I’m not gonna mince words here — the UBC Wellness Centre’s website is a great resource on sexuality. Scroll through to the bottom of their page and you’ll find sensible advice on everything from masturbation to communication. The usual cautionary disclaimers about STIs and contraception are close to the bottom, followed immediately by stome stuff on what it means to be in a healthy relationship, and the page concludes with a pile of sex-positive resources.
This has not always been the case. Last spring, the page listed information on consent, STIs, contraception, sexual assault and not much else. The update is nothing short of a paradigm shift: going from a harm-reduction model to a sex-positive one. So how did this happen?
To find out, I spoke to Patty Hambler, director of Health Promotion and Education at UBC and Amanda Unruh, Health Promotion Specialist of the same organization. This new unit works to promote student well being and its name parallels its mandate: to promote and educate about health on campus.
About a year ago, students.ubc.ca moved to a new platform, giving them a chance to look at the site more closely. Between that and the fact that the sexual health page was getting a lot of traffic compared to other pages, it became a catalyst to change the message from the cautionary advice you hear in sex ed courses for kids who can't even say the word, to the sex-positive attitude you’ll find at the wellness centre in person.
So why a sex-positive approach? And what does that even mean? As Unruh pointed out, it’s not about what the words mean separately.
“So sex positivity does not mean that somebody has to have sex, or that sex is necessarily a part of someone's experience. It’s an approach that looks at sex as something that can be part of someone’s experience if they choose for it to be.” In other words, it’s a non-judgemental approach that recognizes that sex, in all its variations or lack thereof, is just a part of human life.
Of course, any philosophy has its criticisms, and sex positivity is no exception. Like many other social movements, the people it’s most likely to help are already in a place of privilege. What’s more, it can play into pre-existing exploitative narratives, prude-shaming people who want to abstain from sex, or certain kinds of sex. But the solution is simple: being conscious and critical in our discussions, and that’s something the Wellness Centre knows.
“Work around consent and healthy relationships and communication ... has always been part of the work that we’ve done out of the wellness centre,” said Unruh.
“Prevention efforts and education efforts around sexual violence has definitely become more important in terms of our campus wide conversation ... so in our work, we’re just thinking about how we can ensure that, as we’re educating students about sexual health issues, we’re also always including those messages about consent and communication and healthy relationships as part of the conversation,” Hambler added.
They also work in tandem with the Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC), which focuses more on assault support. In a way, the two groups embody the two frameworks: harm reductive and sex-positive — in other words, avoiding hurt and pursuing pleasure. And that pleasure is important.
We’ve got evidence that sex has the potential to boost your immune system, reduce your risk for heart disease and release a whole slew of feel-good neurochems that can combat pain. Interestingly, a lot of the effects of a healthy sex life are exactly the same as the effects of healthy stress levels. Looking at sex from a harm-reduction paradigm completely overlooks those aspects. This isn’t news to the people over at Health Promotion and Education.
“We recognize that sexuality and sexual health is part of people’s life experience and it’s part of their well being, and self-care is a part of that,” said Unruh. “Whether you’re having sex or not.”
According to Hambler, they employ “a holistic perspective, recognizing that that well being is multidimensional ... and human sexuality is one of the pieces that cuts across many of the different aspects.”
She’s got a point. It’s time we started recognizing the real potential that good sex has for seriously improving your mental, emotional and physical life. That means we need to stop talking about it exclusively in terms of STIs threats, pregnancy scares and other critical-level scenarios. It can boost your mental, physical, and emotional health, not just threaten them.
“A lot of people on campus are thinking about well being, and how important it is for students to be able to be successful at university. There is an investment in services for students, but we’re also thinking about prevention and a more upstream health promotion approach,” said Hambler.
So what does this mean on an individual basis? Lots of stuff. All of it personal.
Maybe you’re starting from a place of anxiety, and want to come to peace with things. Maybe it means thinking about how sex improves your life outside of the momentary ecstasy of an orgasm. Maybe it allows you to express something that you can’t easily in your day-to-day. Or maybe it just blows off stress more effectively than your average guided meditation.
It’s worth thinking about sex as a source of wellness, rather than a threat to it. At the end of the day, sex isn’t junk food, or alcohol, or a million other empty indulgences.