Attitude & Sexual Health

Our self image is the blueprint which determines exactly how we will behave, who we will mix with, what we will try and what we will avoid; our every thought and every action stem from the way we see ourselves.

-- Andrew Matthews, Being Happy, 1988

Your sexual health and attitude are determined by multiple influences -- your parents, friends, teachers and your environment and culture -- but the most important influence is you.

Most of the time we do not question the way we behave. Our actions reflect habits of thought and established beliefs about ourselves and others. We should critically examine our thoughts and behaviors. Sometimes we will need to adapt our beliefs to new realities. The capacity for positive change is vital to success in life.

A Bill of Human Rights

I believe every person has the right to:

  1. Respect

  2. Honesty

  3. Express your own feelings


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  4. Be listened to

  5. Be taken seriously

  6. Be different

  7. Make mistakes

  8. Be perfect

  9. Be detached

  10. Be loved

  11. Love yourself

Author Stuart Wilde proclaimed the first nine of these human rights at a talk I attended in 1990. The last two (the right to be loved and the right to love yourself) I have added.

I believe the key to sexual health (and to happiness in life) is in the last one: the right to love yourself. Only through learning to love yourself you will find happiness, peace, and bliss. I am not talking here about sexual love but about agape (pronounced ahgarp-ee). Agape is probably best defined as a tremendous love for life and is akin to altruistic love or having regard for the well-being of others.

Loving Yourself

What does loving yourself mean when our society says we should do things for others? Loving yourself is a feeling of being centered and calm within. When we can find this within ourselves we can help others to be like this too. We bring love in abundance to our lives.

To learn to do this you need to be able to discipline yourself. You need to be able to say, 'No'. You need the discipline of being able to make yourself do things that are good for you and not do the things that are bad for you. Discipline is not a really popular concept in our self-indulgent society. Often we find it very difficult to say 'No' to things we know are bad for us. We say 'just this one more time' and think it will not make any difference. But it does. Things add up little by little. Instead we might learn that saying 'No' just one more time strengthens our character, helps us to respect ourselves, and is the path to making our lives just that little bit happier.

Respect yourself and assert your rights

People often think that if they say 'No' it means they don't like or love the person who is asking. How wrong this is! Responsible parents often say 'No' to their loved children. They will say 'No' when the child wants to play on the road or with a knife, precisely because they love their child. It is the same in adult life except we've forgotten that saying 'No', because we care about ourselves and the other person, can be positive.

Learn to be assertive. In our society we think that to be assertive is to be aggressive. It is not. It is just that you respect yourself, and the more you learn to respect yourself the more you will learn to respect others. You have a right to say, 'I want...' and 'I insist...' and to be heard by your partner. If your partner does not hear or listen to you, this is telling you something very fundamental about your relationship: that your basic rights of being a person are not being respected. Please allow yourself to have these rights.

Talk about what you want

OK, I say what I want and my partner says what they want, and they are different. Where do I go from here? You have got past the first major hurdle. You are both talking about what you want. That is the basis of a relationship: to discuss what you both want then to talk about a solution where you will both be happy because you respect each other's feelings and right to be different.

In looking after your sexual health, you have a right to want to remain healthy and free of disease. You must take these responsibilities on your own shoulders and not assume your partner will be responsible for you. In good relationships, your partner will want to share the responsibility with you and they will talk about it. There will be no assumptions.

Talk talk talk

In a relationship we often act as though the other person is clairvoyant -- that they know what we are thinking or what our feelings are, without being told. This idea may strike you as romantic, but most partners are not clairvoyant -- you need to get used to explaining yourself so that they understand you. Often you need to repeat yourself so the message gets through. Perhaps one of the hardest things for a human being to do is to really recognize and accept as valid another person's point of view, when it is different from their own.

Practice saying explicitly what you mean and checking that you have been clearly understood.

  1. 'Are you sure?'
  2. 'Is that all?'
  3. 'Do you really mean...?'
  4. 'What is it that you are trying to say?'

Help your partner to say exactly what they mean, especially when they are embarrassed or frightened. Remember, in any discussion, do not devalue yourself. Stick to your Bill of Rights. If there is a disagreement, respect the other person's opinion and acknowledge that you have heard it, but stick to what you feel is right for you. 'I appreciate your opinion but I do not accept that it is right for me.'

Communication, respect, and STDs

What's all this got to do with sexual diseases? So I've been talking about your rights as a person and about communication and respect in a relationship. That might be fine in a marriage guidance book, but what's it got to do with sexual disease? Quite a lot.

Examine your current sexual relationships.

  1. Is there any risk that you could catch a sexually transmittable disease?
  2. Do you have just one partner?
  3. How often do you change partners?
  4. Is your partner being faithful to you?
  5. If you are not being faithful to your partner, what makes you think they are being faithful to you? Remember it can take only one fleeting sexual contact to catch a disease.
  6. What is your partner's sexual history?
  7. What of your own sexual past, are you sure you are not carrying hidden infection?

Only if you can fully answer all these questions can you really know what your risk of sexual disease is. Only then can you know if you are taking all the precautions necessary to maintain your sexual health.

I think you'll see that only relationships based on open and trusting communication can allow you to assess your risk and act to control it.

Sex just happens -- or does it?

There is a myth in our society that sex is something that 'just happens'. There is also a myth that men in particular have uncontrollable sexual urges. Many people act out these myths, using them as an excuse not to take responsibility for themselves. This is where the practice of discipline and saying 'No' is essential.

The more you say 'No', the stronger you become as a person. When people do not own responsibility for their own sexual urges they often deny the fact that there are diseases circulating which they can catch. They expect other people to make the world safe for them. But when there are lots of other people like them, also denying their responsibilities, the world is not safe at all.

In real life, the people involved actually think about sex before it happens: that it might happen and that they would like it to happen. You can plan ahead. The hardest thing to do is to make a change and maintain the change, but when you are sure you are making a correct decision stick to your guns. Remember your Bill of Rights.

Are you saying I shouldn't have sex?

No. Sex is a normal part of a happy and fulfilled life. When the situation is right for you, I see no reason to say 'No'. The reason we have such a high level of sexual disease today is that many people have sex when the situation is not right for them: when there are uncontrolled risks of infection, for example. If they respected themselves, they wouldn't expose themselves to risks. They would say 'No', and work at building safer sexual relationships. The value of saying 'No' is not in abstinence, it is in choosing good (and safe) relationships over dangerous contacts. It is an act of self love.

I don't like being different from my friends

Most people feel like this. We don't like being the odd one out. Remember though that we are all different. Each one of us is made differently, looks different, thinks differently, and has their own feelings. Sometimes there can be similarities, but we have to acknowledge that we have a right to be different. Just because your friends do something one way doesn't mean that you have to do it that way. Often it takes someone to do whatever it is a different way, for the friends to actually feel OK about doing it differently. If one member of the group is strong enough to show that difference is OK, the group attitude can change.

Often the people in a group who keep doing things the same old way actually feel that what is happening is wrong, but they are too frightened of being that little bit different to do anything about it.

Changing for the better does not happen quickly and easily. People are always wary and a little afraid of change. To understand this just consider our news media. Every time something new happens it's the fights, anger, and resistance that are the focus of attention, ahead of any positive aspects of the change.

Our society resists change, and so do most of us. It is normal to feel afraid and worried about new things. It can seem too frightening to try new ways when we don't know what is going to happen. But it is not healthy if our fear stops us trying to change to improve ourselves and our lives.

Make your own decisions

Usually when people start becoming sexually active they get into a certain pattern of sexual behavior. That pattern tends to remain with them for the rest of their lives. Often they do not choose that pattern, it is simply the norm of the day for their peer group, but they go on repeating it year after year, without thinking about change. Unless we stop and think about ourselves, and evaluate who we are and what we want, we don't even consider there could be other ways of living our lives.

When you are going to try something new it is often helpful for you to have talked it over with a good friend so that you feel stronger about trying.

I like taking risks

Having been a motor bike rider, mountaineer, and rock climber and lover of 'off piste skiing', I have a good idea of what risk taking is all about. The thrill lies in facing a risk and overcoming it through your own skill. Naturally, you take safety precautions. You wear a helmet on a bike. Mountaineering, you use a helmet, ice axe, crampons, and ropes. Most important, you practice your skill to be sure you can manage the dangers, before you expose yourself to greater risk. You'll tackle a lot of smaller mountains before you take on Mt. Everest.

Risk taking in the sexual arena is not the same thing. When you jump into bed with someone whose sexual history you don't know, when you engage in an unsafe sexual practice, you are entering a lottery. You are not testing some disease-avoidance skill you have practiced, you are simply taking a chance, like driving through a red light with your eyes closed. You might enjoy the sex, but the risk is more terrifying than thrilling.

Maybe you do regard sex as a sport. That's your choice. My recommendation (to you -- and to everyone who takes the risk of sexual contact) is to prepare yourself with the best safety equipment and protection you can. You wouldn't risk your life on a mountain without the right equipment and knowledge, you wouldn't go parachuting without a parachute, so why risk your life in bed? Arm yourself with knowledge, take precautions, and learn to say no when your sexual health is threatened.

I like drinking alcohol or getting high on drugs

Drugs of all kinds are popular in our society. People see them as providing escape, relief, and pleasure. Unfortunately many drugs, including the legal drug alcohol, have some less desirable consequences, one of which can be a reduction in self-caring. Under the influence, things can happen on the spur of the moment, because they feel good, without much thought for the consequences.

If you enjoy 'getting wasted' this way then at least prepare yourself in advance either by making sure you have the right safety equipment or by going with friends you know you can rely on to keep you out of trouble.

It seems unbelievable, but I've talked with many patients who had one wild night out then woke up to find they had been to bed with someone who was HIV positive. Their pain and suffering has far outweighed their few hours or minutes of pleasure.

Some people will choose to change their sexual behavior on moral or religious grounds, but these are not the only reasons. Simple common sense in reducing your risk of disease, because you care about yourself, is enough of a reason.

Self respect

You've probably realized that what I've been talking about is self respect and self love. I'm arguing for a recognition of the individual importance and worth of every person, most importantly by themselves.

Too often we underrate the value of a little more self discipline and a little more caring. We tend to accept situations that are not as good as they could be. I'm asking you to swing your pendulum of self respect and value more to the positive side. Each one of us plays a part in creating the society we live in. If individuals choose to be stronger and healthier, we will all benefit. We do have a choice.

I want to change, but how do I go about it?

The first thing is to be clear about the changes you want to make. Talk to your friends or a person you can trust, or see a counselor. All the STD clinics now have counselors who are able to help you, and their services are free. When you are clear about the changes you want, write them down. This helps your unconscious mind become aware that you are serious and helps it prepare for change. Re-read the Bill of Rights to yourself. Practice saying 'No'. Try a week where you say 'No' to different things at least once a day. This helps you become more disciplined and grow stronger inside.

Learn to enjoy saying 'No' because you are aware that it is making your life healthier.

Remember that change often takes a while. When you decide to do something important, life usually turns up some whopper of a test, as if to say, 'Do you really mean it?' Know that you will be tested and decide to go through with it. When you're on the other side of the problem you are successful, you have made the change! You can say, 'Well done self!'


Your Sexual Health by Jenny McCloskeyThis article was excerpted from the book:

Your Sexual Health
by Jenny McCloskey
.

Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Halo Books. ©.

For info or to order this book.


About The Author

Dr. Jenny McCloskey completed her medical degree at the University of Melbourne in 1976, where she shared the Australian Medical Association Prize in Public Health. As a medical registrar at the Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital in Western Australia she gained extensive experience in various medical specialties including hematology and oncology. She has a Diploma of Venereology (London) and is a elected fellow of the Australasian College of Venereologists. She travels throughout Western Australia, lecturing and teaching health professionals, community groups, and aboriginal communities. She practices in Perth as a Venereologist.


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