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Defining Sexual Health


Sexual health plays a significant role in our overall health and wellbeing. According to the World Health Organization (2006), sexual health impacts multiple areas of our lives, including physical, emotional, mental, and social well-being.1 Historically, sexual health was viewed from a medical lens, which focused solely on one’s sexual health in relation to illness and/or dysfunction. However, sexual health encompasses more than just an illness and/or dysfunction that occurs at one single point in a person’s life. Moving away from the illness/dysfunction concept of health, WHO introduced the notion of health promotion which is the “process of enabling people to increase control over and improve their health.”2 Thus making sexual health relevant across an individual’s lifespan by taking into account the whole person and their relationships. Sexual health-related issues include sexual orientation and gender identity, sexual expression, relationships, pleasure, and reproduction.

How people experience and express themselves sexually is the driving force of sexual health. This expression can include thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviors, practices, roles, and relationships.3 Developing and maintaining healthy sexuality requires the sexual rights of all persons to be respected, protected and fulfilled.4

Both intrinsic and extrinsic factors can influence the development and expression of an individual’s sexual health, including:

  • Personal values and beliefs
  • Culture
  • Religion
  • Indigenous Status
  • Spirituality
  • Social network
  • Personal experiences
  • Societal expectations
  • Legal and/or sexual rights5

An individual’s ability to achieve sexual health and well-being is dependent upon the:

  • Ability to acquire information about sex and sexuality
  • Awareness of the risks they may face and their vulnerability to adverse consequences
  • Ability to access sexual health care
  • Being connected with a community and/or culture that affirms and promotes sexual health.6


A Human Rights Approach

The World Health Organization looks at sexual health from a human rights-based approach to empower individuals and communities, particularly marginalized groups, to understand and affirm their rights. Through this lens, sexual health prioritizes the application of human rights principles. A rights-based approach to sexual health is:

  • Focused on well-being, not merely the absence of disease.
  • Involves respect, safety, and freedom from discrimination and violence.
  • Relevant across an individual’s lifespan, from the young to the elderly
  • Expressed through diverse sexualities and forms of sexual expression.
  • Influenced by gender norms, roles, expectations, and power dynamics.
  • Takes into account specific social, economic, and political contexts.9

Sexual health is contingent on one’s ability to have the knowledge, skills, and ability to make informed sexual choices and act responsibly to protect your health and the health of others.


  1. World Health Organization (2010). Developing sexual health programs: A framework for action. No. WHO/RHR/HRP/10.22.
  2. Giami, A. (2002). Sexual health: The emergence, development, and diversity of a concept. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Alain-Giami/publication/10681531_Sexual_Health_The_Emergence_Development_and_Diversity_of_a_Concept/links/58e366ac92851c1b9d6a8e7a/Sexual-Health-The-Emergence-Development-and-Diversity-of-a-Concept.pdf
  3. WHO (2010).
  4. WHO (2010).
  5. https://www.optionsforsexualhealth.org/facts/sex/what-is-sexual-health/
  6. WHO (2010)
  7. Prime Men’s Medical Center (2022). What is sexual health? Sexual health definition and facts. Retrieved from: https://primemensmedical.com/blog/what-is-sexual-health/
  8. World Health Organization. (‎1975)‎. World Health: the magazine of the World Health Organization, April 1975: primary health care [‎full issue]‎. World Health, (‎April 1975)‎, 2–30. World Health Organization. https://apps.who.int/iris/handle/10665/272470
  9. WHO (2010)