Two out of five EU citizens face sexual dysfunction during their lifetime. Yet, far more than for any other type of illness, the public remains mostly unaware, and patients are subject to stigma. European policymakers and regulators need to start talking about human sexuality and push for higher standards in the field of sexology. It’s time to talk about sex, EU!
Structural discrimination of sexology as a health care profession is still pervasive, whether in legislation or rehabilitation efforts. Akin to mental health, sexual health remains a taboo in the public debate. Why the taboo prevails is always hard to explain in full. Meanwhile, the lack of open discussion about sexual health prevents the matter from being placed on the public health agenda and hampers patient safety.
According to the World Health Organization and scientific data, sexual health contributes to overall and individual psychological health, well-being, and quality of life. Sexual dysfunction cause significant distress and have a negative impact on self-esteem, mood, the partner relationship and work performance. Discussing more openly and studying sexual function and dysfunction has also shown to improve acceptance of sexual minorities. Not to mention the collateral benefits in terms of STD prevention and avoidance of unwanted pregnancies. Sexual issues are sometimes also like the canary in the coal mine. They are often the first symptoms heralding more significant health issues (e.g. diabetes or heart diseases).
The scientific study of human sexuality is a new matter that originated in the aftermath of the 1960s ‘sexual revolution’. Today, sexology is at the crossroads of several academic fields, including biology, medicine, psychology, epidemiology, and sociology. Due to a multidisciplinary approach, the profession tackles the biological, psychological, and social aspects of human sexual behaviour and sexuality.
Sexology is a growing field with more than 2,000 practitioners in Europe. There is an increasing number of academic institutions delivering degree programmes at undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate levels. However, regulation has not managed to keep up. For example, there is still no recognized standard on the curriculum required to perform this healthcare practice.
Sweeping differences remain across the European Union. While some Member States legally recognise the practice (notably Austria and Croatia) by setting standards and requirements for practitioners, others do not even mention the profession in their health-related legislation. The lack of recognition (or even protection) of sexology fuels inconsistent practices across the Single Market. In some Member States, individuals who never studied neither medicine nor psychology can call themselves sexologists and ‘treat’ patients. From a policy standpoint, this a triple let-down:
The lack of open discussion about sexual health prevents the matter from being placed on the public health agenda and hampers patient safety.
In January 2019, the European Society for Sexual Medicine (ESSM) relocated to Brussels. With vision of Sexual Health to Everyone, ESSM aims to facilitate a structured and constructive dialogue about sexual health in Europe and secure the recognition of the profession and protection of the public. ESSM represents 34 national societies of sexologists and 1,800 professionals across Europe.
ESSM promotes research in the field of sexology, through funding and best-practice exchange among practitioners, to continuously improve the effectiveness and quality of treatments and has established EU-wide education program and training requirements to prevent malpractice and ensure patient safety.
Their top priorities are to:
According to Dr.Cobi Reisman, President ESSM, “sexual health is a gatekeeper of our overall health, well-being, safety and quality of life and as such must be placed high on the EU agenda”.
The taboo around sexual health remains the most significant barrier to proper care. Politicians must join the conversation about sexual health and respond to real needs with adequate health policies.
Indeed, fostering dialogue about sexual health could lay the ground for the establishment of an EU-wide minimum training requirement for sexology practice. In turn, it would lead to improved quality of care, quicker diagnoses and better treatments for all.