Butte-Silver Bow Health Department

The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department is located at 25 W. Front St.

Montana’s Title X health educators have selected February as the month they want to talk more about sexual health. Our own health educators at the Butte-Silver Bow Health Department, Katie Smith and Stephanie Garcia, were out and about on Valentine’s Day, distributing condoms to a variety of sites and talking frankly and honestly to people about sexual health.

Good for them, and good for the fact that we take February every year — Sexual Health Awareness Month — as a time to talk more about this important subject.

Smith is the manager of the Health Department’s Title X Family Planning Clinic, and oversees the department’s Personal Responsibility Education Program (PREP), a program that teaches our region’s sixth-graders, middle-schoolers and early high-schoolers about personal responsibility in relation to sexual health. Garcia assists Smith in these endeavors.

For me, this year’s Sexual Health Awareness Month takes on special meaning, given the nation’s Me Too movement, a recent national grassroots endeavor that has illustrated widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

According to the American Sexual Health Association (http://www.ashasexualhealth.org/), being sexually healthy means “recognizing and respecting the sexual rights we all share.” Adds ASHA, “It’s … about open communication, acceptance of individual differences and having realistic expectations and an understanding of sexuality. It’s about life, love, relationships and the freedom of sexual expression. It’s about what’s going on in your head, what you think and feel, and how you relate this to others. It’s about safety, pleasure and respect.”

I could make this entire column about how sexual health is not about grabbing someone without their consent. Let’s leave that messaging to the annual women’s marches in January, when demonstrators wear pink pussy hats as a measure of disgust and protest.

No, let’s focus mostly on what makes a relationship healthy. According to the Love is Respect web site (http://www.loveisrespect.org/), healthy relationships include communication, boundaries and boosters.

“Open, honest and safe communication is a fundamental part of a healthy relationship,” according to the Love is Respect site. This includes speaking up when something is bothering you, respecting each other, compromising, being supportive, and respecting each other’s privacy. “Just because you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean you have to share everything and constantly be together,” says the site. “Healthy relationships require space.”

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Boundaries, says the site, are “a good way to keep your relationship healthy and secure. By setting boundaries together, you can both have a deeper understanding of the type of relationship that you and your partner want. Boundaries are not meant to make you feel trapped or like you’re walking on eggshells. Creating boundaries is not a sign of secrecy or distrust — it’s an expression of what makes you feel comfortable and what you would like or not like to happen within the relationship.”

And, says the site, every relationship needs a boost — “you may need a boost if you feel disconnected from your partner or like the relationship has gotten stale. If so, find a fun, simple activity you both enjoy, like going on a walk, and talk about the reasons why you want to be in the relationship.” The web site says this is true as well for people who are not in a relationship. “The relationship you can always boost up,” says the site, “is the one you have with yourself.”

The site illustrates what makes a relationship unhealthy. Put simply, “relationships that are not healthy are based on power and control, not equality and respect.” Those who suspect that they are in an unhealthy relationship, says the site, need to understand that an abusive partner can change only if they want to. Those who are in an unhealthy relationship need to focus on their own needs, connect with support systems and think about breaking up.

These are the subjects we talk to the region’s kids about in our PREP classes. These are the subjects we talk to many of our Family Planning patients about in our clinic.

Happy Sexual Health Awareness Month. In the context of healthy relationships and healthy sexual relationships, everyone deserves comfort and safety.

Me too.

(For a variety of commentary and opinion on the national Me Too movement, please visit @Twitter and #MeToo.)

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Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.


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