A medical professional talks to a patient about sexual health.
It is important that patients and health care experts feel comfortable discussing sexual health. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Everyone is unique in how they think and feel about their sexuality.

It’s an important part of personal health care.

When sexual health is ignored or shamed or abused, it creates negative effects that can lead to physical outcomes such as obesity, depression, anxiety and unhealthy sexual practices.

When sexual health is embraced, valued and cared for, it supports a positive self-image and fuels a healthy lifestyle of self-care, rich with exercise and healthy eating.

When shared with another person, it has the potential to create a powerful bond.

A shared understanding

What does sexual health mean?

According to the World Health Organization, it’s a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.

“This 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,” the organization states.

The American Sexual Health Association adds many other views to this, although importantly it points out that sexual health relates to the ability to embrace and enjoy sexuality throughout our lives.

This includes recognizing and respecting the sexual rights we all share.

Having said that, what do we do with this information?

There are basic things we can do, such as plan a family, access birth control options and be sexually active without risk of sexually transmitted disease.

But routine health care should also involve breast and cervical cancer screening, as well as screening for sexually transmitted diseases. And treatments should be made available.

To delve deeper: It’s about the core of sexual health—having the ability to express and share safely to create lift or awareness. It’s about health without violence, or without feeling forced.

Healthy sex is not about control, force or fear, but about love and safety.

At the Spectrum Health Midlife, Menopause and Sexual Health clinic, one of the common concerns patients have is about sexual desire. They often worry about the ability to talk to partners and health care providers about sexual health concerns.

Many times, the answers we can give as doctors, nurses or therapists are fairly straightforward.

In five minutes, we can clear up something that has been worrying a woman for more than 10 years.

We know that 80% of women have some sexual health concern, but only 20% of them will bring it up.

Why is that?

Women will give various reasons: Shame. They thought they were alone. They thought they were different than everyone else. They thought there’d be no answer and they suspected their health care provider probably couldn’t do anything, anyway.

Sometimes, a woman simply doesn’t want to discuss an issue.

The sad thing is, even if women have the courage to ask, only 20% of health care providers are comfortable discussing sexual health—even though 80% know that sexual health is important, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Candid conversation

Not all health care providers are well-trained in sexual health. In fact, many probably have their own set of questions.

The good news? Our team at the Midlife, Menopause & Sexual Health clinic is comfortable talking about sexual health.

We are proud to have nurse practitioner Natasha DeHaan, RNP, the sexual health counselor on our team.

Many of us have attended national meetings and lectures by the International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health.

And we are constantly learning more about how we can help.

If a given topic is beyond our comfort level and additional expertise is needed, we know how to find the referral that can help facilitate your care.

Being able to offer longer visits to patients is a privilege. It’s a crucial step in providing the best possible care.

By conducting a thorough review of a patient’s history, we can dig deeper into the factors that may be contributing to the sexual problem our patient is experiencing.

One of the tools we use is the Sex Deck. We think it can make the discussion about desire more comfortable and straightforward. It’s a card deck that covers the 27 reasons for low sexual desire—the causes, options to help and so forth.

The cards are color-coded to designate one of three categories listing reasons for low desire: physical, psychological or relationship-based.

We’ll soon be doing a research study to look at how effective the cards are at improving the comfort level of patients and providers.

But the bottom line is that sexual health is important and valuable—and we want people to ask about it.

There are solutions to relieve pain during sex, for instance, or low sexual desire.

There are tools and language available to get conversations started with your partner.

It starts with being clear with yourself about what you want.

Where are your fears and barriers? Do you still have unhealthy issues or beliefs from childhood and past relationships? Are you fearful of self-expression?

Safety and consent, for instance, are the backbone of healthy sexuality.

It’s critical we introduce this to our children when they are going through bodily changes and becoming sexually active themselves.

A huge barrier for many women is the way we are socialized—or how media says sex should be. This can lead to feelings of inadequacy and body image issues.

It’s important to change that conversation now and set a good example for the next generation.