Sexual health throughout life

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Sexuality and sexual experiences are part of everyone’s life, and involve different needs and implications at different stages.

The availability of support to all, including marginalized groups, is vital. This means not only equipping young people with knowledge, skills and values but also ensuring that all age groups (starting with adolescents) have access to evidence-based information and health services.

The latest issue of “Entre Nous”, the European magazine for sexual and reproductive health, explores the progress made in sexual health across the WHO European Region and among specific groups, including adolescents, older people, migrants, people living with HIV and people with disabilities.

Sexuality education

In general, the sexual health of young people has improved in recent decades. Nevertheless, more work is needed to improve sexuality education for young people by instilling a positive and responsible attitude to sexuality during adolescence. This lays the foundation for sexual well-being that can continue through the reproductive years and into old age.

Traditionally, sexuality education has focused on potential risks, such as unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. This approach fails to provide young people with the information and skills they need.

WHO promotes a more holistic approach: giving young people unbiased, scientifically correct information on all aspects of sexuality while helping them to develop values, attitudes and skills to determine their own sexuality and their relationships at various stages of their lives. This helps to empower young people to live out their sexuality and their partnerships in a fulfilling and responsible way.

WHO/Europe and the Federal Centre for Health Education (BZgA) in Germany have produced “Standards for sexuality education in Europe – a framework for policy-makers, educational and health authorities and specialists” (in English and Russian). Several countries have already translated and are implementing these standards.

The term sexuality encompasses a broad range of concepts: emotions, relationships and the human body, as well as the narrow popular definition of sexual activity.

Sexual health of the elderly

Although sexual function and activity may decline as people age, recognition is growing of the sexuality of older people, and attitudes towards sex and ageing are changing. A study of ageing in Europe noted that almost half of men aged over 70 years reported having sexual intercourse at least once a week. A study in Sweden indicated an increase in the quantity and quality of sexual experiences among the elderly, compared to earlier generations.

Despite this, studies also reveal the need for health care services to change. An analysis in the United Kingdom, for example, revealed that general practitioners often considered that sexual health was not a legitimate topic for discussion with older age groups. In a separate study of older people in the United Kingdom, however, 32% of women and 86% of men with a mean age of 81 years felt that physicians should initiate discussion about sexual function.

20th World Congress for Sexual Health

WHO/Europe presented its work on sexual health at the 20th World Congress for Sexual Health, held in Glasgow, United Kingdom on 12–16 June 2011. The Congress gave WHO a good opportunity to evaluate its successes and failures and to join forces with professional and other nongovernmental organizations in promoting sexual health. More than a thousand participants expressed interest in WHO policies and tools, while suggesting ways to improve its assistance to countries, such as linking sexual health with noncommunicable diseases.

The aim of the Congress to advance the cause of sexual health, sexual rights and universal sexuality education. The event was organized by the World Association for Sexual Health (WAS). WAS and the European Federation of Sexology are WHO’s active partners in promoting sexual health for all people, throughout the life-span and irrespective of social or personal circumstances. The participants included sexuality educators, sexual health advisers, promoters of sexual health, sexual counsellors, sexual and relationship therapists and psychotherapists, and clinicians such as nurses and other health professionals, social workers and forensic sexologists.