What does it look like to be sexually healthy?

“When [people] combine their motivation to change sexual problems with a vision for sexual health, they can imagine a meaningful life beyond the mere absence of their troubling sexual behaviors [or difficulties].”

-Doug Braun-Harvey & Michael Vigorito

We frequently talk on our website on what goes wrong with sexual functioning and when there is a lack of sexual health.

As sex therapists, we are actively involved in helping people develop an understanding of sexual health and foster their growth into implementing that understanding into their lives with themselves or their partners.

No matter if I am working with a new therapist in training to develop sex therapy skills or a patient who is searching for solutions to the breakdowns in their life, questions often directly or indirectly come up around what sexual health is.

So, what does it look like to be sexually healthy?

We live in a culture in which most children and adolescents, who go on to become adults, are given sex education through their schools on the “birds and bees”, which is primarily a medical/biological explanation of sexual and reproductive functioning.

Or, many people learn about sex through pornography or unrealistic depictions offered through media and film. Alternatively, the vast majority of young people learn about sex through their friends and peers.

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A far too few, more fortunate, young people have parents who can teach them sex-positive education, although that is much less likely.

Unfortunately, 1 out of 4 women and 1 out of 7 men have suffered sexual abuse and their sex “education” is trauma based.

In addition, many children and adolescents learn sex-negative messages through religious teachings.

It makes sense that very few adults in our culture really understand what sexual health actually is.

In 2002, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined sexual health as:

“A state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.”

Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito integrated a public health view of sexual health into six principles that we frequently use when working with clients:

  1. Consent

  2. Nonexploitation

  3. Protected from STIs and unintended pregnancy

  4. Honesty

  5. Shared Values

  6. Mutual Pleasure

This is what these six principles mean.

1. Consent can be described as sex being voluntary and with a spirit of cooperation. 

Consent involves getting permission to be sexually intimate with yourself or another person. Consent may not be merely gained when you are in direct contact with another person, non-consent could occur by intentionally being aroused by someone without them knowing and not getting their permission, for example, like in the case of voyeurism. For sex to be healthy, consent must always be gotten, even in the case of one partner wanting sex more than the other. Getting consent during sexual interactions can lead to mutual pleasure and positive sexual interactions.

2. Nonexploitation involves not using your own power and/or control to gain sexual gratification from another person without their consent.

It is important to gain full consent from your partner and be in relation with regard to the mutual pleasure that is being gained from the sexual interaction.

3. Protected from STIs and unintended pregnancy can range from a man or woman’s personal freedom and choices regarding safe and protected sex to having access to testing and medical care.

In addition, it is imperative that all people are given scientifically accurate information about how STIs are transmitted, how reproduction occurs and can be prevented if desired.

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4. Honesty involves communicating openly and directly with yourself and your partner.

Being honest with yourself is when you are open to sexual pleasure, experience and receiving sex education. Honesty is an essential foundation for having effective relationships in general and critical for healthy sexual connections.

Honesty doesn’t mean that you are completely transparent in a manner that may harm another person, however. Sexual honesty with another person involves having open communication and dialogue with integrity.

5. Shared values around sexual intimacy involve honestly communicating motivations for becoming involved sexually and the meaning of the sexual acts for each person.

For two people to connect on the level of shared sexual values means that they will be communicating openly on why they are engaging sexually and what it means to them, so that you may help avoid one partner’s lack of enjoyment of sex.

6. Mutual pleasure within sex is an interplay between giving and receiving pleasure in all the varied ways that can happen in solo sex or when two people connect.

When you are alone or with another person, the value placed on pleasure is vital to a fulfilling sexual experience. Pleasure in sexuality extends beyond the biological function or pornographic objectification to the erotic, sensual and self-expressive dimensions of sexuality.


At Kimberly Keiser & Associates we utilize these principles of sexual health throughout every aspect of our treatment approach. They are at the heart of every non-judgmental conversation and allow us to honor and respect whatever healthy form of sexual expression is important to you.