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Sexual Health and Development

What Is Sexual Health?

Often when we speak of adolescents, sex, and sexuality, we focus on what adults don't want young people to do. But sexuality is a normal, positive, and lifelong aspect of health and well-being, and it encompasses more than our particular behaviors. Healthy adolescent sexual development involves not only bodily changes, sexual behaviors, and new health care needs, it also involves building emotional maturity, relationship skills, and healthy body image.

What does it mean to be a sexually healthy adolescent?

The New York State Department of Health's Adolescent Sexual Health Work Group offers this answer:

"A sexually healthy adolescent is able to realize his/her individual potential around critical developmental tasks related to sexuality. These tasks include: accepting his/her body, gender identity and sexual orientation; communicating effectively with family, peers and partners; possessing accurate knowledge of human anatomy and physiology; understanding the risks, responsibilities, outcomes and impacts of sexual actions; possessing the skills needed to take action to reduce his/her risk; knowing how to use and access the health care system and other community institutions to seek information and services as needed; setting appropriate sexual boundaries; acting responsibly according to his/her personal values; and forming and maintaining meaningful, healthy relationships" [1].

Put another way, a sexually healthy adolescent — or adult — could say:

This is what it takes for me to be sexually healthy:

  • I am comfortable with my body and my sexuality.
  • I can talk effectively with my peers, family, and partners.
  • I know my body and how it functions.
  • I understand the risks, responsibilities, and consequences of sexual behavior.
  • I am able to recognize risks and ways to reduce them.
  • I know how to access and use health care services and information.
  • I am able to set boundaries when it comes to sex and sexual relationships.
  • I act responsibly according to my personal values.
  • I am able to form and maintain healthy relationships.

WHO Definition of Sexual Health

The World Health Organization defines sexual health as "a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality; it is not merely the absence of disease, dysfunction or infirmity. Sexual health requires a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination and violence. For sexual health to be attained and maintained, the sexual rights of all persons must be respected, protected and fulfilled."


  1. New York State Department of Health: Guiding Principles for Sexual Health Education for Young People: A Guide for Community-Based Organizations