Top five tips to prioritise sexual wellness this Sexual Health Month

Collage with photos of women holding condoms on pink background, closeup. Banner design - stock photo
It's never a bad time to talk about sexual health. Photo credit: Getty Images

It's Sexual Health Awareness Month and yes, while the end of September is nigh upon us, sexual health is not a buzzword that should come in and out of our vernacular. Sexual health should be a year-round priority, just like our physical and mental wellbeing - making your downstairs top of the list could maybe even save your life in the long-run.

So, what is sexual health? It can be broad, but in a nutshell, it's a state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality: not just the absence of disease or dysfunction, as per the World Health Organization. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable - and crucially, safe - sexual experiences. 

For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled.

Sexual health also encompasses access to comprehensive information about sex and sexuality; knowledge about the risks and adverse consequences of unprotected sex; and access to sexual health care and services. 

While STIs and STDs are probably first to come to mind, it really is much more than that. We can get swabbed for chlamydia at Family Planning and call it a day, but sexual health also involves education and awareness around the other adverse outcomes associated with sex: think cancers, infertility, sexual dysfunction, and sexual violence.   

With Sexual Health Month coming to a close, sex educators are urging us to take stock of our sexual wellbeing and make regular check-ins part of our ongoing health maintenance. In a statement to Newshub, Adulttoymegastore's in-house sex educator Emma Hewitt noted that everyone can benefit from taking control of their sexual health.  

"We can all benefit from checking in on ourselves and ensuring we're making informed decisions that foster a healthier sexual existence," she said. "It's important that we are always in a position where we feel safe, satisfied and empowered, while also understanding the risks and challenges involved in our sexual health."  

Sexual health issues are not rare: in Aotearoa, in fact, they are common, according to Te Whatu Ora. As per the STI Education Foundation, over half of the population will contract a STI at some point in their lives, and as per the Ministry of Health, approximately one in five women and one in nine men who have had a sexual partner have reported being diagnosed with an STI, with chlamydia being the most commonly diagnosed in a person's lifetime.  

To provide a clearer pathway for what we can look to assess and consider this month and beyond, Hewitt has collated her top five tips for maintaining your sexual health and wellbeing.

Emma Hewitt
In-house Adulttoymegastore sex educator Emma Hewitt. Photo credit: Supplied

Get to know your body  

"Although we are our body's sole inhabitants, this doesn't automatically make us experts," Hewitt said.  

"Get to know your body, look at it closely and pay genuine attention to how it feels over the month. As hormones and circumstances change, our body tends to reflect this.  

"Noticing fluctuations in weight, sex drive, skin clarity and sleep? Or maybe experiencing feelings of pain or sensitivity in certain areas? While this can be completely normal, it's always good to have your finger on the pulse when it comes to your own body.   

"Being able to identify when something is off or doesn't feel quite right is key, so you know to seek help when you need it."  

Learn your anatomy and practice talking about it  

"Not only do we need to be more in touch with how our body feels, but we also need to be more knowledgeable about the actual body parts we're talking about," Hewitt said.  

"It's no secret that communication is key. So whether exploring the realm of intimacy with a partner or describing an issue to a medical professional, it's important you know the difference between certain body parts - e.g., a 'vulva' (external female genitalia) vs 'uvula' (fleshy part in your throat).  

"Being knowledgeable about your own body will give you the best chance to identify any problems and fix them quickly."  

Remember that (unfortunately) sexual pain is common, but it's not normal  

"Endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), pelvic floor issues and STI's are just some of the many different things that can cause sexual pain," Hewitt continued.  

"NZ Doctor estimates that one-quarter of women suffer from pelvic pain to some degree due to conditions such as these, with two-thirds of those surveyed reporting that this pain also affected their sex lives. But - contrary to popular opinion - sex is not meant to be painful.  

"Determining the underlying cause of pain can be difficult, and it's often out of Google's diagnostic capabilities. Therefore, if you are experiencing pain, don't be a hero! You don't have to push through. Seeing a doctor, ob-gyn or pelvic floor physiotherapist can help to get to the root of the issue and provide a plan to ease symptoms. You can also check out our seven tips to minimise pain during sex."  

Spend time getting to know the different types of lubricants  

"If you're yet to be introduced to lube - don't walk, run. Lubricants are the best way to ensure things go smoothly for all parties involved, reducing discomfort, enhancing sensation and protecting the body from microtears," Hewitt added.  

"The relationship between condoms and lubricant is also as complicated as it is misunderstood, with two considerations to make. Condom effectiveness is impacted by lubrication, so for the protection to work to its fullest potential, there needs to be adequate lubrication - which even pre-lubricated condoms do not have sometimes. 

"Alternatively, it's important to note that not all lubricants are condom compatible. Use of oil-based lubes or coconut oil in sex degrade latex condoms, rendering them ineffective.  

"If you want to use oil-based lubricant - avoid using latex and polyisoprene condoms and search for alternatives like polyurethane."

Sex toy and sleep mask on a bedside table with vase of flowers
Photo credit: Supplied

Focus on the pleasure  

"Finally, and most importantly, sexual relations of any kind should be pleasurable and fun. The World Health Organization includes pleasure in their definition of sexual health, because that's what it's all about - enjoying sensations in our bodies and the sense of intimacy that comes through sexual activity with a partner.  

"Rather than going through the motions, slow down and focus on your senses - what sounds, smells, sensations and types of touch feel good to you. Whether that be anything from a massage to experimenting with sex toys, it's important to indulge in loving your way: whatever that may be," she concluded.