Is Sexual Health Education Passé?

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Commentary Sexual Health

Is Sexual Health Education Passé?

William Smith

You can buy sex toys at the drug store these days. Does that mean we no longer need to talk about and promote sexual health?

Maybe it’s post-Valentine’s Day reflection. Or maybe it’s the spectacle of Seth MacFarlane’s juvenile “We Saw Your Boobs” performance during the Oscars. Or maybe, as I’d like to think, it’s because my organization, the National Coalition of STD Directors, just held a first-of-its-kind meeting that brought together teams from ten states with national leaders to discuss the promise of statewide sexual health plans. Whatever the case, I’ve been thinking a lot about sexual health lately.

The spark was no doubt lit when a trusted colleague asked me recently, “Do we need to talk about and promote sexual health anymore? It seems to be everywhere.” It got me thinking that this is a legitimate question I’d like to ponder some more.

On the CVS pharmacy website, there’s an entire section called “sexual health,” where you’ll find everything from condoms to at-home HIV tests. There’s even a subcategory called “enhancers,” containing the expected lubricants along with toys—lots of them (and specific cleaners for them, to boot). In fact, 209 “enhancers” were available on the website as of this writing. By comparison, there were 188 products listed under the “cough and cold medicines” section.

If you get home delivery of your local paper and are an avid reader of the sales circulars, like I am, you also got a healthy dose of the sexy stuff in the weeks leading up to Valentine’s Day. In the coupons, I found a $1-off coupon for Playtex’s new “fresh and sexy” intimacy wipes, tagline: “the before and after intimate wipe that gets you ready for whatever comes next.” There was also a $3-off coupon for Poise’s lubricant and panty fresheners and a $1-off coupon for Trojan condoms and vibrator products that promise to “make Valentine’s Day even sweeter.”

Roe is gone. The chaos is just beginning.

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But for me, the really interesting ad was in Target’s weekly circular. There, on page 12, in the top corner, was an advertisement for the KY Date Night Bonus Pack. It included not only the as-seen-on-TV Yours and Mine lubricants, but also a $25 gift card from, which together would “turn dinner into an unforgettable evening.” But wait, there’s more! You also got a $5 gift card from Target if you bought two of these packages! A great trifecta if there ever was one!

On a more serious note, there’s no doubt that these products and promotions represent real advances in cutting through the well-honed American discomfort with sex. More specifically, they allude to pleasure as a primary component of and rationale for sex. But are they evidence of advances in sexual health? It’s too big a question to definitively answer here, but I think tangentially they are, and they’re certainly good things. Whether they’re bellwethers of what’s to come is another question.

It is a truism that sexual health is more than the absence of disease—it also includes emotional, spiritual, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. These additional dimensions remain wanting in the general public’s discourse and among most public-health folks. Still, here’s hoping that pre-Valentine’s Day Sunday morning coupon clipping led to some sexually healthy discussions over a cup of joe.

In the meantime, while comfort levels seem to advance, as evidenced by the examples mentioned above, we still have a number of poor indicators of sexual health in the United States. This is particularly true if you look at traditional measurements like unintended pregnancies, sexually-transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, and the racial, ethnic, and economic inequities that add fuel to the fire. A sexual health framework helps us conceptualize and contextualize these traditional measures in new and important ways, but at the end of the day, it’s the numbers from traditional measures that drive the money from government at every level to address these issues. Therefore, until we see improvements in these numbers and a betterment of the lives affected, we still very much need to talk about and frame the discussion on sexual health.