Florida’s spot in a study that ranks the sexual health of every state in the nation and Washington, D.C., didn’t come as a shock to Eric Buhi, a researcher at the University of South Florida.
Florida’s overall score placed it in the 31st spot, in the lower half of the rankings.
“I’m not surprised where Florida ranked,” said Buhi, associate professor of public health at USF. “I would have thought we would have ranked lower.”
Sexual Health Rankings is the newly released study that bills itself as the first state-by-state comparison and comprehensive measure of sexual health in the U.S.
Martin Downs, a New Hampshire-based public health consultant, created it under the name of his firm, Variance, LLC. It was the result of a partnership between Variance and the Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. Downs is also a journalist who writes the Carnal Knowledge column for Penthouse Magazine.
The study is based on the World Health Organization’s definition of sexual health. That definition views sexual health as "... a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality.”
Sexual Health Rankings looks at physical health indicators like teen births and rates of sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and syphilis in a state.
But it also takes into account things like a state's instances of forcible rape, the status of state laws on marriage equality for same-sex couples, among other measures. Some of those other measures include looks at sexual satisfaction and pleasure and the status of state laws addressing discrimination against sexual orientation and gender identity.
In all, Downs looked at existing data on 26 measures to compile a composite ranking.
Vermont took the highest score in the overall rankings, claiming the No. 1 spot.
A Public Health Researcher Seeks Answers
Downs used to work as director of public health programs at a nonprofit in New Hampshire. He was working in that capacity on a project assessing the health needs of communities in New Hampshire when he got to thinking about sexual health.
The project covered data on sexually transmitted diseases and teen births in that area. The rates were low. Downs was also looking at data on public health rankings.
“I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be neat if there was one for sexual health?’” he said. He said, when he looked at research data it seemed sexual health was not “something that people thought a whole lot about up here, and I thought ‘That’s interesting. So why?’”
Then he started thinking about how there was no comprehensive ranking that showed how vastly different sexual health was between different states.
Another thing he noticed was that most research talked about sexual health in relation to crises.
“There needed to be a way to talk about it that wasn’t focused on putting out fires,” he said.
He credits the experience as the spark that ignited his effort to create Sexual Health Rankings.
“What really matters is the ‘So what?’" Downs said. "Is it just ‘isn’t that curious?’ or ‘What can we do with it?’“
Downs wants his study to spark conversation about sexual health.
“The point of the project is really to engage people in the field of human sexuality,” he said.
Florida Ranks Below Average
Overall, Florida ranks “below the average” used in the study. Downs said we rank below the average of reproductive-aged women who are insured. We also ranked below average in our vaccination coverage of adolescent women for human papilloma virus.
However, Florida ranks well in the percentage of people being tested for HIV, Downs said
“Somebody is promoting HIV testing, and that is a positive,” he said. “That is affirmative and helpful.”
Buhi said Sexual Health Rankings’ results for Florida appear to be pretty valid.
“It’s probably the first time I’ve seen such a comprehensive study of sexual health,” he said.
He applauded it for taking into account the W.H.O. definition of sexual health.
Florida has traditionally rated poorly in studies of sexually transmitted diseases among people of all age, Buhi said. Reproductive health outcomes for young people are especially poor, he said. We also do poorly on indirect measures like high school dropout rates.
Buhi said he has seen changes in the way we look at sexuality. He’s seen researchers moving away from looking at sexuality negatively. Some counties in Florida are also moving away from abstinence only sex education to more progressive methods, he said.
Downs said that the report gives public health professionals in various communities a chance to start talking about what's going on statewide with sexual health and "sharing information about where they're at in their communities and what they're seeing and working together to improve the bigger picture."
What do you think about the ranking, St. Pete? Does it surprise you?