Sexual health is influenced by a complex web of factors ranging from sexual behavior, attitudes and societal factors, to biological risk and genetic predisposition. It encompasses the problems of HIV and STIs/RTIs, unintended pregnancy and abortion, infertility and cancer resulting from STIs, and sexual dysfunction. Sexual health can also be influenced by mental health, acute and chronic illnesses, and violence. Addressing sexual health at the individual, family, community or health system levels requires integrated interventions by trained health providers and a functioning referral system. It also requires a legal, policy and regulatory environment where the sexual rights of all people are upheld.
Addressing sexual health also requires understanding and appreciation of sexuality, gender roles and power in designing and providing services. Understanding sexuality and its impact on practices, partners, reproduction and pleasure presents a number of challenges as well as opportunities for improving sexual and reproductive health care services and interventions. Validity of data collection, given researcher bias and difficulties in discussing such a private issue, also remains a problem in some settings that must be overcome if a greater understanding of sexuality in various settings is to be achieved. Sexuality research must go beyond concerns related to behavior, numbers of partners and practices, to the underlying social, cultural and economic factors that make individuals vulnerable to risks and affect the ways in which sex is sought, desired and/or refused by women, men and young people. Investigating sexuality in this way entails going beyond reproductive health by looking at sexual health holistically and comprehensively. To do this requires adding to the knowledge base gained from the field of STI/HIV prevention and care, gender studies, and family planning, among others.
Sexual health represents a new thematic area of work for the Department of Reproductive Health and Research. While sexual health has been implicitly understood to be part of the reproductive health agenda, the emergence of HIV/AIDS, of sexual and gender-based violence and of the extent of sexual dysfunction (to name just some of the developments over the past two decades), have highlighted the need for the Department to now focus more explicitly on sexuality and the promotion of sexual health.