breached daily on a subtle or not so subtle level. Look around and see where, even in a small way, sexuality is used to sell, stereotypes are reinforced, minority groups, women and men marginalised, mocked and discounted, no matter in what context or how funny it may appear.

People who have alternative lifestyles are the subject of titillating programmes and undue scrutiny, the media can skew anything so alternative may not be too far outside what they consider to be the norm for viewer ratings or shock factor. All part of the subtle effects society has on our thinking and our sexual health.

In Ireland and abroad we can point at religious organisations who obsess over sex and sexuality and have had a disastrous consequence on sexual health for millions: on a small individual scale and on a large scale. For example it is illegal to be gay in 78 countries around the world, and in five countries , three in the Middle East (Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen), it is punishable by death. Look at the ludicrous situation of some of the Gulf states who want to “gay” test travellers then bar those who they fail the test, ludicrous yes, funny no, what is that saying?. Or Greece who round up the transgendered, that is much closer to home and no less disturbing.

But breaches of rights start in the small things: I read an internet thread where one poster described transgendered as He/She/They/It on a routine basis with very little condemnation. Over the summer we had the “slanegirl” incident which rolled backwards and forwards across the internet and which brought to the surface a lot of the hidden prevailing attitudes. Our individual responses are formed from all of the influences that the WHO describe. So my next question is this: how are we adding to this or what are we tolerating? Is it right for people who promote Polyamoury to dismiss Monogamy or vice-versa? To say that what is right for them is wrong for another?

Where on a daily basis are we bringing our bias and habitual perceptions into play? What is influencing us in literature, media, spoken or social networks one way or another? How does this affect us as individuals in expressing our wants, needs, desires and our handling of intimacy and pleasure with ourselves and our lovers? How are we breaching these rights within ourselves and by reflection on the world around us? How are we proselytising while disregarding the rights of others to express and hold an opinion.

In the end change starts with me as an individual: that I respect the rights of everyone else to be able to express their sexuality and obtain sexual health as outlined in the definitions by the WHO, and have the expectation that mine will be respected. Not to tolerate the subtle and not so subtle erosion of mine or another’s rights and to challenge the small events as well as the larger events. But not only doing so in other’s: start with myself. Challenge my own pre-conceptions, accept them and change them where necessary and then move forward.

I also believe it’s important not to condemn, dismiss and repress: challenging within the framework of rights by using education and information rather than force, insults or scorn. By all means do not be a doormat when other’s trample your right’s, but what is to be gained jumping into the mire with them? Change will result, maybe not initially or in the short term, but it will have an impact: who knows perhaps the WHO definition will find it’s way onto the sex education programme? That’s a nice thought is it not. But whether it does or not, it is now on our website for all those who subscribe to our newsletter to read, as well as any who are reading the website for the first time. The process starts somewhere: A Facebook picture, a blog post, it’s appearance on a website: my invitation to you is to share this definition, to prompt discussion and to inform and educate

Until next time!

Mark Sutton November 2013

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