A lot of the research on sexual health has historically focused on dysfunction and disorders like erectile dysfunction and anorgasmia. While this type of research is necessary, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Focusing solely on dysfunction misses the idea that humans are complex creatures with endless factors that influence how we engage with our sexuality, pleasure, and intimate relationships.
New research is looking to change that. One of the most influential theories in the field of sexual wellness is called SHIP: Sexual Health and Integrative Pleasure Model.
The History of SHIP
Previous sexual health theories focused mainly on treating specific sexual problems but didn’t take into account how complex sexuality is. This was the motivation behind The Sexual Health Model, developed in 2002. A holistic model that helps bring together multiple theories and is often used as a guide during sex therapy.
But it was developed 20 years ago, and both science and therapeutic approaches need to evolve and change over time. This was the motivation behind SHIP: An updated holistic model that draws on research from a wide variety of sexual and mental health fields.
A group of couples family therapists and psychologists who specialize in the treatment of sexual health problems came together to develop SHIP. One of the biggest changes from the Sexual Health Model was using the word “pleasure” in the name of the model, emphasizing that pleasure is a critical component of human sexuality.
The Five Philosophical Foundations of SHIP
Before all the research and practical applications, a theory needs underlying ideas that help to shape it. For SHIP, these ideas are the five philosophical foundations. We’ve laid these out for you:
There are many systems and factors that go into how we view sexual health problems, as well as changes in sexual and relational intimacy. These include biological factors, interpersonal dynamics, family and societal systems, and behavioral and cognitive factors. All of these things come together to help inform how we view sexuality as a whole.
Across the Lifespan
Humans change throughout our lifetimes, so our relationship with our sexuality can also change. SHIP honors these changes by addressing the generational and developmental differences throughout the lifespan and how they affect sexual health and development.
Therapeutic tools and approaches need to reflect these differences so that they’re actually relevant to the person being treated. For example, someone who is experiencing hormonal changes with menopause.
The original Sexual Health Model used the term “culture and sexual identity”. The researchers behind SHIP took that idea and modernized it through the lens of intersectionality. Developed by Kimberle Crenshaw, intersectionality is the idea that someone’s class, race, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability status, and other abilities form someone’s lived experience.
When it comes to sex therapy, all of these cultural and personal influences need to be taken into account to get a holistic understanding of a patient and provide them with appropriate care.
Do you know what influences someone’s sexual experience as much as their culture does? Biology.
Integrating a biopsychosocial model accounts for the idea that sexual experiences are also shaped by things like psychological processes and mental health, diseases and illnesses, relationships, and more.
This component helps a provider work with the patient to find which treatment may be the most effective based on all the factors that go into a client’s history.
The SHIP model is rooted in science. Empiricism means that researchers use measurable tests to validate these theories with tangible evidence. This research helps to inform how practitioners provide clinical care.
The Five Core Therapeutic Components of SHIP
The five philosophical foundations helped create the space for developers of SHIP to create therapeutic components. These components are essential for providers so that they have a diagnostic framework and tools for planning individualized treatment.
These are the five therapeutic components of SHIP:
Sexual literacy means the way that people access information about sexual health, analyze it, and can integrate it into their own life. Sexual literacy informs their behavior and values and includes information on disease prevention, reproductive health, consent, sexual functioning, and an understanding of their identity and sexual orientation.
Sexual Adaptation and Resilience
Life comes with challenges, and our sexual lives are no different. Sexual adaptation and resilience examine how people overcome barriers to sexual health as they move through different developmental stages and life experiences.
This includes navigating things like health problems, stress, and the natural ebbs and flows of a relationship.
How we intimately relate to others is a complex beast. Our cultural and familial backgrounds impact how we build intimate relationships. Relational intimacy encompasses someone’s intimacy needs and skills, as well as how they interact with their sexual partners.
Things like problem-solving skills, communication skills, mutual pleasure, consent, acceptance, and emotional vulnerability are all part of relational intimacy.
Pleasure-Oriented Positive Sexuality
This is another idea that was adapted from the Sexual Health Model’s “positive sexuality” component. Pleasure-oriented positive sexuality is the idea that positive pleasurable experiences come from a place of curiosity and openness.
This component encourages people to approach their sexuality with a non-judgemental attitude while understanding the importance of clear consent and taking steps to support their physical sexual health.
Someone’s sexual health is shaped by their physical relational, social, cultural, and spiritual lives. Multidisciplinary care understands these complexities and helps providers create a systemic and individualized treatment plan for each patient’s specific needs. It may also include collaboration with other medical providers like pelvic floor physical therapists and gynecologists for more comprehensive care.
SHIP and Your Sexual Wellness
SHIP is currently a conceptual model, not a theory, which is a stepping stone in the scientific method. Creating this model creates the opportunity for further research so that SHIP can eventually become a scientific theory.
We just threw a lot of information at you, so bravo for sticking around. SHIP is a dynamic model that is revolutionizing how people approach and access sexual healthcare. It can also help show you the many factors that have gone into your sexuality, sexual health, and how you relate to them.
If you’re looking for a specific treatment, it may be helpful to seek out a provider who understands the SHIP model and uses it in their practice. Sexual wellness is an incredibly personal experience, but science can help support you to make it as pleasurable and enjoyable as possible.