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Home Sexual Health Sexual Health The Search for Sexual Health

The Search for Sexual Health

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Article Index
The Search for Sexual Health
Living in the Theme Park
Sex and the Wet Spot
A New Definition of Health
Closing the Theme Park
All Pages

For the past few years at the American Social Health Association, we’ve been working to expand our work from a strict focus on sexually transmitted infections (STIs) to a broader sexual health approach. While we remain committed to providing education, support and advocacy on the subject of STIs, we think this work can only be enahnced by working in a broader sexual health framework with an emphasis on healthly sexuality, free from stigma. To this end, in this issue we are reprinting a piece from The Helper originally published in the Spring 1996. The piece has real resonance today as we work toward a true defintion of what it means to be sexually healthly. “The Search for Sexual Health” is based on the keynote address at ASHA’s Canadian HELP Group Conference in June Richard Keeling, MO, is director of University Health Services and professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Genital herpes means something. Meaning is shaped by attitudes, assumptions, and values—forces that create the environment within which people experience herpes. Meaning is both social and cultural and intensely personal; it evokes an understanding not only of what has happened, but why it did.

Even referring to genital herpes as a disease invokes meaning: Disease means disorder, abnormality, imperfection. There is, of course, an enormous framework of meaning around sexual transmission in a culture as fascinated and frightened of sexuality as ours, and as determinedly judgmental about relationships. All of these elements of meaning, and more, create the context of our caring for people with genital herpes. We cannot work to manage herpes out of context; it is a problem in meaning and health, not just a diagnosis.

This "big picture" view of genital herpes challenges us to think about our services—and their meaning— differently. In doing so, we might explore answers to several basic questions: First, whose body is it, anyway? Second, what is health about, and who defines it? Third, what difference does it make that an infection was sexually transmitted? And fourth, is a disease what I have, or who I am?

The experience of genital herpes, in context, might feel like what Emily Dickinson described as the “bandaged moments" of the soul. Dickinson, the reclusive poet of Amherst, Massachusetts, lived a life as rich and colorful in its spiritual detail—and as desperately sensitive, to meaning and context—as it was unremarkable in its demographics and quiet in its conduct. I don't cite her terse, dense poetry because it was written about genital herpes, but because it was written about the human experience, and about coping and managing in loneliness, isolation, and adversity.

The Soul has Bandaged
When too appalled to stir—
She feels some ghastly Fright
come up
And stop to look at her—

That genital herpes can be such a bandaged moment in the soul speaks of meaning, not microbiology. It feels disordered and imperfect, and we, in this society, are supposed to be perfect—well adjusted, community-minded, concerned, rested, and thoughtful. We should live traditional lives in traditional families with traditional values, striving, improving, getting better, going west, making money, achieving.

This version of life as a kind of greeting card, colored in soft pastels and graced with reassuring words, bears about as much resemblance to our real lives as Disney World, Epcot Center, Euro Disney, or Busch Gardens have to real countries. But people like theme parks: They seem somehow ideal.


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