You may well be familiar with the term sexual wellness or "sexual wellbeing". You only need to have looked at your favourite beauty retailers or vibrator brand to see whole sections dedicated to the concept of sexual self care. In an age where we're all more health conscious than ever, we’re stretching our thinking about how to take better care of ourselves and feel "well" to every aspect of our lives.
But what is sexual wellness? Is it the same as self care? Or is it something else? Sexual wellbeing seems to range from anything from getting regular STI checks and shopping for boujee vibrators to doing sexy audio meditations and going to full moon circles. It's a broad concept which posits that masturbation is medicine and that antiquated concepts like sexual shame and the Madonna/Whore complex have no place in our futures. Sounds great, but what are the actual foundations of this movement and how can you practice sexual wellness for yourself?
What is sexual wellness?
According to the experts at sexual wellness brand Quanna, sexual wellness means: having access to sexual health information, education and care. Practicing safe sex and seeking care when needed. Experiencing sexual pleasure, satisfaction, and intimacy when desired. Communicating about sexual health with others, including sexual partners and healthcare providers. Sexual wellness is not just about how your body performs sexually but involves your mind and emotions as well. If these are not all integrated your sexual pleasure will never be 100% satisfactory."
So basically, feeling healthy about sex, physically and mentally – mind, body and soul – is what it's all about. And we all approach this type of wellness in very personal and particular ways. Just like self care for some is a flat white and bubble bath and for some it's a month-long silent retreat in the Himalayas, the idea of what sexual wellness actually *is* differs from person to person.
A study from The Lancet explains that "the absence of a sharp distinction between sexual wellbeing and sexual health has created ambiguity in policy rhetoric, and hindered conceptualisation of sexual wellbeing as a valid outcome of public health interventions." In other words, sexual health and sexual wellness aren't considered to be the same thing – certainly not by medical professionals and policy makers anyway. Sexual health is a premise rooted in medical and biological practices, preventions and public health outcomes defined by the World Health Organisation.
And sexual wellness? That's literally *everything* else and it's usually something you have to manage individually. A doctor can help you with your sexual health if you're worried about contraception, STIs or a treatable issue like vaginal dryness, but your general wellbeing in relation to sex, feeling good and achieving pleasure with ease? That's a much a woolier concept and involves anything from eating and sleeping a certain way to support sexual function to esoteric and traditional practices to heal trauma and change attitudes to sex, sexuality and pleasure.
"Years of shaming women for being sexually expressive has consequently shrunk the orgasmic experience, women often don't feel safe to experience orgasm at all." says Lara Raybone, a love and embodiment coach who focuses on helping women to reclaim and rediscover their sexual power and potential. "These beliefs & patterns are often all deeply rooted in our psyche and body, without our knowing."
The sexual wellness industry
Where doctors aren't able to provide answers, a tonne of brands, practices and products have stepped in to help. There are apps, toys, libido-boosting supplements, meditations, journals, lubes and body oils to help you get your sexual self on point. Not to mention the myriad coaches and courses dedicating themselves to sexual healing. The global sexual wellness market is booming and is estimated to be worth £98 billon by 2030. But herbal remedies and retreats aside, you don't actually need to buy crystal dildos and go to woo woo classes to achieve a healthy relationship with sex.
"Our definition of sexual wellness is broader than many expect." says Kalila Bolton, one of the founders of SheSpot, a company set up to help women reconnect with themselves sexually. "Being sexually well means having a healthy, satisfying and safe sexual life – including feeling comfortable with your body, prioritising your pleasure and preferences, and feeling confident and secure in communicating your preferences. Sexual wellness is an active and evolving process, developed through education and exploring what works best for you as an individual."
"We grew up in a world where anything to do with sexual health and pleasure was a taboo, tinged with stigma and sleaze." says Bolton's co-founder, Holly Jackson. "Our sex education at school did little to educate us around pleasure, and over the course of our twenties as we explored the sexual wellness space, we found this stigma was reflected in our experiences. Shopping for anything pleasure-related always had a ‘adult-store’ feel to it – think dark, sleazy environments, explicit and intimidating products very much for the male gaze."
"Sexual wellness is an intrinsic part of our overall happiness, health and wellbeing and we felt it was important to create a space that reflects that belief and champions women’s pleasure" she explains. "Unfortunately, the sexual wellness industry still suffers from heavy censorship and restriction which reinforces the taboos around sexual wellbeing and hampers the growth in the space. We need to normalise this key aspect of our wellbeing."
How do you achieve sexual wellness?
Feeling positive about sex, never mind about proud and empowered is the first step to sexual wellness, and there are so many facets to this. We know that when we don't feel ashamed, when we feel good about our bodies and when we feel like we deserve pleasure, sex and masturbation ultimately feels better – a lot of sexual dysfunction has its roots in our mental states. But in a world full of shame, censorship and products and services that for some, feel unattainable, achieving sexual wellness is easier said than done.
"Through rewriting our beliefs around sexuality we the get to choose what we desire to experience. " says Raybone. "Our power in any given moment is the right to choose. Sometimes the external circumstances seem impossible and it may feel like an internal battle in the process to actually choose your new sexual narrative but I promise you it is possible. Your sexual energy is your superpower, the key to your magnetism, ultimate self love and acceptance."
So how do we achieve sexual wellness? Well, the practice looks different for everyone. For some it's about simply overcoming the shame they might feel when masturbating. That might mean doing the damn thing and sitting with your thoughts afterwards. For others it's figuring out how to have a better orgasm or ask for what they *actually* want in bed with their partner. And for some people, it's about looking in the mirror and actually liking the way your breasts, your tummy or your vulva look and not constantly asking yourself, "is my vagina normal?"
Whatever it takes to unlearn shame and feel like a healthy person with a healthy attitude to pleasure, and whether that involves books, sex toys, courses, tantric massage or meditation is up to you. Just like our wellness journeys look different when it comes to fitness, gut health and skincare, they'll vary from person to person when it comes to sex. Ultimately it's about putting your body first, feeling confident in your sexual identity and pursuing pleasure in a way that feels right for you.
Kalila of SheSpot explains, "There are some seriously tangible health benefits to exploring your pleasure, including reduced stress, increased feelings of happiness and intimacy, and even pain relief some some. Gaining a deeper understanding of your body and what makes you as an individual tick, can also be a fantastic self-esteem boost, improving confidence and facilitating healthier relationships with others.
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