Sure, sex may not be as taboo as it once was, but most resources focus on catering specifically to hetero, able-bodied readers who don’t struggle with mental health issues.
Think about it: The popular sex content we see online or in magazines promotes advice like “Let your man take the lead” or suggests that sex always needs to be passionate, long-lasting, and full of “exotic” positions that require incredible flexibility.
And the need to address the multiple identities people hold is increasing. Inclusivity and accessibility are already expected and requested, especially for and by marginalized readers who already find their experiences fringed and other-ed. So, it’s not a surprise that people are seeking sex education that helps them feel whole and interconnected.
But to take note of all the aspects of individualism with sexuality, we need to stop erasing mental health from sexual health. If, and when, we don’t, we’ll fail to really give topics like consent the coverage and nuance they deserve.
Often within sexuality conversations comes a push for sexual liberation. But what good does it do if mainstream media, which shapes much of how mental health and sexual wellness is portrayed (and thus accepted), won’t commit to making inclusive sex ed content a reality?
And by this, I mean addressing how mental health plays a role in seeing yourself as a sexually liberated being. After all, sexual health education isn’t just bedroom advice or first-date tricks. It’s tools that help individuals make the best decisions for themselves. When you think about it like that, it’s a given mental health has to be included.
So, how can educators and wellness advocates help interconnect the two as part of a holistic framework? One example is examining the language we use to talk about sex.
So much of the regularly promoted terms and slang — like “losing your virginity” or being “dirty” or “clean” when it comes to STI status — promotes guilt for expressing and acting on our natural sexual desire in healthy ways. We need to reconsider the language to avoid overlapping shame and pleasure.
There are also plenty of real-world examples that show how access and identity affect both mental health and sexuality.
As the topic of reproductive justice leads the forefront of private and public conversations today, and as the restrictive heartbeat bills become closer to reality, we need to consider the emotional and mental toll of forcing pregnant people — and why it’s not just women’s rights but also reproductive rights — to carry unwanted pregnancies to term.
These long-lasting effects are the ones that lawmakers aren’t taking into consideration when creating policies and arguing over the morality of abortion. How would this change if our culture had considered mental health, the emotional and mental toll, and sexual wellness, the act of getting pregnant, together from the start?
Currently, traditional sex education curriculums in classrooms or online aren’t equipped to address topics beyond anatomy and safer-sex materials (namely, condoms). But mental health, like other identities, creates an entirely different experience for sexual situations.
Let’s take “enthusiastic consent” as an example. This approach to consent, while popular, can be considered ableist because making enthusiasm a requirement for consent fails to take into account power dynamics and situational and individual circumstances, circumstances that erase and negate the autonomy one has when giving consent.
We can see this outside of sexuality, too, like how a child is often expected to hug and kiss relatives even when they don’t want to, or in a workplace when an employee faces unspoken pressure because of their supervisors’ delegation style.
Insisting on enthusiastic consent also ignores folks who are able to agree on consent in more fluid ways (like eye blinks, hand-patting, or other specific motions) and potentially invalidates kink scenes or dynamics where alternative forms of nonverbal consent as “real” forms of consent.
And if sex education included these different needs in mind, then it would require teaching how consent can evolve to fit individual needs and circumstances. Let’s be frank again: Consent goes beyond sexual experiences. It’s an important part of understanding social interaction online and offline.
Learning these consent nuances leaves room for addressing factors like power dynamics in the workplace and hierarchical relationships within the family.
And when we include pregnancy and the right to choose into the mental health and sexual wellness equation, we can see that people of color, queer folks, and those who struggle with mental illness and/or are disabled lose the most. They’re the ones who often face the most restrictions and lack access to the tools that will help them make informed, empowered decisions about their own sexual health.
These aren’t separate parts of our overall health. Mental health can affect desire, autonomy, and how pleasure is defined within sex. And when we take into account our entire human experience, when designing sex materials or advice rather than compartmentalizing it, we will create better sex education. We will help everyone find better ways of creating holistic, pleasure-focused sexual wellness.
It’s the only true way we can collectively move sex education forward.
Cameron Glover is a writer, sex educator, and digital superhero. You can reach out to her onTwitter.