Sexual health refers to one’s state of physical, emotional, mental and social wellbeing in relation to sexuality; it is not just the absence of disease or dysfunction. It requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having safe sexual experiences free of coercion, discrimination or violence.
Just like with physical and mental health, maintaining sexual health is an important part of overall wellness. There are steps you can take to prevent common sexual health problems, like sexually transmitted diseases or unintended pregnancy.
Sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) are passed from one person to another through intimate physical contact and sexual activity. There are dozens of different STDs, and some of the most common include syphilis, gonorrhea and chlamydia. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 20 million new infections occur every year in the United States.
In the North Country, chlamydia is the most commonly reported STD. Roughly 1,470 cases of chlamydia were reported per 100,000 women ages 15-44 in Jefferson County, which is higher than the state’s Prevention Agenda goal of 1,458. In St. Lawrence County, the rate is 1,033 cases, and in Lewis County, the rate is about 700 cases.
STDs do not always have symptoms, so it is possible to have an infection and not know it. As a result, routine STD testing is recommended for anyone who is sexually active. If you are diagnosed with an STD, all can be treated with medicine and some can be cured entirely. If you have sex, you can lower your risk for STDs by using condoms and being in a sexual relationship with a partner who does not have an STD.
Unintended pregnancies are either mistimed (no plan to become pregnant) or unwanted (no plan to ever become pregnant). Unintended pregnancies occur regardless of age, marital status, socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. However, most unintended pregnancies occur in women who are older than 19 years old.
In the U.S., about half of unintended pregnancies occur among couples using no contraceptive method and half are due to incorrect use of contraceptives or contraceptive failures. Nearly half (48%) of all women ages 15-44 have had an unintended pregnancy (either an unplanned birth, an abortion, or both).
While an unintended pregnancy may not always have a negative impact on one’s sexual health, studies show that it may lead to a delayed start of prenatal care, increased risk of premature birth, and increased physical violence against the mother.
Fostering sexual health is not just an individual responsibility; it requires support from communities and healthcare providers. Being sexually healthy means understanding that sexuality is a natural part of life that involves more than sexual behavior. It also means recognizing and respecting the sexual rights of others, and having access to sexual health information, education and care.
What Can I Do As an Individual?
Get Tested for STDs — Whether you have insurance or not, you can get tested and treated at your local health department’s STD clinic, a family planning clinic, a student health center, or an urgent care clinic. You can also find a clinic online using “GetTested” and ask if they offer treatment. Talk to your doctor about potential treatment options.
In the North Country, all three counties offer some kind of free STD testing.
- The Jefferson County Public Health Service offers a free STD Clinic by appointment on Tuesdays from 12:30pm – 3:30pm. The clinic provides STD assessment, diagnosis and treatment. For appointments or more information, call 315-786-3730.
- Lewis County Public Health offers free HIV and Hepatitis C testing and counseling by appointment. For appointments or more information, call 315-377-5453.
- St. Lawrence County Public Health offers free STD and HIV testing weekly at its Canton office. For appointments for more information, call 315-386-2325.
There are also organizations in our region with programs and resources specific to LGBTQ individuals, providing a place for them to meet, communicate, and promote self-identity and awareness. ACR Health’s Q Center offers after-school programs and other services to LGBTQ youth; PrismNY offers support resources to adults; and Planned Parenthood provides sexual health services to all ages. The Sage Center and North Country Prenatal/Perinatal Council are other great resources.
What Can Communities and Healthcare Providers Do?
Communities can help improve sexual health by providing education about contraceptive strategies to prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Healthcare providers can take this one step further, by encouraging their patients to get routine STD tests if they are sexually active.
All members of the community — including businesses, nonprofits, healthcare providers, schools, religious organizations and others — can take steps to ensure they cultivate a welcoming environment for LGBTQ individuals. How can they do this? Here are a few ideas:
- Create and enforce workplace policies that respect people of all gender, sex, and sexuality spectrums.
- Communicate with staff to ensure they understand these policies and how to implement them.
- Let the public know that your organization is a safe space by displaying posters or other signage in visible places.
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