Talking Sex & Health with Dr. Noelle Pomeroy
“Sex is a big question mark. It is something people will talk about forever.”
It’s World Sexual Health Awareness Month, sponsored by the American Sexual Health Association (ASHA). When thinking sexual health, most of us think sexually transmitted diseases. But there’s so much more to it! WHO 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.”
Dare you to say that in one breath. To get a deeper understanding of this 75-word definition, I met with Jacksonville’s sex expert Dr. Noelle Pomeroy, a Clinical Sexologist and Licensed Mental Health Counselor, in her charming Mandarin office — the kind of place in which you want to kick off your shoes and wear out your welcome. Here’s what she shared with me on the topic:
Would you say sexual health is overlooked as compared to other areas of health care? Why?
Absolutely. Very few providers ask, How is your sex life? I think, too, that people are afraid to be open about their sex lives, even with their own partners, let alone bringing it up to someone you see once a year. It’s really uncomfortable.
How does one know if they are sexually healthy or sexually unhealthy, for that matter?
It comes down to perspective; I think people have a pretty good idea. Some of it can also be about expectations. But if you have the potential for harming another person or you just don’t feel like your needs are being met, maybe you’re sexually unhealthy or dissatisfied. If you spend a lot of time worrying about it, questioning yourself, searching for answers; if you find yourself worrying about it more than you do your normal problems; if you feel like it’s affecting your mood; if you feel lots of anxiety, sadness, or depression about something in relation to your sexuality, then you need to talk to someone about it.
Some of the time it’s just a matter of adjusting someone’s expectations. Couples come in and have only been married for a couple years and are having sex two or three times a week, but think they’re supposed to be having sex nightly. And I say, “Whose expectation is that?” Once they have permission to set their own expectations, things can get better quickly.
What sexual health issues do you encounter most, here, in the Jacksonville area?
The people I see in private practice are not necessarily representative for all of Jacksonville. There are people whose needs are much more medically based, like disorders or infections that need managing. The people I see need a safe place to be. They need safe relationships. There may be domestic violence. Those things are definitely out there and do exist in Jacksonville. I see a lot of transgender individuals who are trying to transition. I see a lot of people who are dissatisfied with their sex life, because they’re not having enough of it or they’re having a dysfunction of some sort. Their body does not operate the way they understand their body can; I try to work with them on that. There are a lot of people trying to figure out how to navigate the dating world. For people who were single 25 years ago and are single again, it’s like they landed on Mars. Before singles met someone at a church, bar, restaurant, or party, and now singles can swipe right or swipe left.
On the center’s blog you wrote about how avoiding “the talk” with your kids can cause them stress. Is there something parents should do, say, or keep in mind when considering the sexual health of their kids?
When it comes to kids and sexual health, the first thing is to forget about how you had it. That’s how you had it in the era you grew up in. We live in a world now where our kids have access to infinite amounts of information. As parents, it’s our responsibility to make sure that kids have the correct information.
It’s good to look at how old kids are and what they need to know. The first time you talk to your kids, ideally, is about boundaries at age 3 or 4. Explain that the only people who can touch you in certain areas are doctors and the people who are taking care of you. That’s it. That’s a sexual health discussion and it kind of continues from there. If you start them young, it doesn’t have to be an embarrassing conversation. Not that they’re going to love it, but it needs to be an ongoing dialogue.
Concerning long-term effects of not talking about sex, if the only message we give our kids is sex is bad until you’re married, but once you’re married have it all you want and that’s the only message they get … that does a number on people when they actually do get married. That transition is not simple. I see a lot of people — who have had that very strict, we don’t talk about it, it’s bad upbringing — get married and be completely clueless, terrified, and have all sorts of anxiety about it. I see a lot of those people. I understand there’s sometimes a cultural or religious aspect to it, but it’s still not that simple to transition and I do see the effects.
If someone were apprehensive about making an appointment to discuss sexual health issues, what would you say to them?
If I had to go talk to someone about my sex life, I’d be very nervous about it too. But all I can say is that people, who are appropriately trained to do this kind of thing, are open and can give you as comfortable as possible a place to talk about it. So I would just say if it’s bothering you, then give it a try. It’s going to be uncomfortable, but it might not be as bad as you think it’s going to be.
What do you hope is the takeaway from this month’s celebration?
That better things come from talking about it, rather than hiding it. And if we can understand that sexual health has the word health in it because it is a part of who we are as humans, then I would think that that’s a good start.
I am thankful to Dr. Pomeroy for granting me this interview, and for the very interesting and enlightening conversation. Maybe you have questions of your own, like How often is ‘often enough’? or Why can’t I orgasm? As World Sexual Health Awareness Month draws to a close, I encourage you to keep the conversation going — it’s only healthy!
Here’s What’s Happening Around Jacksonville:
River City Pride Parade, FREE
September 30, 3:30 PM
Boon Park, Jacksonville, contact 904-620-4720
Couples Relationship Skills Workshop, (must register)
October 1, 4:00 PM – 6:30 PM
Center for the Prevention of Health Disparities, Jacksonville, contact 904-255-7450
October 1, 11:00 AM – 5:00 PM
Riverside Arts Market, Jacksonville, contact 904-620-4720