What Is Sexual Health?
Sexual health is not an absolute construct and has few black and white parameters; there is not one definition of sexual health as it varies from person to person. What may be healthy for one person, may in fact be less healthy, or even dangerous, for another person. Sexual health is defined less by actual behavior and more by motive and impact. No one can define your sexual health for you, although there are a few basic guidelines that can assist you in developing your own definition of sexual health. In a nutshell, healthy sex occurs between consenting adults who are aware of their desires, boundaries and limits and are able to communicate them with one another. Healthy sex does not abuse, deceive or exploit another person’s vulnerabilities. Rather, it brings out the best in oneself and with whomever you are sharing the experience. Marriage and committed relationships are not necessary for sex to be healthy because there are many configurations of relationships and, therefore, many configurations of healthy sexual experiences. Sex is considered healthy when it’s spiritually nourishing, shares vulnerabilities, is honest, broadens our horizons, connects us, feels good and, most importantly, when it’s genuinely fun. That’s healthy sex!
How Is Sexual Health Defined?
(This section is partially excerpted from Pia Mellody, “Facing Love Addiction”)
Sex is healthy when partners are aware of and respect each other’s vulnerabilities and limits. For this to happen each partner must be willing to be vulnerable and willing to develop an awareness of and communicate their boundaries and motivations to their partner. Communication is essential to healthy sex. Healthy sex between partners does not exploit the other person’s weaknesses and/or past trauma. Before, during and after healthy sex, feelings are shared and the experience of healthy sex fosters a deepening of the relationship; Spirituality, self-worth and sexual joy are all enriched as a result of a genuinely shared sexual experience.
In unhealthy relationships, there are barriers instead of intimacy, where people are often fearful of self-disclosure. These barriers between partners:
- Indicates distrust
- Lowers self-worth
- Builds defensiveness
- Increases isolation within the relationship
- Denies personal responsibility
- Prevents efforts to work on common problems
- Intensifies an addictive system
In healthy relationships, intimacy is possible when people accept the risk of rejection and reveal their internal struggles. Self-disclosure between partners:
- Indicates trust
- Builds self-worth
- Affirms the other person
- Increases connectedness within the relationship
- Takes responsibility for one’s own actions and feelings
- Shares common problems
- Interrupts unhealthy behaviors
A healthy relationship is not based on obsessions and compulsions; it does not thrive on positive and negative intensity. In healthy relationships, you are able to nurture others in a way that promotes responsibility for themselves, thereby increasing their self-esteem. When you love yourself, you are able to nurture yourself, focus on your own emotional and spiritual growth, and take responsibility for yourself, thereby increasing your own sense of self-esteem. When one partner is asked for acts of intimacy or support by the other, each person can say yes or no in a healthy way, without either partner being diminished. The self-esteem of each individual blossoms when nurtured within a healthy relationship.
What Role Does Shame Play In Defining Sexual Health? (Healthy Shame vs. Toxic Shame)
A general definition of sexual health would include behaviors that are life-affirming, that support and align with who you are as a person, that bring out the best in you, that demonstrate trust and are free of shame. Sexual health would generally not include shame, harmful or destructive behaviors, promote secrets and/or lying, or compromise your integrity as a person. However, there are two types of shame: healthy and toxic. Healthy shame keeps us safe, informs us that what we are doing or have done goes against our values. An example of healthy shame is feeling badly if you have stolen from someone you love. In this example, the bad feeling is produced by an internal compass that informs you that you have harmed another person. Toxic shame is destructive and tells us we are a basically bad, unworthy person. An example of toxic shame would be feeling badly about enjoying masturbation if you were told at a young age that masturbation is “dirty.” Another example of toxic shame is internalized homophobia – feeling badly about being gay for no other reason that you believe being gay is “wrong.” Feeling badly in these two examples is produced by a distorted belief that masturbation or being gay is morally wrong, when if fact, there is no intrinsic harm created by either of these two examples.
Healthy shame can be very useful and guide us in defining our sexual health. However, toxic shame is destructive and will warp our definition of health sex.
How Do I Distinguish Healthy Sex From Unhealthy Sex?
Sexual expression can be healthy across a wide range of activities. Distinguishing healthy sex from unhealthy sex (such as sexual addiction and sexual anorexia) depends more on the person’s motivation and the consequences of the behavior than on the actual sexual behavior. Similar to eating disorders, sexual disorders can manifest as both sexual aversion (anorexia) and sexual addiction (compulsion). At one end of the continuum is sexual anorexia, which is compulsive sexual disengagement or aversion. This is essentially sexual starvation. At the other end is sexual addiction, which is compulsive sexual engagement. Both aversion and compulsion are non-relational manifestations of an intimacy problem, underpinned by a fear of emotional injury and abandonment.
A sexually anorexic person is terrified of sexual experiences and will go to tremendous lengths to control, limit or avoid sex altogether. For this person, sex has been targeted as the source of their pain and is to be tempered in spite of personal and relational costs. The sexual addict, on the other hand, is charged by sexual experiences and will go to tremendous lengths to engage in sexual behavior. For this person, sex provides relief from their pain and is to be engaged in regardless of personal and relational costs. Addictive sexuality and sexual aversion are like most other compulsive behaviors: a destructive twist on a normal life-enhancing activity. Both behaviors erode self-worth and lead to sexual despair, although both compulsions were functional in the early stages of their development. This is because the behavior not only alleviates pain, but also serves to protect the individual from further hurt and abandonment, which was experienced at an earlier time in their life.
As the sexual anorexic and sexual addict recover from their respective compulsive activities, healthy sexual behavior is introduced through guidelines delineating healthy from unhealthy, with a designated “gray area” in between, meaning those activities that are either questionable or simply neutral. By redirecting sexual behavior, the anorexic and addict are challenged to confront their fears of intimacy, to step outside their comfort zone and experience healthy relational sex. Healthy relational sex can be a powerful vehicle to personal growth, sharing feelings, increasing self-esteem and healing from the hurt and abandonment the anorexic and addict experienced earlier in life.
At Foundry, our work is to help you identify what’s not working in your life, separate the healthy from the destructive, and to collaboratively develop a definition of sexual health that works for you in your life, that is affirming and brings out the best in you.