If you’re like most people, you have little difficulty talking to your healthcare provider about your aches and pains, but talking to your healthcare provider about sexual health is a whole different matter.
Talking about sex may not be a regular part of your doctor-patient relationship; but it should be. Sexuality is an important part of life, and maintaining good sexual health is important to both your physical health and overall well-being. Being open and honest with your healthcare provider can help answer questions or concerns you might have about your sexuality, sex life or relationships. Talking to your healthcare provider also can ensure you receive the care you need to prevent and treat sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and unplanned pregnancy.
It’s especially important that young adults, who might be exploring sexual feelings and relationships for the first time, feel comfortable discussing sexual health with their healthcare providers.
Here is some information to help you prepare for talking to your healthcare provider about sex and how to maintain your sexual health.
Sexual health is about more than avoiding STDs. "Sexual health is about having a positive, respectful and responsible approach to sexuality and relationships," explains Elizabeth Torrone, PhD, an epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and one of the experts featured in the habitstohave.org video Let’s Talk About Sexual Health.
"Sexual health is a state of how you feel as a sexual being," says Yolanda Wimberly, M.D., Associate Dean of Graduate Medical Education at Morehouse School of Medicine and another expert featured on habitstohave.org.
Awareness of sexual health is especially important for teenagers because of the sexual awakening (and confusion) that can occur during the teen years. "As you progress through the teenage years, there are things about sexual identity and sexual attraction that come up. There are a lot of choices that have to be made–whether to engage in sexual intercourse or not, who you are as a sexual being, who you relate to, who you’re attracted to, etc.," Dr. Wimberly explains. "Those are issues that are very important for anyone, but especially in the teenage years."
Sex and intimacy are a normal, healthy part of life, but there are risks associated with being sexually active. To maintain good sexual health, you should understand the risks and talk to your healthcare provider about lowering those risks.
Young adults, in particular, have an increased risk for STDs. "Even though young people only make up about 25 percent of the sexually active population, they account for 50 percent of all diagnosed STDs," Torrone says. "In fact, one in two sexually active young persons will get an STD by the time they’re 25."
STDs are infections that are passed from one person to another through sexual activity, including vaginal, anal or oral sex, or even just skin-to-skin contact. Having sex without condoms, having many partners or having sex with someone who’s had many partners increases your chance of catching a STD.
The good news is all STDs are treatable and some are curable, but you can’t treat an STD if you don’t know you have it. That’s why talking openly and honestly with your healthcare provider about your sexual history is so important.
"Your provider can help you figure out for which STDs you need to be tested, and also help you figure out how to protect yourself against getting STDs," Torrone explains in Let’s Talk About Sexual Health.
Rest assured, no matter how embarrassing it might be for you to talk about sex with your doctor, he or she has likely heard it all before. "You don’t have to be embarrassed. Providers are trained to talk about sex," Torrone says.
Dr. Wimberly encourages patients young and old to think of the doctor’s visit as a safe place, where anything is up for discussion. "We’ve heard lots of different things, and nothing that you’re going to say is going to shock us," she says.
At habitstohave.org, young adults like Madeline, admit it can be difficult to talk about sex with a doctor, but having continual doubts and fears is not the answer. "When I first asked my doctor about sex, it wasn’t awkward, but it was weird. It was weird because I’d never done it before, but it was nice to know what was going on," she recalls. "If anyone finds it hard to talk about sexual health with their parents, then they should definitely talk to a doctor."
Also in the video, Edric, a homosexual man, shares the story of how he first told his doctor he was gay, and how she treated him. "I had had a sexual experience with my first partner and I was like, ‘I need to tell the doctor, and I know they’re going to ask if it was with a female or male, and I needed to be honest.’ It was scary," he says. "My doctor was very cool. She actually calmed me down. She was like, it’s okay, ‘I see that kind of thing all the time.’"
And if your healthcare provider does make you feel guilty, embarrassed or shameful, he or she may not be the right provider for you. "If your doctor is judgmental when you bring it up, then you really need to think about if that is the provider for you," Dr. Wimberly says. "You need to make sure that you’re going to a provider who will be able to allow you to talk about the things that you need help with."