Breaking the silence: Advancing sexual medicine through collaborative European efforts

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Sexual medicine covers a wide range of issues related to sexual health and well-being at different stages of life. When there are problems in sexual life, it doesn't just affect the bedroom - it has broader impacts. Dealing with issues like low sexual desire, premature ejaculation, and pain during sex involves looking at the bigger picture - not just the medical side but also the psychological and relational aspects. The media can influence how younger generations view and behave in terms of sex, sometimes leading to behaviors outside societal norms. That's why education that helps people critically understand media messages about sex is so important. Addressing sexual health in older people means taking into account changes related to menopause, erectile function, chronic illness and emotional factors. Overall, dealing with these complexities requires open communication, understanding and personalizing interventions that recognize the diversity of human sexuality at different stages of life and in different circumstances.

The COST Action 'European Sexual Medicine Network' (ESMN) was established to address sexual health issues through a collaborative platform for European experts and researchers. Focusing on standardizing practices, sharing resources and advocating for sexual health policies, ESMN prioritized the training of healthcare professionals to advance research and improve patient care. In this interview with Action Chair Dr Marianne Greil-Soyka of the Austrian Academy of Sexual Medicine, we discuss the impact of ESMN in breaking the silence, and why this is not just a choice but a societal necessity. 

Collaborative triumphs and discoveries

Dr Marianne Greil-Soyka explains that the Action has brought together medical professionals and social scientists specializing in sexual health through conferences, workshops and events, such as one at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia, which set the stage for innovative approaches to global health. These approaches, based on a deeper understanding of the mechanisms that influence sexual function and dysfunction, have the potential to develop diagnostic tools, therapies and treatments for sexual health disorders. The identification of markers of mitochondrial dynamics in peripheral blood mononuclear cells (PMBC) offers valuable insights, which will be tested in practice through bilateral collaboration between Turkey and Serbia. This collaboration aims to integrate medical expertise with social, psychological and cultural perspectives to provide a more comprehensive understanding of sexual health issues. The groundwork laid by the Psychophysiology Sex Research Group meeting has paved the way for future collaboration between medical and social scientists. One output of the ESMN was an educational animated video on 'The Dual Control Model of Sexual Response': The role of sexual inhibition and excitation in sexual arousal and behavior

Advocating inclusivity and shaping policies

The network's fusion of medical and social scientists enables it to advocate for policies that address not only medical aspects but also the social and cultural factors that affect sexual health, well-being and pleasure, with the aim of better serving diverse populations. In particular, the Action has started a cooperation with WAS (World Association of Sexual Health) and its educational group to jointly reach the goal of establishing Sexual Medicine as its own subject.

Marianne Greil-Soyka, now Austrian National Correspondent and Representative of the UNESCO Chair in Sexual Health and Human Rights, actively promotes the importance of sexual health and medicine for people of all ages, sexual identities and ethnicities. ESMN takes a proactive stance on inclusivity, with subgroups dedicated to disability and sexual health and LGBTQ+ issues, many of which are addressed in a video series on sexual health produced by the network. The network has played a key role in shaping policy to promote inclusivity in sexual health in many ways.

Our next steps are ambitious, and we seek to lobby for the establishment of sexual medicine as a stand-alone discipline."

Dr Marianne Greil-Soyka, Chair of ESMN

One achievement has been the creation and piloting of a comprehensive sexual health curriculum for undergraduate medical students and other health professionals.

To make this resource more widely available, a mini-MOOC was created in collaboration with the UNESCO Chair on Sexual Health, using text, video, animation and cartoons to promote comprehensive sexuality education in 140 universities. The link to this MOOC will be distributed by the Action shortly.

ESMN also launched the Open Research Europe Gateway 'Sexual Health and Sexual Medicine', a collection of Open Access articles on focusing on sexual health and on sexual medicine as an interdisciplinary science. It encourages the interplay between different disciplines, including medicine, psychology, biology, sociology, pedagogy, and other health sciences.

Influencing clinical practice

ESMN's influence has extended into clinical practice, particularly in areas such as oncosexology, a subgroup within the ESMN, which aims to raise awareness of sexual issues in oncology care. It was important for the Action to address these issues to prevent the development of chronic sexual dysfunction, problems or concerns such as low sexual desire, difficulty becoming aroused, inability to achieve orgasm and body-image concerns. One outcome of this subgroup was an educational video.

Nurturing young researchers

According to the Action Chair, "the promotion of early career researchers has been central in the growth of ESMN." To this end, a sub-group called the 'Alliance of Early Career Researchers & Innovators in Sexual Health' has been established, which cuts across all Working Groups. It promotes multidisciplinary and cross-country collaboration among early career researchers in sexual medicine and health. It also aims to increase inclusivity and sustainability in research and practice for young professionals. Young researchers and innovators were given a platform to share and disseminate their research. For example, Tomislav Mestrovic, a young researcher from Croatia, gave a keynote presentation at the Action's final meeting in Ljubljana. Joke Dupont, a postgraduate researcher, worked with other ESMN members to complete a study entitled 'Towards a Transnational Sexual Health Research and Policy Agenda: The ESMN Delphi Study'. The study has been published in the journal 'Sexuality Research and Social Policy'. The ESMN Symposium in Salzburg allowed young researchers to present their research and posters to ESMN members and a wider audience through live streaming of the sessions. Additional funding was secured to provide generous financial awards to young researchers in recognition of high-quality research.

Future horizons

Looking to the future, ESMN intends to lobby for the establishment of sexual medicine as a stand-alone discipline. The network, poised to become a leading force in medicine, psychology and the social sciences, aims to define its uniqueness and continue its legacy beyond COST support, establishing Salzburg as a center for sexual medicine teaching, research and scholarship.

"Our next steps are ambitious, and we seek to lobby for the establishment of sexual medicine as a stand-alone discipline," concludes Marianne.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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