Sexuality

Sexual Health and Identity

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How can I make sense of what I am feeling?

What is sexual health and why is positive sexual health important?

Do you feel confused or unsupported when it comes to your sexual identity?

Sexual health is important for everyone’s physical and psychological well-being. Having positive sexual health involves not only looking after your physical well-being, but also includes the right to healthy and respectful relationships, access to health services that are safe and inclusive, and living your life free from discrimination, stigma, coercion and violence. Sometimes the negative events we experience can create barriers to positive sexual health, impact our self-esteem, and prompt internal conflict, having a detrimental effect on our psychological well-being.

Your sexual identity, whether you identify as straight, lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, gender diverse, non-binary, or something else, is a very personal part of who you are, and understanding and navigating your sexual identity can be a confusing and difficult time for some people. Sometimes it can be hard to identify and/or describe how we are feeling, what that means for us, and how we fit in the world. Other times it can feel like our feelings and internal thoughts conflict with our values or what we know. It can be hard to know how to make sense of what it is that you are feeling. Allowing yourself to have an environment to explore your personal feelings, experiences and desires, that makes you feel safe and supported, is an important step to maintaining positive sexual health. Understanding, and self-acceptance, of who you are is an integral part of looking after you.

Self-worth and Mental Health

 

Do you struggle with how you feel about yourself?

Is your internal chatter stopping you from leading a full life?

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Our self-worth can be challenged by our internal conflicts, negatively impacting our mental health. Self-worth is how you feel about yourself and who you are as a person, and can elicit strong, and sometimes difficult, feelings of pride, guilt, shame, achievement and/or defeat. Forcing ourselves to reconcile competing values, or listening to our internal judgements, can negatively impact our self-worth. However, listening to and acknowledging our own personal experiences, thoughts and emotions without judgement, can provide us with the validation we need to help ourselves move closer to self-acceptance and therefore improving our self-worth.

Sometimes we have a picture in our minds of how we are supposed to be. This picture about your ideal self can be influenced by the opinions your friends, family and social groups, as well as by how you are treated by society. It can sometimes be tough to reconcile how we are feeling with the competing opinions that we are faced with. Having thoughts, feelings or behaviours that do not meet the ideals or standards that we set for ourselves can often cause internal conflict between ‘what we think we should be’ versus ‘what we think we are’. This can lead to challenges with self-worth and self-acceptance, which increases your vulnerability to depression, anxiety and/or engaging in unhelpful behaviours [1]. Understanding the internal chatter that leads to these thoughts and feelings can help us identify what contributes to the negative experiences in our lives. Learning how to positively challenge our unhelpful thoughts in a healthy way enables us to make meaningful change and improve our overall mental health.

Communicating and Educating family members

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Are you having difficulty talking to your loved ones about your sexuality?

Do you sometimes feel alone or misunderstood?

How can I talk to my loved ones when I don’t understand it myself?

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The thought of having open and honest conversations about your sexuality with your loved ones can bring up feelings of sadness, fear, anxiety, and judgement. Helping your loved ones understand an important part of who you are and how it makes you feel can elevate these unpleasant feelings. Although sometimes it is not easy to know what to say or how to bring it up. It is important to know you are not alone. A recent study has found almost 4 in 100 (3.7%) adolescents have identified as transsexual, gender diverse, or non-binary [2]. In Australia, almost 10%, 1 in 10 men, and 20%, 1 in 5 women, have reported having some history of same-sex attraction or experience [3], with almost 600,000 individuals (3.2% of the Australian adult population) identify as non-heterosexual [4].

Those who identify as lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, queer, gender diverse, and non-binary have significantly higher rates of mental health concerns (such as, suicide and suicidal thoughts, self-harm, depression, anxiety and psychological distress) than the reported rates within the wider community [5]. LBGTIQ+ individuals are often viewed in society as a singular group, so it is important to help people understand there are several distinct, and sometimes overlapping, sexual and gender identities that are faced with their own set of histories, experiences and health needs.

Establishing healthy relationships, creating positive boundaries and having informed conversations can help you feel more at ease when addressing these difficult topics, but learning how to do that can be challenging. Finding ways to describe your own experiences and how you’re feeling is important to helping your loved ones understand what you are going through and how best to help your needs.

Marginalisation, challenges and discrimination issues

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Have you experienced discrimination, harassment or violence because of your sexual identity?

Do you feel like you need to hide your sexual identity at school, community events, or work?

Facing discrimination is not a pleasant experience for anyone. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for LBGTQI+ individuals to experience discrimination, harassment or violence because of their sexual identity, with over half LBGTQI+ individuals reporting they hide their sexual identity in public out of fear [6]. These negative experiences can be stressful and leave us feeling hurt, vulnerable, depressed and/or anxious. Having someone that you trust, to talk through these experiences with, can help you develop a strong sense of self, despite the pressures of society, and strategies to help you improve your self-esteem and confidence to better deal with any challenges you may face.

The absence of discrimination does not always mean there is acceptance or understanding, it is also important to feel supported. Being actively supported in your community can make you feel heard, understood, and less isolated or alone. Seeking help to find the right support, or access to appropriate health services, is an important step in improving your overall mental health. It can sometimes be hard to know how to stand up for yourself, however gaining the confidence to assertively communicate your personal boundaries and individual needs to others in your school, community or workplace, can reduce your experiences of discrimination, harassment and/or isolation.

Relationships, social inclusion and same-sex parenting

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The relationship issues faced by LBGTQI+ individuals are not dissimilar to other personal or romantic relationships. However, as a LBGTQI+ couple or family, the current social climate can make it difficult for you to feel comfortable within society, adding extra challenges and stressors to navigate. These could involve stigma, prejudice, discrimination, harassment and/or social isolation, resulting in unpleasant emotions, experiences or mental health concerns.

As in all relationships, children add an extra layer of complexity. In addition to this, as a LBGTQI+ family you now not only worry about the impact of stigma and discrimination on yourself, but also how this will impact your children. When and how do you tell your child about your relationship and prepare them for what they may experience? How do you protect your child against the negative experiences they may have? It is only natural to be concerned about how your relationship, and society’s judgements, will affect your child’s upbringing, mental health and social relationships. At times the intensity of our worry and overwhelm that can come with these challenges can make it hard to feel like we are making the right choices. Looking after your own mental health, through social and emotional support, will help you to be more available and authentic in your relationship with your partner and children, allowing you to feel more capable to face the challenges of parenting together.

References

[1] Egan, S. K., & Perry, D. G. (2001). Gender identity: a multidimensional analysis with implications for psychosocial adjustment. Developmental psychology37, 451. doi: 10.1037//0012-1649.37.4.451

[2] Clark, T. C., Lucassen, M. F., Bullen, P., Denny, S. J., Fleming, T. M., Robinson, E. M., & Rossen, F. V. (2014). The health and well-being of transgender high school students: results from the New Zealand adolescent health survey (Youth'12). Journal of Adolescent Health55, 93-99. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2013.11.008

[3] Richters, J., Altman, D., Badcock, P. B., Smith, A. M., de Visser, R. O., Grulich, A. E., ... & Simpson, J. M. (2014). Sexual identity, sexual attraction and sexual experience: the Second Australian Study of Health and Relationships. Sexual Health, 11, 451-460. doi: 10.1071/SH14117

[4] Wilson, T., & Shalley, F. (2018). Estimates of Australia’s non-heterosexual population. Australian Population Studies, 2, 26-38. Retrieved from http://www.australianpopulationstudies.org/index.php/aps/article/view/23

[5] National LGBTI Health Alliance. (2016). Snapshot of mental health and suicide prevention statistics for LBGTI people. Retrieved from https://lgbtihealth.org.au/statistics/

[6] The Australian Human Rights Commission. (2014). Face the Facts: Lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and intersex people. Sydney, NSW.