Written by Melinda Arnold, M.A. LPC, Certified Sex Therapist

Sexuality is a topic that comes up frequently in counseling. It is a subject that touches each of us, though I have found that understanding what “healthy sexuality” is continues to elude most individuals. Discussing the subject often becomes a conversation about what is not healthy and can become a shame-fueled list of “do”s and “don’t”s. Limiting our understanding of sexuality to a list of morally acceptable behaviors does not adequately describe what “healthy” is, let alone what “sexuality” is.

As with many words that we hear frequently, I sometimes wonder what “sexuality” actually means. We have recently heard it used most often in regards to one’s sexual or gender orientation, though this is just a piece of the puzzle. We are all sexual beings. This applies to everyone, even the clergy who take an oath of celibacy. But what does it mean to be a “sexual being?” Sexuality refers to several elements of our identity and behavior, both individually and in regards to how we interact with others. Here are a few considerations.

We can’t understand sexuality without considering gender. Our gender is a lens through which we experience sexuality. This includes how comfortable, knowledgeable, or affirming we feel about our own genitalia. Do we know our parts and how they work? Do we have an appreciation for the image and the function of our sexual parts? It also refers to roles we may play within sexual interactions, both externally expected and internally congruent. Are we more masculine (being the pursuer) or more feminine (being the pursued)? These roles are not necessarily correlated to gender. For example, some women find that they enjoy being the pursuer while some men, the pursued. Healthy sexuality in this area is an appreciation for our sexual parts and an ability to authentically use and express those parts. 

In addition to having a positive appreciation for our genitalia, healthy sexuality looks like having a positive attitude toward the rest of our bodies. When we struggle with poor self-image it is challenging to consider our bodies “sexy,” let alone our whole person as “sexual.” It takes vulnerability to be confident in our sexual self-image and even more so to be physically intimate with another person. Therefore, working toward appreciating one’s whole person is essential for being sexually healthy. The words we use to describe our sexuality can reflect how we feel about ourselves as a whole, and vice versa. Beginning to change the language we use to describe our appearance and bodies can begin to change the way we feel about ourselves, which can then change the way we feel about our sexuality. For example, when someone describes their larger thighs as strong, rather than “big”, the impact transfers to the way we feel and act in sexual intimacy.

What beliefs do you hold about sex and sexuality? There are all sorts of messages that we receive on this topic. From media to church to our families, we are constantly taught overtly and, more often, subtly about sex. Some common myths about sexuality are, “men are the ‘sexperts’ and should know without being told how to please their women,” and “it is the role of the wife to give sex because her husband needs it.” There are so many more messages, often in direct conflict with one another, that we hear but identifying them and contrasting them to a more truthful and balanced message is essential in understanding sexual health.

Certainly, part of sexuality is how we desire physical intimacy and the sexual act with another person. Attachment theory provides clarity on what true intimacy is, requiring vulnerability and trust in order to be deeply known by one another. These factors are not found in casual sex. The intense bond that can occur during sex (whether that be intercourse or other forms of erotic interactions) is best experienced in a committed relationship, where attributes of your individual worth and the connection felt between two people is affirmed. It is within sexual intimacy where two people’s “sexualities” are either validated or degraded. It is affirmed when the interaction is mutual, benefits both people, is in a context of trust and commitment, and each person is engaged in the pleasure of the other person as well as their own. There is no specific frequency, method, or initiation style that indicates health. What is more indicative of overall health is the relational consideration of the other — how to best love each other — which most certainly includes sexual expression. 

Before moving on, consider:

  1. Take some time to consider what beliefs you have about the purpose of sexual intimacy and your role in that dynamic.
  2. What are some misbeliefs that you may have been holding on to that you would like to begin to let go of and gain further understanding about?
  3. In what areas of sex would you like to grow or change?