The intricate relationship between our mental states, our bodies, and how society perceives human sexuality remains an overlooked facet of sexual and reproductive health, however, psychology experts say our understanding of mental wellbeing deeply influences our approach to sexuality and sexual health.
Emerita Malanguka, a seasoned clinical psychologist at the Care2Mind practice in Windhoek, delves into the mind-body connection within the context of sexuality and mental health. She highlights that the mind-body connection is not merely the coexistence of two distinct entities but rather a complex interplay involving thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.
Historically, society has prioritized the physical over the mental, leaving this connection shrouded in mystery. According to Malanguka, we are conditioned from childhood to focus on visible injuries and illnesses, relegating the mind’s role to the background. This emphasis on the physical extends to our sexual experiences, where the mind’s influence often goes unacknowledged.
“Consequently, the mind becomes a concealed force driving our actions, particularly in sexual experiences and pleasure.
“Furthermore, the primary sexual organ is made to be this hidden thing. There’s a huge culture around hiding and not talking about it. Our cultures really don’t allow us to talk about it,” she says.
Malanguka notes there is a pervasive culture of silence around discussing sexual organs, sexual desires, experiences, and even traumas, perpetuating the stigma associated with these topics as they relate to sexual health.
Esther Awuku, a clinical psychologist at the Ministry of Health and Social Services, emphasizes that research demonstrates a close intertwining of emotions and physical sensations. Emotions impact physical well-being, and emotional wellness profoundly affects sexual health.
“So ultimately, being mentally fit or healthy plays a role in the sexual health of individuals,” she explains.
This raises a critical question: How does our understanding, or lack thereof, of the mind-body connection influence our relationship with sexuality and sexual and reproductive health issues?
Malanguka points out that specific cases addressing sexual health concerns are rare, often concealed under broader issues such as marital discord or mental health conditions like anxiety and depression.
Depression, anxiety, and other underlying issues often masquerade as presenting problems. Research citing the work of Helen Singer Kaplan, considered a leader among scientific-oriented sex therapists, suggests that 25% of individuals diagnosed with sexual aversion disorder also have a panic disorder.
The (Narrow) Lens of Sexual Health
According to Malanguka, despite the pivotal role of sexual experiences in mental well-being, discussions about this relationship remain largely unspoken. The reluctance to engage in these conversations can be attributed to societal taboos, cultural norms mandating silence, and the scarcity of safe spaces for open dialogue.
A 2007 publication by the Legal Assistance Centre titled ‘Unravelling Taboos: Gender and Sexuality in Namibia’ sheds light on this. In his chapter, “Past and Present Practices: Sexual Development in Namibia,” Philippe Talavera describes the evolving attitudes towards gender and sexuality through interviews with three generations in northern Namibia.
He uncovers a historical backdrop of silence and taboo surrounding sex, where even basic knowledge on topics like menstruation and wet dreams was withheld from young people.
He concludes that despite increased access to information, discussions around sex remain hushed, hindering a comprehensive understanding.
To tackle this, Malanguka says it is necessary to challenge established mindsets and identifies critical psychological mechanisms, including self-esteem, self-acceptance, freedom of expression, sense of belonging, and the power of positive sexual experiences as mechanisms to do so.
“Your image of yourself, your interaction with yourself, self-acceptance, being comfortable in your skin is a huge part of sexuality, sexual health, and the overall sexual experience, and it’s something that we need to work with. That’s a big part of actually working towards better sexual experiences,” she says.
Malanguka advocates for open conversations within families, schools, and communities to foster healthier mindsets from a young age.
“By empowering individuals in this way, we create an environment where healthy sexual experiences, sexual health, and mental well-being can flourish,” she adds.
As Malanguka aptly suggests, societal change necessitates a collective effort to shift the paradigm, dismantle the silence, and pave the way for happier individuals who recognize the inherent connection between sexuality, sexual health, and mental well-being.
Suffering in Silence
From Awuku’s experience, societal norms influence how individuals perceive their sexuality and contribute to diverse experiences. She says societal expectations around gender roles, for instance, can silence conversations around sexuality.
Awuku supports the importance of creating safe therapeutic spaces for discussing cultural differences. She adds that normalizing sexual feelings and behaviors is crucial for fostering open conversations about sexual experiences and improving overall well-being.
“This approach allows individuals to share their experiences openly and without fear of judgment. Breaking down taboos and disseminating accurate information are crucial steps toward fostering a healthier mindset,” she adds.
Awuku says education and awareness campaigns hold the power to dismantle stigmas and encourage open conversations about sexual and mental well-being, and underscores the importance of normalizing sexual health and wellness through such campaigns.
“Sexual health issues are common and affect many people. It is important to discuss the relationship between sexual health and mental health and how unpleasant sexual experiences, sexual trauma, and sexual dysfunction can affect one’s mental health,” she explains.
Awuku stresses that open communication is paramount to fostering a healthier mindset towards sexual and mental health. She says silence begets shame and anxiety.
“There is nothing wrong or shameful about speaking openly about this. Speaking about your sexual experiences encourages dialogue, which then helps in destigmatizing sexual-related topics and in turn improves sexual and physical health,” she adds.
The Way Forward
To develop a comprehensive understanding of human sexuality and mental wellness, society must challenge the silence, redefine mindsets, and prioritize conversations that empower individuals to embrace their sexual experiences and mental health as integral aspects of their well-being, the two clinical psychologists agree.
Arlana is a seasoned journalist dedicated to amplifying underrepresented voices and promoting narratives that drive change. She has tackled a range of topics, from health and environment to social justice, advocacy, education, and politics. She describes her craft as ‘painting with words’. Follow her on Twitter (X): @_pandulana
Image credit: Hildegard Titus