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Sexuality, Gender and Health


Sexuality, Gender and Health

Providing information and choice about equality in sexuality, gender and relationships.

Simon Forrest is a Professor in the Institute of Health and Society. He has been researching, teaching and engaged in practice and activism on issues around sex, sexuality, gender and health for 30 years.

Social Justice: Sexuality, Gender and Health. A Pride march; balloon sculptures spelling out 'PRIDE'.
"I came to thinking about gender, sexuality and health in the 1990s, like many people, because of the emergence of HIV/AIDS."

The HIV/AIDS crisis

Simon recalls the 1990s as a period in which a very intellectually diverse group of people came together with communities most affected by HIV/AIDS. They joined in concerted action spanning:

  • drug development
  • developing treatment and care
  • understanding risk
  • the complexity of personal, social, cultural and political aspects
  • community mobilisation and political activism to act in the face of a new, poorly understood, and – for many people – terrible crisis

This work continues.

HIV/AIDS and social justice

The idea of social justice was and is always in the foreground with HIV/AIDS. It was clear that prejudice, discrimination, political and social "othering" were increasing vulnerability and suffering. Hence, we have to tackle unfairness and inequalities embedded in social, cultural, legal and other structures and institutions. By thinking through social justice as kind of lens, we could generate ideas about how to act.

Simon recalled, "This was often an experience of thinking about social justice because of injustice which was red and raw.

"It made me think about how people I saw and met, worked with and taught, were linked as individuals to the structural and cultural aspects around us that shape, contain, constrain us."

"It has never been truer that personal experience and the political, social and cultural are linked inextricably in work on gender, sexualities and health."

Positive promotion of sexuality and gender identity

Simon's work since has been underpinned by these experiences and that learning.

"I work a lot in Sex and Relationships Education research. This is extremely important for public health and the prevention of HIV/AIDS, as well as other ill-health associated with sexual risk and vulnerability. But it is also about more. It's also about promoting safe and pleasurable sexual practice and a sense of positive sexuality and gender identity for people."

It is a field in which evidence is very important. Understanding what works (and what doesn't) in educating children and young people, what doesn’t and why, remain central questions. But there is a strong rights-based dimension.

This often draws on the UN Declaration on Human Rights and the principles that people have a right to:

  • personal freedoms of expression
  • identity from exploitation
  • access to health information and education that enables them to make informed choices

"It is not only helpful but also necessary to always think of our work with evidence about rights, and hence social justice."

We do not intervene in people’s lives in our research and education. We must do the work with clarity about our principles, as well as academic questions.

Social Justice: Gender, Sexuality and Relationships. LGBT march in Dublin, people carrying banners and rainbow umbrellas.

Influencing policy and culture

There are some excellent examples of how research and activism has influenced policy and, in turn, impacted culture and people’s experience of their sexuality, gender and health. For instance, recent research in best practice in sex and relationship education suggests changes that have made a positive difference to young people include:

  • laws equalising ages of consent
  • legalising civil partnerships
  • recognising same-sex relationships as equal

But they remain frustrated that the sex education we give them has not yet caught up with these changes.

This is one of new challenges. How do we translate the cultural shift in value around sex, sexuality and gender into the education that we provide to children and young people?

"I look forward to continuing to be part of that project. It is this kind of call and potential to effect change, to extend to social justice that excites and energises me."

Universities are vital in effecting change. We have the capacity and freedom to get alongside our friends, colleagues and fellow citizens to make it happen.