Sex and Health

Sex Week is kicking off at Northwestern. Events range from free handouts of candy and condoms at The Rock to presentations about marriage, burlesque or the BDSM movement. Promotion of sex-positive and sex-related topics without a shred of shyness seems completely regular for a college campus atmosphere, but it’s also becoming more common in other places too.

Throughout Chicago it’s possible to see dozens of billboards advertising PrEP, pre-exposure prophylaxis, which is a pill taken daily to prevent HIV in HIV-negative people who may be living in communities affected by HIV. Headlines about the effectiveness of a “female Viagra” and the sexual transmission of the Zika virus top news feeds every week. Although many historians suggest that people have long been fascinated by how sex can impact the body, Professor Steve Epstein noted that there is a changing climate in relation to sex and health in a lecture at the Evanston Public Library on Tuesday night.

“Today we take it for granted, I think, that to talk about sex is to talk about health and to talk about health is to talk about sex and it wasn’t always that way.”

Sex has only recently been viewed through the perspective of health discourses. The World Health Organization first defined the term “sexual heath” in 1975, as a “state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.” In contrast to a more Victorian concern with morals surrounding sex, WHO focuses on physical and emotional health benefits, stating that good sexual health “requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences.”

Since WHO’s inclusion of sex as a health concept, numerous campaigns have included or neglected the specific term in an attempt to appeal to wider audiences. Epstein showed a clip of an advertisement Gardasil, the first HPV shot, using it as an example of a campaign that steered clear of any mention of “sexual health”.

“This early advertising for Gardasil featured a multi-ethnic assortment of well-informed assertive girls engaged in healthy physical activities and conversing with their mothers about the vaccine,” Epstein said. “The specter of sexuality is kept entirely at bay. No potential heterosexual partners—no males, period— invade the frame of the ads”

The choice to neglect any mention sex was a calculated one. Approved in 2006, Merck & Co.’s HPV shot was marketed to adolescent girls. Gardasil’s supporters worried that ads talking about sexual transmission of HPV might dissuade moral-oriented parents from vaccinating their children, for fear of “promoting promiscuity.” Instead, they focused solely on the aim of preventing cervical cancer. After experiencing success, supporters began to discuss the benefits of receiving HPV shots to protect against the sexual transmission of HPV, while still focusing on the prevention of cancer. With this new view, shots began to be widely offered to adolescent males in 2013.

Other treatments and preventions, like the heavily advertised PrEP, purposefully employ the term “sexual health” to further their campaigns. Filbanserin, more commonly known by the brand name Addyi or “female Viagra” became publicly available this past fall. Supporters of the drug, which treats hypoactive sexual desire disorder, a type of female sexual dysfunction, hailed it as a step toward equity for women’s health, pointing out that there are “26 FDA-approved treatment options for men’s sexual dysfunction and only 1 for women”. At the same time, the drug has been scrutinized multiple times, with many reviewers criticizing both its effectiveness and side effects.

Epstein said that these somewhat conflicting discourses are to be expected as sex continues to be seen through a perspective of health. Despite the intricacies of the term “sexual health” and the pressures to deliver answers for different problems, it is likely that people will continue to use the term to explore more questions surrounding sex and the well-being of the human mind and body.

“In part because of its ambiguity, in part because of the positive valences of health appear to cancel out the potentially negative valences of sexual [behavior]… sexual health has become the convenient buzzword for a host of topics which, once billed under that label, seem more difficult to oppose,” Epstein said. “Much as it seems to not just be morally unconscionable but almost logically impossible to stand against health…so “sexual health” has come to be seen as an undeniable good— whatever the term is taken to connote”


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