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Sex, relationships and sexual health: the stripping of Indigenous identity

"Rainbow Man, Warrior" by Cree (First Nations) artist George Littlechild

Sexual health, typically understood as the health of our reproductive system, is actually far more nuanced than just this. Sexual health also encompasses having safe and enjoyable sexual experiences. While those who live an asexual or celibate life can also experience a healthy life, it is important for those who crave sex and intimacy to have a positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships. Feeling in control of your body, reaping the benefits of intimacy, and being empowered to make your own choices are all indicators of a healthy sexual lifestyle. Yet when it comes to discussing our sexual health, many of us tend to stick our heads in the sand. When our understanding of sex and relationships are clouded by stigma, expectation seems to take over, fueling the misinformation many of us hold today. And just like this, sexual and mental health become undeniably linked to one another.

But the link runs deeper than this. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, two-spirited and trans folks are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues due to the stigma, discrimination, and prejudice they experience. The lack of societal space created for individuals who do not conform to the hetero-normative ideal are at risk of developing depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders, suicidal thoughts, acts of self-harm, and alcohol and drug dependence.

Sexual violence victims also suffer heightened vulnerability to adverse mental health outcomes. Those who have experienced sexual violence can feel like they’ve lost their sense of safety and bodily autonomy. The toll that sexual trauma takes on one’s mental health increases the risk of developing depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disruption, attachment disruption, or addiction.

Indigenous peoples suffer disproportionately higher rates of sexual violence and sexually transmitted infections in comparison to their non-indigenous counterparts. Rates of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are 10 times higher within Indigenous populations. In fact, while Indigenous women only represent 4% of Canadian females, they accounted for 46.3% of new HIV infections between 1998 and 2012. In addition to consistently showing poorer reproductive health, Indigenous women today are three times more likely to be sexually assaulted, and trans and non-binary folks are significantly more vulnerable.

Indigenous peoples, like many others, strive for healthy sexual relationships. In fact, maintaining sexual and reproductive health is encouraged and ingrained within Indigenous culture. Sexual relations are taught to be handled with equality, tenderness, trust, and patience. Yet, Canada is seeing higher numbers of unsafe sex amongst Indigenous youth. In one survey, it was found that 75% of 17-year-old Indigenous youth reported having had sexual intercourse, and for half of the sample, this occurred before the age of 16. Furthermore, 46% of the surveyed Indigenous youth reported using inconsistent condom use, which is comparable to the 25% of their non-indigenous counterparts.

However, it was not always like this. Long before the European settlers stepped foot into so-called Canada, Indigenous peoples prioritized sexual health alongside every other aspect of wellness. The matriarchal nature of Indigenous communities fostered an environment where sex could be seen as sacred, normal, and natural. Youth in these communities absorbed the lessons Elders shared on sex, puberty, and body autonomy. A culture in which females are highly valued, all sexual decisions are respected, and a gender binary doesn’t exist- sounds utopian, doesn’t it? Sexual and gender acceptance was the norm, not the exception for Indigenous peoples.

Long before LGBTQ+ frameworks even existed, Indigenous peoples have held traditionally diverse understandings of sexuality and gender; ancestral terminology proves how Indigenous peoples recognized a variety of gender expressions, some of which even modern western culture doesn’t recognize. Māhū defines individuals who express both masculinity and femininity. In fact, the term “two-spirited” was coined as an umbrella term to describe the diverse sexualities recognized through Indigenous culture. Indigenous lingual terminology is evidence of the societal fluidity held around sexuality and gender frameworks.

With this in mind, an unexplained gap remains between the values held by indigenous peoples, and the statistics we see today. Why are indigenous folks suffering from poor sexual health when their culture holds all aspects of wellness to such a high regard? The answer is colonization. Sex and sexuality became a source of danger and grief for Indigenous communities due to the excessive sexual abuse and exploitation perpetrated by European colonizers. The patriarchal notions around male dominance and heteronormativity brought over by the colonizers became deeply ingrained into Indigenous communities through forced assimilation. The trauma that Indigenous folks endured from residential schools particularly, has had a multi-generational impact. Carrier Bourrosa, the chair of Indigenous and Northern Health in Sudbury, Ontario explains: “[Residential schools] taught us that your sexuality, your sexual urges were bad. You weren't supposed to express even feelings, let alone any sexuality. We wouldn't even show love or affection, let alone anything around sexuality."

Residential schools’ victims were forced to suppress their culture, language, and identity. Those who didn’t identify with the gender binary experienced heightened vulnerability. Women, girls, and two-spirited individuals specifically, suffered from rape and sexual abuse. Residential schools did more than dehumanize the Indigenous peoples - it produced extremely destructive ideas around sex and bodies. This is reflected in society today. The challenges that Indigenous peoples face with their sexual health is a result of such colonial sexual violence. It comes as no surprise that after such horrific treatment, poor sexual and mental health prevails decades later. The horrific violence and abuse perpetrated by the European settlers has wounded the sexuality, gender roles, and sexual health of the Indigenous community - and they’re still bleeding today.

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Buvneet Madan is an Indo-Canadian 2nd-year student at McMaster University majoring in Life Sciences and minoring in Gender Studies.
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