With increasing political attacks, it’s important to talk about the stigma associated with sexuality and to promote positive sexual health around the world. Put simply: Sexual freedom is central to our collective liberation and well-being.
Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships.
These aspects are often impacted by factors out of our control. Many people live in environments that limit access to accurate and comprehensive sex education, further minimizing sexuality and sexual rights. Sexual health-related issues are wide-ranging, and they aren’t just about relationships, they also encompass topics such as stigma.
Stigmas around HIV and sexual health limit efforts to end the HIV epidemic. These fears overlap with fears over discrimination, patient-doctor confidentiality, criminalization and potential violence. All work together to keep people from disclosing sexual health information (such as HIV status) to family, friends and potential sexual partners. Stigma surrounding sexual health is also a proxy for other forms of stigma and discrimination—hence HIV criminalization disproportionately impacting women, racial minorities, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who use drugs, sex workers, immigrants and Indigenous people, often resulting in long custodial sentences.
Additionally, poor quality sex education and a lack of access to health services negatively impact people living with and vulnerable to HIV and can result in stigma, unsafe sex practices and stressful perinatal experiences.
Now, as public and sexual health fall deeper into politicization, we must examine this topic further. There is a lack of emphasis on sexual and reproductive health, rights and justice of people along the continuum of HIV care. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual health of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled. The only path to inclusive, comprehensive and accessible care is through addressing these public health challenges collaboratively. People must be able to access essential health care at any time and for any reason without fear, stigma or risk of criminalization.
What can you do?
During Sexual Freedom Month, have conversations with members of the community, policymakers, service providers and educators to decrease stigma surrounding sexuality and HIV. Spread information and HIV-specific resources and dismantle the barriers leading to disparities in HIV and STI rates. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has a library of resources that you can easily share.