What Is Health Literacy and Why Is It Important for Sexual Health?

What Is Health Literacy and Why Is It Important for Sexual Health?

Perhaps you have heard the term “health literacy” and wondered what it means. In August 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated the definition of health literacy to include both “personal” and “organizational” health literacy, which are defined as follows:

  • Personal health literacy is the degree to which individuals have the ability to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others (CDC, 2021).
  • Organizational health literacy is the degree to which organizations equitably enable individuals to find, understand, and use information and services to inform health-related decisions and actions for themselves and others (CDC, 2021).

Being able to fully understand health information and use it to make educated decisions is very important for a person’s overall health and well-being.

Unfortunately, health information is often shared with the public in the form of complicated descriptions with complex, scientific terms. For this reason, the CDC acknowledges the role of organizations in creating health resources and messaging that are relevant and easy for everyone to understand.

Health literacy is significant when it comes to sexual health. When people have access to important sexual health information that is easy to understand, they can make well-informed decisions for themselves in their sexual practices.

For example, a recent study of 781 female university students in Hong Kong showed that an online interactive sexual health literacy program at least temporarily helped improve the participants’ knowledge, attitudes, norms, and self-efficacy around condom use.

How can sexual health literacy improve sexual health?

Below are some of the ways that greater sexual health literacy could improve sexual health.

  • Having a good understanding of what sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are and how they can be passed from person to person may help individuals in deciding which sexual activities they are comfortable engaging in and with which sexual partner(s).
  • Knowing how to properly use condoms and dental dams can help people to feel confident when using safe sex practices to prevent against the spread of STIs.
  • Understanding the process of reproduction can help individuals take steps to prevent unwanted pregnancy with birth control methods like condoms, oral birth control pills, or an intrauterine device (IUD), among other options. Alternatively, those who wish to conceive a child can be better informed about the time of a woman’s cycle when she is most likely to become pregnant (ovulation) and safe sex practices during pregnancy.
  • Finally, a high level of sexual health literacy can promote open communication between sexual partners and encourage people to seek preventative care and treatment in a timely fashion, which generally leads to better medical outcomes.

Tips to increase your sexual health literacy:

  • Try not to feel embarrassed. Although sexual health is often regarded as a private matter, it is an important component of one’s overall health and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Discuss your sexual health questions and concerns with your primary care physician or another trusted health care provider. You do not need to learn the medical terminology, just use the words and phrases that you know.
  • Promote open communication about sexuality and health with your sexual partner(s).
  • Look to resources online or relevant medical societies for information on sexual health.


  • Vongxay, V., Albers, F., Thongmixay, S., Thongsombath, M., Broerse, J., Sychareun, V., & Essink, D.R. (2019). Sexual and reproductive health literacy of school adolescents in Lao PDR. PloS one14(1), e0209675. DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0209675

  • Wong, J.Y., Zhang, W., Wu, Y., Choi, E.P.H., Lo, H.H.M., Wong, W., Chio, J.H.M., Tam, H.L.C., Ngai, F.W., Tarrant, M., Wang, M.P., Ngan, H.Y., & Fong, D.Y. (2021). An Interactive Web-Based Sexual Health Literacy Program for Safe Sex Practice for Female Chinese University Students: Multicenter Randomized Controlled Trial. J Med Internet Res, 23(3), e22564. DOI: 10.2196/22564

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