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What is Sexual Wellbeing and Why is it Important for Your Health?

Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Katherine Hertlein,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness
Photo of Dr Katherine Hertlein
Reviewed by Dr Laura Vowels,
created by Blueheart
created by Josh Green
created by Sophie Browness

TL;DR

  • Sexual health is defined by the World Health Organisation as 'a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality'; Sexual wellbeing is harder to define but is more to do with the quality of your sexual relationships - both with yourself and with others.
  • Sexual wellbeing is important because it has been proven to be associated with increased happiness.
  • One important way that you can cultivate sexual wellbeing is by working on your 'sexual mindfulness' - i.e. the ability to avoid judging yourself or your partner during a sexual encounter.
  • Sensate focus can help you develop sexual mindfulness and increase your sexual wellbeing. 
Dr Kat says: Go get some! Sexual wellbeing is a critical yet overlooked component of overall happiness, and optimal functioning. It’s also one of the few domains in life where psychology and physiology come together to have a big impact on your day to day life.

Before we get to an explanation of sexual wellbeing, it's worth taking a quick look at the definition of sexual health, because it's not just about STIs and birth control, and it's not even just about individual health - it affects the public health, too. In fact, in 2006 the World Health Organisation proposed a new definition of sexual health as ‘not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity’, but rather ‘a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality’. (1) In other words, sexual health touches every aspect of our lives, existing at the intersection of our individual psychology and biology, our family histories, as well as the health of our relationships and our wider socio-cultural context.

Sexual wellbeing, on the other hand, can be thought of as Sexual Health+. What this means is that your sexual wellbeing is less to do with the actual biological health of your individual body, and more to do with the quality of your sexual relationships, the way you think and feel about your body and your sexuality, the kinds of sexual behaviors you're free to engage in (including the freedom not to engage in any sexual activity at all), and the kinds of restrictions in your society that hold you back from the kind of sex life you want to lead. There's some debate in the academic community about how, exactly, to define sexual wellbeing, and wellbeing in general is a tricky concept to pin down given how much it can vary within and between communities, but a current study by Kirstin Mitchell and colleagues suggested the following seven attributes to sexual wellbeing: (2)

  • Sexual safety and security
    • Being able to express your sexuality freely, within healthy relationships that are trusting, safe, and coercion-free, and not worrying about your future sex life. Freedom from violence and abuse.
  • Sexual respect
    • Having your sexual orientation, preferences, and identity accepted by those around you, and by the wider community.
  • Sexual self-esteem
    • Feeling good about your body sexually, feeling in control of your sexual thoughts and desires, as well as being able to relate sexually to yourself, and to a partner if you want to.
  • Resilience in relation to sexual experiences
    • Being able to remain balanced and composed if stressful or traumatic things happen in your sex life - the report calls this 'maintenance of equilibrium in response to sexual stress, dysfunctions, adversity or trauma.'
  • Forgiveness of past sexual experiences
    • Being able to forgive yourself for previous sexual mistakes, and being able to forgive others for things they have done to you in your past sex life.
  • Self-determination in one’s sex life
    • Being able to choose and reject any kinds of sexual behaviors, activities, partner(s), etc. that you do or don't want to engage with, free from pressure, force, or obligation.
  • Comfort with sexuality
    • Feeling comfortable, focused, and shame-free during sex, and in relation to your sexual identity, preferences, needs, wishes, and desires; being able to communicate these freely and pursue sexual pleasure.

Why is sexual wellbeing important? 

The short answer is: because it makes you happier! In a 2006 study, research across 29 different countries and 27,000 individuals showed that sexual wellbeing, especially physical and emotional sexual satisfaction, predicted higher levels of overall happiness. (3) This was especially true for women and older adults where lower sexual well-being suppressed their overall happiness. This research highlights the importance of focusing on sexual wellbeing as a way to improve overall happiness, and may be especially important for women. Not only this, but several studies show that optimal sexual health can lead to lifelong benefits including economic stability, accomplishment of life goals, longer life, better relationships, educational and employment opportunities, as well as overall life satisfaction.

What can I do to cultivate sexual wellbeing?

There are several things you can do to help cultivate sexual wellbeing, including communicating with your partner(s) about your sexual needs, wishes, and desires; creating intentional time and space to engage with yourself and your partner(s) in a sensual way; seeking out resources that can help you increase your sexual literacy and debunk the myths you might have learned about what sex is or should be; figuring out (either alone or with your partner(s)) what you do and don't like sexually; and accessing sex therapy if you're experiencing sexual dysfunction or just need some help with sexual or relationship issues.  

As well as all of the above, there's one thing that has been found to be uniquely associated with sexual wellbeing, which is 'sexual mindfulness', or the ability to avoid judging yourself or your partner during a sexual encounter. (4) The study, by Chelom E. Leavitt and colleagues, examined how sexual mindfulness affected individuals' sexual satisfaction, relational satisfaction, and self-esteem and found that, even for generally mindful individuals, sexual mindfulness, in particular, was associated with sexual wellbeing. This is because, even if you're mindful in your day to day life, for example, if you have a meditation practice, sexual encounters are generally more anxiety-inducing than other experiences because of the level of vulnerability required, so it makes sense that you would have to practice being mindful and cultivating non-judgment of experience specifically within a sexual context. 

Sensate Focus can help with sexual mindfulness

Sensate focus, and the mindful, non-judgmental attitude that it helps you to develop, is one of the most effective techniques used in sex therapy all over the world. It was designed to help reduce sexual anxiety by mindfully focusing your attention only on the sensations that you notice in your body (in terms of temperature, pressure, and texture), so that you can turn down the volume on your inner critic and allow your body to respond naturally. This approach doesn't ask you to love your body unconditionally, but rather to simply pay attention to it and respect it, as it is, without judgment. Like mindfulness, sensate focus also encourages you to let go of 'goals', which, in the case of sex, looks like reducing the centrality of penetrative sex and orgasm as the 'pinnacle' of sex, and instead prioritizing present-moment connection, pleasure, and sensuality.

(1) https://www.who.int/health-topics/sexual-health#tab=tab_2
(2) Mitchell, K. R., et al. (2021). 'What is sexual wellbeing and why does it matter for public health?' Lancet Public Health. 6: e608–13. Published Online, June 21, 2021. https://doi.org/10.1016/ S2468-2667(21)00099-2
(3) Laumann E. O., et al. (2006). 'A cross-national study of subjective sexual well-being among older women and men: findings from the Global Study of Sexual Attitudes and Behaviors'. Arch Sex Behav. 35(2):145-61. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10508-005-9005-3.
(4) Leavitt, C. E., et al. (2019). 'The role of sexual mindfulness in sexual wellbeing, relational wellbeing, and self-esteem'. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 45:6. pp. 497-509, DOI: 10.1080/0092623X.2019.1572680
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