Sexual health is often talked about as a physical state, focused on sexual functioning, sexually transmitted diseases, and pregnancy prevention or achievement. So rarely is it talked about as part of a larger whole-health picture, but sexual health is truly part and parcel to whom we are as humans.
The Program in Human Sexuality, within the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the University of Minnesota Medical School, is pushing for a comprehensive life-long sexual education curricula. Researchers and experts there want to ensure health care providers are well trained in sexual health care and are hoping to also boost research into sexuality education. Recently, the program established the Elders Chair to focus on these goals.
HealthTalk spoke with Sara Mize, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist, about sexual health and its evolution through a lifetime.
“The current model of sexual health care and sexual health education is geared toward youth and youthful sexual behavior,” said Mize. “It’s a narrow definition for many: if you aren’t functioning genitally, you aren’t sexually healthy.”
What’s truly healthy sexually, says Mize, varies person to person. As people age and go through different life phases, the definition of sexuality and sexual behavior may need to be redefined. “With a broad definition of sex, more of us can see ourselves as sexual beings. We also have better adjustment to the changes in sexuality accompanying disability, chronic illness and aging.”
“It’s important to find a place in your culture where you feel comfortable being who you are, and to work on body awareness and being comfortable in your own skin,” said Mize. “How does your body work? What feels good? How does this change over time? Grow with your body, learn from your body, appreciate your strengths in each life phase.”
One thing Mize suggests is creating a personal sexual health tool kit, of sorts. This kit could include a physician to discuss regular health issues and sexual health concerns, peer support for conversation about sexual issues during different life stages, plenty of books and resources from reputable sources and, where appropriate, a spiritual community to share discussions of sexuality and intimacy.
Another aspect critical to strong sexual health throughout a lifetime is an increased emphasis by health care providers to normalize and inquire about sexual health.
“Discussions about sexuality should be a regular part of the standard physical for a number of reasons. Poor sexual function could indicate other medical issues,” said Mize. “If doctors don’t feel comfortable talking about sexual health, they have a responsibility to make a referral to someone who does.”
Educating medical students to ask these types of questions as part of routine health maintenance is a start. The medical community is often the first line of defense in sex education; doctors and the internet are the first places people go for information. Still, some patients are nervous about asking questions. When physicians initiate the conversation, it gives patients permission to talk about it and sends the message it is a valid and important component of overall health. As physicians go out into practice, being able to address these needs and concerns will go a long way to help normalize the importance of sexual health discussions.
“We need to provide people with access to advice, information and treatment tailored to their individual needs and stages of their lives, and to ensure these discussions are happening consistently instead of only when there is a problem,” said Mize. “Through our research with seniors, we are learning that many people want to discuss the triumphs, challenges, and the empowerment that comes with a lifetime of being sexual beings. Finding ways to support this through community and care provision is key to a satisfying lifetime of sexuality and aging.”
Mize has a passion for educating about sexuality and aging. She and her colleague, Alex Iantaffi, Ph.D., LMFT, have conducted research on sexuality, aging and mindfulness and they utilized narratives from their focus groups to inform a play by Meena Natarajan and Dipankar Mukherjee of Pangea World Theater. The play is called No Expiration Date: Sexuality and Aging and will run June 5-14 at Intermedia Arts. See www.pangeaworldtheater.org for tickets.