There are four places where we can get support and information about our sexual wellness and sexual health – the medical health care practitioners; the mental health world; peers/people with the same interests or issues; and the internet, and research has estimated that as much as half of the United States may experience sex-related issues at some point in their lifetime.
I bet you can guess the number one place people start when wondering about their sexual health and wellness needs.. the internet. And let’s be honest, this is mainly Dr. Google and WebMD. Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful we have greater access to information through well-informed journalists, social media accounts, and organizations that want to be sex-positive and places for free information, but the internet can only go so far, and certainly cannot provide individual, nuanced, and professional counsel about our health and wellness.
This is the same with our peers and our friends. We are limited by what our friends know, what they’ve read on the internet, have heard from others, or they themselves have experienced first hand, and then of course, what they’re willing to share.
After we’ve exhausted our online and peer-group resources, we turn towards and rely on the two types of professionals who can offer support with our sexual wellness needs – medical and mental health professionals.
Unfortunately, this leads me to some frustrating and discouraging facts. First, most people in the medical and mental health world have been raised in a culture that delegitimizes evolved sexual education, the same culture as you. And as we know, most of us have not only lacked education, but have received miseducation about our sexual health and wellness. At a baseline, our medical professionals know as little as we do about our sexual health and what being sexually well truly entails. Most of the time, they’ve lacked proper support and education as they have meandered through their own sexual journey, and therefore haven’t done the healing work required for us all to be sexually and holistically evolved, because they too, haven’t been given the pathway to do so.
Medical professionals are humans living their own lives, within their own bodies, having experienced their own trials and tribulations, traumas, and cultural inputs, and are in essence, doing this work for themselves as well. At least, the good ones are 😉
If you are a human being, you are a sexual being. If you are breathing, you are living a sexual journey whether you are actively engaging and connecting sexually with someone else or not. Whether you have ever engaged or not. I am not talking about sexual practices, behaviors, or acts here, I’m talking about sexuality, at its core. And this fact is true for non-medically trained humans as much as it is for medically-trained humans, too.
When we’re talking about medical and mental health care professionals here, it’s important to note that the majority of educational institutions and licenses do not require any class on sexuality for graduation or licensure. Additionally, there is a very small percentage of degrees and licenses that include a sexuality component at all, let alone as a requirement. The number isn’t zero (and bravo to those degrees and licenses!), but the number is still shockingly low. For example, of all the states in the US, it is interesting that only Florida and California require sexuality classes for licensure of licensed professional counselors. Specializing in sex therapy and sex counseling obviously requires much more training within sexuality, but the number of licensed health care professionals with this specialty is very low which makes access to these experts difficult to nearly impossible for most people.
Within the medical community the numbers do not look much better. Most medical students will graduate having learned about basic sexual health anatomy, but studies have shown they aren’t given full anatomical education, especially not the most up-to-date, and you’d be hard pressed to find any of this education given with a focus on pleasure, or sex-positivity. Most medical students will graduate having not taken a human sexuality class, most medical students will graduate having not attended even one hour of a lecture from any one considered an expert in sexuality, sexual health, or wellness. And yet, these two professional arms are where we turn to, trust, and rely on to help us when we aren’t fulfilled sexually; when we are experiencing dysfunction of some kind; when we are experiencing bodily changes impacting our pleasure, sensation, desire; when we need tools to communicate with our partners about sex and our sexual wellness, and more.
Let that sink in.
Our health care professionals aren’t supported, nor educated, in their own personal sexual journeys, AND they aren’t properly sex educated in their years of study to receive their degree and / or license. We need those we trust, with an understanding of our medical and mental health records, to guide us in a non-biased, sex-positive, sexually- and trauma-informed, inclusive, holistically-minded, and research-based way, at a minimum.
Sexual health and wellness is a birthright for all of us, and when our medical professionals are ill-equipped personally and professionally, and access to sexual health specialists is incredibly challenging, we need a change. Research shows “in over half of the states… [people] were unable to find listings for 10 providers for the entire state… services primarily targeted heterosexual couples,” and services are cost prohibitive.
As we learn just how far we are from our target here, please do not read this as a strike against the medical and mental health communities. I was raised by a physician and nurse, my sister is a nurse, and I know many health care professionals who have sought additional training, and have continued their learning to be an incredible resource for their patients and clients. I’ve heard of human sexuality electives in undergraduate educations, stories of pelvic models speaking candidly to students during the lecture on pelvic and prostate exams, and anecdotes from residents in training being prepared to hear about sexual matters and concerns and that they matter as much as other health concerns. I applaud these individuals doing their best to pass along the knowledge that we all deserve.
From My Own Experience
I am a licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist. I know the importance of mental health support and I value it deeply. I too am a product of a lack of traditional education. I received one class, an elective, only during my post-graduate work as I pursued my PhD. It was called Couples and Sexuality, and it focused on problems related to couples and sexuality, and their treatment options. It was a great class, and not even close to adequate for what I required to be able to do the work I’m doing today. I have had to research, spending countless hours studying and learning, to become properly sex educated as a human, for my own needs, and had to make near-heroic efforts to become professionally competent, let alone an expert in sexuality.
None of this should be the case, and I hope you too see that this is no longer viable. Sexuality education should be a cornerstone requirement for medical and mental health study, and for all fields adjacent to them. It is harmful to us all that we are not properly sex educated. I assert it is dangerous that professionals are not required to be sexuality-educated and trained.
To me, this is an institutional and national licensure issue, and this is a reflection of the greater societal problem we have regarding sexuality. It is taboo, regulated, separated from our holistic self, and relegated as a luxury instead of a necessity. We need leaders in education and professional health care organizations to prioritize that our trusted medical and mental health care professionals have easy access to proper sexuality education and training. We all need them to show up for us in our sexual wellness and health journeys in the ways we deserve.
Here’s where we need to start, as a bare minimum:
- Sexuality, understood holistically, is a necessity of the human experience – it’s not just sex acts and who we have sex with, it’s at the core of who we are. Human sexuality is integral to all other aspects of medical care and extends well beyond our sex organs and genitalia.
- Sexuality isn’t relegated to a phase of life. It begins when we are born and ceases when we die. It’s important to understand the entire spectrum and unique needs at each stage.
- Anatomy requires inclusivity. All genders, all people deserve pleasure, health, and wellness, and the respect of inclusive language when referring to them as a human, and their unique anatomy.
- Sexual history records need to be received free from bias, judgment, and bigotry. We must support honest reporting and safety for curiosity and questioning.
- We must advance safer sex practices.
- We need to be trauma-informed health care practitioners.
- We understand sexual agency for ourselves and others.
- Tools and training is required to examine one’s own judgments and biases within all areas of sexuality, and beyond.
- Sexuality can show up clinically, and we need to understand how, when, and why.
- Creating a sex-positive and safe practice, from the demographic form, to what they see in the office, to how staff addresses them. Acknowledging the various intersections of race, religion, orientation, etc. as it all relates explicitly to sexuality.
- Promoting and teaching self examinations as a tool for people to advance their own journey with sexuality.
- Supporting patients as they evolve and seek additional support, resources, and education for their unique well-being.
- And lastly, to know that this is just the beginning…
May this short, yet impassioned, piece inspire you to seek out and support those professionally-trained, adequately so, to guide you along your own journey, as you have access and the means to do so. We are living in a time where more and more companies, committed to deep and lasting change, like FemmePharma, are providing conscious, thoughtful, and well-researched resources for everyone to learn a little more about their sexual health and wellness, and I couldn’t be more proud to support and offer counsel about the importance of this knowledge. I’ll reiterate, access to sexual health and wellness, over the course of our lives, is a human right, and we must ensure we are supported on our journeys by those who are right alongside us, with their valuable expertise, making sure to extend their knowledge and influence, too.
Ready for some suggested solutions? Read Sex Ed for Health Care Practitioners: Part 2.