Sex, Public Health, and Being Human

Taryn Gal

Taryn Gal, MPH ’07

Executive Director, Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health

Housing, money, firearms. We don’t always see the many ways the world around us impacts, and is impacted by, our health and—more specifically—our sexual health.

My parents both worked for a nonprofit that did direct service with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I learned from them the importance of aligning work with personal values and took on their passion for being part of something larger than yourself. After years of volunteering with different organizations and for different causes, I finally began to learn, and am still learning every day, how to be an ally in working to address both the outcomes and root causes of sexual health inequities. I continue this work now while working alongside young people to identify ways to improve adolescent sexual health in Michigan.

As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, I was able to create my own curriculum through an individualized major and assembled a course schedule ranging from public health, biology, and anthropology to business management and even bioterrorism. Every class I took remains relevant to my work today, because everything is related to public health—and specifically to sexual health—in some way.

In looking for graduate public health programs, health behavior and health education was so appealing because it focused not only on disease prevention and management but on promoting health and well-being. Faculty in the Health Behavior and Health Education department at Michigan encouraged us to explore the intersections of different issues. I was drawn to the freedom and creativity they fostered as we studied a variety of approaches and sought innovative interventions.

Young people are experts in their own lives.

That open, creative view of continual learning and practicing public health is the foundation of my philosophy for working in the field of adolescent sexual health. Young people are experts in their own lives, and our work will never be effective unless we involve youth from the very start of any work we do. I have seen well-intentioned youth-serving programs fail because young people were never asked if they needed the program or if they would truly be able to access the program. When we adults finally sit down and start really listening, the most impactful progress is made. I have found that young people are dynamic and genuine and brilliant in all the ways they bring their lived experience to organizations, youth advisory councils, and public health programming.

Our goal at the Michigan Organization on Adolescent Sexual Health (MOASH) is to ensure young people have access to sexual health services and sexual health education that is medically accurate, non-shaming, research-informed, developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, youth-informed, survivor-centered, and inclusive and affirming of all sexual orientations, gender identities, and abilities. Sexual health too often is approached solely as disease prevention and pregnancy avoidance cloaked in fear, shame, and stigma. We want to shift this narrative and approach sexual health as just another part of being a healthy person. We want to normalize conversations around sexual health—bodies, behaviors, relationships, testing and treatment, reproduction, and pleasure.

So many of us want to and need to learn more about our sexuality.

Sexuality is part of being human, and healthy sexuality is part of being a whole person. Many people, including many young people, have had traumatic experiences where they were not able to live in sexually healthy ways. Talking with, listening to, and supporting one another in survivor-centered ways is how we all move forward toward a healthier future as we learn from our experiences, including those that were painful.

The taboos around sexuality were actually what drew me to sexual health. We too often have trouble talking about sex, but so many of us want to and need to learn more about our sexuality. When I was in grad school, I worked at the Safe Sex Store on South University and learned more at that job than I did in all my formal training. People would come in hesitantly or as a joke and then would realize we offered credible, quality information about sex. Suddenly, they would start asking us deep, genuine questions about their health. People left the store feeling affirmed and with good information about protecting themselves, about how to get what they wanted out of relationships, and about where to go if they needed health care.

Sexuality plays a role in everyone’s life, and so everyone has a stake in sexual health.

So many health questions are related in some way to our sexual health. I love the opportunity my work provides to think creatively about sexual health and dig deeply into the social determinants of adolescent sexual health to gain a better understanding of how so much is rooted in stigma, shame, and fear around sex and sexuality. Housing security, for example, is deeply connected—many LGBTQIA+ young people are kicked out of their homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, which can then lead to situations where youth engage in survival sex in exchange for housing or food. We hear of folks who are survivors of sexual assault considering getting a firearm or other weapon to protect themselves, and we know this can increase their own risk of harm. All of these situations are associated with anxiety, depression, and other poorer mental and/or physical health outcomes.

Sexuality plays a role in everyone’s life, and so everyone has a stake in sexual health. Learning how to talk about sex and understand how it can be a good thing is really at the center of public health. If we are all happier, healthier, and empowered in our sexuality, our communities will be healthier places to live and grow.