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What is sexual wellbeing?

In this video lecture, Dr Rachel Spronk introduces the concept of sexual wellbeing.
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RACHEL SPRONK: As we discussed earlier, sexuality is central to how we understand ourselves and how we perceive social relations. Sexuality is also of concern to governmental public health policies. Public health is the science and practise of preventing disease, of prolonging life, and of improving the quality of life. And governments invest much in this. For matters concerning the birth rates, sexually transmitted diseases, to sexual violence, sexuality is an important aspect of public health. As public health efforts are concerned with the prevention of ill health, the focus is on dealing with problems resulting in disease. The notion of sexual and reproductive health rights is used to work towards this goal, and for good reasons.
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Health is a universal right and our governments must work to achieve that. However, focusing on problems, by definition, excludes other topics that are also part of sexuality, such as affection, intimacy, or pleasure. Studying unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases, or sexual violence is important, but pushes aside the more positive aspects of sexuality. As such, it generates partial knowledge about sexuality if we look at the whole of what we call sexuality. In other words, the term sexual health is defined so as to work towards the absence of problems related to health.
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If one turns it around and starts from the premise of well-being, the scope of how sexuality and well-being are related becomes broadened and comes to include a variety of factors resulting in well-being. In this course, we therefore propose to use the words of sexual well-being rather than sexual health. Our research has shown that people have very different understandings of their well-being in relation to sexuality, and common public health approaches are able to accommodate. The focus on problems typically obscures non-disease related questions while these are very important to people themselves.
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For instance, the importance of religious norms and values with regard to the care of the body or the care of emotional well-being only play a role when they are labelled problematic by health workers. Such as with circumcision or unplanned pregnancies. But the use of incense, waist beads, praying, and more, that are seen as crucial aspects of daily life and beneficial to a healthy and prosperous life are typically never mentioned in medical discourse. So the concept of sexual well-being prioritises people’s experiences, what we call the everyday life perspective. By doing so, the broad scope of sexuality is taken into account.
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That is, as we are products of our social environments, the way sexuality is formed by our culture, religion, social class, et cetera, informs how we understand ourselves. Sexual norms and values are central to our gendered sense of self, how we understand ourselves as woman, or as man, or something else. The concept of sexual well-being also helps to bring questions together that are typically used as being mutually exclusive. Rather than seeing problems as in opposition with pleasures, the question is how they go hand-in-hand. An unplanned pregnancy is a problem, but also results in the pleasure of a new life. Following these subjective experiences is two tiered. One, societies function through social hierarchies, and often gender is organised hierarchically.
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Different social expectations for women than for men are typically worked out through sexuality. Such as that, for instance, chastity has different meanings for women than for men. At the same time, chastity can be a meaningful cultural or religious value for women, and men, of course, themselves. In the way it is central to the gendered sense of self of feeling woman. In other words, religious chastity is the product of a grand scheme resulting in unequal relations. And at the same time it is an experience that works empowering. We will explore such paradoxes throughout this course. In short, sexuality is a public as well as a personal affair, involving communal concerns and individual desires.
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And sex and sexuality can be the cause of ideological debate as much as a source of pain and pleasure.

In this video lecture, Dr Rachel Spronk further explains the approach to sexual wellbeing you saw in the article “Beyond Pain”. In particular, in this video she discusses sexual wellbeing. What is sexual wellbeing? How do we define the term, and how do we know when and how actions need to be taken to protect it?

Reflection questions

  • What does sexual wellbeing add to the picture? Think about the word cloud on sexual health.
  • What is the difference between sexual health and sexual wellbeing?
  • Do you find this a useful new terminology? Why or why not?

You may share your thoughts in the comment section of this step.

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Religion and Sexual Wellbeing: Pleasure, Piety, and Reproductive Rights

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