What’s in a Name? A lot, when it comes to sexual and reproductive health

By Katie Howland

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At a time when 40 percent of young girls in low-resource countries are child brides, we should be asking better questions than whether or not our diplomats should be able to say the word “sex”. Unfortunately, this is the topic of a policy proposal currently making its way through the State Department to the desk of Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo. Among the policy’s reported recommendations: elimination of the terms “sexual and reproductive health” and “comprehensive sexuality education”. The concern underlying these proposed changes is that the use of the word “sex” promotes abortions or sexually promiscuous behavior.

In reality, numerous studies – including from the Journal of Marriage and Family and Health Psychology Review – suggest that not talking about sex during education programs put individuals at an increased risk of both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). But the risk of restricting sexuality conversations goes far further than pregnancy and STIs. The term “sexual and reproductive health” (SRH) is an umbrella term used by the World Health Organization to address topics ranging from cervical cancer to female genital mutilation, from stillbirths to sexual violence.

At a time of pressing global health challenges, we should be asking better questions than how to linguistically maneuver our way around the word “sex”. We should be asking how to protect the 1 million people who acquire a sexually transmitted infection every day. We should be asking why we have 570,000 new cases of cervical cancer this year when we have a viable vaccine against human papillomavirus. We should be seeking every tool, resource, and strategy available to empower clinicians to protect the health and dignity of women worldwide. We should be talking about sex – frankly and without shame – in an effort to dispel myths and impart life-changing knowledge.

We should be asking how to protect the 1 million people who acquire a sexually transmitted infection every day.

By stymieing our diplomats’ and aid workers’ vocabulary on this topic, we project a fear of honest, open conversation about natural biological processes. We signal to the world that sex is not something to be understood but to be feared. We relegate critical conversations about sexual and gender-based violence into vocabulary debates. Language has great power and our bodies are not something worthy of shame-riddled verbal gymnastics.  

At The Unmentionables, we know the power of information when it comes to protecting the sexual health and dignity of displaced people worldwide. We will continue to serve the sexual and reproductive health needs of this population; our collective health and humanity depend on it.    


Katie Howland is a global health advocate specializing in humanitarian settings. In addition to developing robust monitoring and evaluation systems at The Unmentionables, Katie is the Founder and Executive Director of Millie's Bookshelf, a nonprofit that distributes secondhand books to refugee settings. She has previously worked as a global health lobbyist for the United Nations Foundation, managed a ten-country midwifery training program in sub-Saharan Africa, and served in the Obama White House under Vice President Joe Biden.

Daniel Berberi