Sexual health

Sexual health is a state of physical, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality (WHO 2019a). Measures of sexual health include the prevalence of sexual difficulties and sexually transmissible infection rates.

Sexually transmitted infections

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are a subset of communicable diseases known to be transmitted through sexual contact. More than 30 different viruses, bacteria and parasites are known to be transmitted sexually (WHO 2019b). While some STIs can be cured, a person can have an STI without symptoms of disease. If left untreated, these infections can have serious consequences for long-term health.

In Australia, data about new cases of STIs are collected through notifiable disease monitoring systems. Data about common infections are routinely published in annual surveillance reports, including chlamydia, gonorrhoea, syphilis, hepatitis B, hepatitis C and HIV (Kirby Institute 2018).

66,449

new cases of selected notifiable STIs were reported for Australian females in 2017

In 2017, females accounted for less than half (44%) of all new STI cases (Kirby Institute 2018).

Table 3: Number, proportion and rate of sexually transmitted infection notifications, females, 2017–18

 

Number of notifications

Per cent of total cases(a)

Rate per 100,000

Age group with highest rate

Chlamydia

52,318

52%

442

20–24

Gonorrhoea

7,282

26%

62

20–24

Hepatitis C

3,263

31%

27

25–29

Hepatitis B

2,831

46%

23

30–39

Infectious Syphilis

647

15%

5.5

15–19

HIV

108

11%

0.9

30–39

(a) Total cases excludes cases where sex was missing.
Chart: AIHW. Source: Kirby Institute 2018 (see Table S12).

Notification rates for viral hepatitis and HIV have remained stable over time in females. However, there has been an increase in rates of chlamydia, gonorrhoea and syphilis notifications. The increase in gonorrhoea and syphilis notifications are more dramatic than the increase in chlamydia, with rates of gonorrhoea in females twice as high in 2017 as in 2008 and rates of syphilis 4 times as high in 2017 as in 2008. 

Figure 14: Rate per 100,000 of gonorrhoea and syphilis notifications, females, 2008–2017

The first of these 2 line graphs shows that the rate of new gonorrhoea cases among females increased between 2008 and 2013, before decreasing slightly between 2013 and 2014. Rates then increased sharply between 2014 and 2017. 
The second line graph shows that the rate of new infectious syphilis cases increased slightly between 2008 and 2011. Rates remained stable between 2011 and 2014 before increasing sharply between 2014 and 2017. Both graphs demonstrate that rates for these infections among females reached a 10 year high in 2017.

Chart: AIHW. Source: Kirby Institute 2018 (see Table S13).

For more information, see HIV, viral hepatitis and sexually transmissible infections in Australia: Annual surveillance report 2018

Sexual difficulties

Around 2 in 3

Australian women experienced at least 1 sexual difficulty in the last 12 months

A sub-study of the Australian Longitudinal Study of Health and Relationships, asked 2,252 women in 2011, which indicated that 66% of women surveyed (aged 20–64) had experienced at least 1 of the following sexual difficulties in the 12 months prior to the survey (Smith et al. 2012):

  • lacked interest in having sex (50%)
  • unable to climax (21%)
  • took too long to orgasm (21%)
  • had trouble with vaginal dryness (20%)
  • did not find sex pleasurable (17%)
  • felt anxious about ability to perform sexually (12%)
  • physical pain during intercourse (10%)
  • came to orgasm too quickly (5%).

For more information, see Sexual and reproductive health.