Open minds, safe spaces: Talking about Sexual Health

by Dr Ritu Parchure, Senior Researcher, Prayas Health Group, Pune



India, especially urban India, is experiencing a sexual revolution in recent times. Among youth, the norms about sexual relationships are becoming more liberal. In certain ways, these transitions are empowering. At the same time, it has some negative health implications too. It is important that we take due cognizance of emerging sexual health needs of youth. World Sexual Health Day, which is observed on 4th September every year, offers us the opportunity to bring the discussions to the fore.
For a layperson, being healthy is mainly about not being ill – free of disease. But health is a much more comprehensive concept than that. Sexual health too needs to be seen with this broader understanding.

As per World Health Organization (WHO), Sexual Health is a state of physical, mental, and social well-being in relation to sexuality. Sexuality here refers to a very broad concept which includes sex, gender identities and roles, sexual orientation, eroticism, pleasure, intimacy and reproduction.

Sexuality is shaped by many things – nature, nurture as well as external context. Experiences of the person, right from childhood, also have a role to play. It is a dynamic process that evolves throughout life. Its inter linkages are seen on several aspects of life, including health and well-being. Positive sexuality can greatly enrich overall well-being of a person. The negative side of it can lead to a range of health concerns – anxiety, guilt, depression, additions, and sexually transmitted diseases and so on. However, most of these concerns can be addressed by providing support and enabling environment. A timely help can prevent further health complications.
Unfortunately anything related to sex and sexuality in general remains a ‘hush hush’ topic in our society. In general, any talking amongst youngsters pertaining to such issues is usually judgmental and insensitive. Also, in most situations, the person giving advice is not truly informed and carries the baggage accumulated from wrong resources. Rather than being helpful, it contributes to the challenges.
The sexual health concerns of youth require sensitive, non-judgmental and pragmatic responses. It is important to have spaces where young people can express themselves freely, not having to bother about judgments being passed; spaces which ensure safety and respect the rights of people and facilitate reflection within. It can help a person to identify the issues, bring about a positive change and seek care and support if needed.
Our experience of working with 900+ youth from Pune city through a research project is very telling in this regard. The study tries to understand sexual health needs of unmarried youth from a life-course perspective. It provides an opportunity for the youth to talk about themselves, their feelings, and their journey. The feedback from the young people who participated in the research evidently points to the felt need of supportive spaces. As one of the girl participant puts it,
“I spoke about things which were stirring inside me for too long to bear. It was liberating. I feel nothing but grateful. Thank you for happening to me.”

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