What does it mean to be sexually healthy?
For many people, the first things that come to mind are being free of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and taking steps to prevent unwanted or unintended pregnancy. In many ways, this makes sense because it’s consistent with the messages given through most sex education courses, which largely discuss sex as a potential route to disease and pregnancy—and little else.
Certainly, condoms and contraception are important components of sexual health; however, they are not the only components. Think about it this way: just because someone has taken steps to prevent STIs and unintended pregnancy or happens to be in a relationship where these things are not a concern, does this necessarily mean that their sexual health is optimal? Nope!
In this article, I’m going to talk about several other key components of sexual health—which have a lot to do with your sexual psychology—and practical steps you can take to improve your sexual health.
To be sexually healthy, you must unburden yourself of sexual shame and guilt.
Your sexual health is, in part, a function of your outlook on sex. If sex is something that makes you feel ashamed, embarrassed, anxious, or guilty, odds are that you’re going to have a hard time enjoying it and getting what you want. Sex is going to be something that creates stress rather than relieves stress.
I’ve seen this in my own research. For example, the more shame and guilt people feel about their sexual fantasies and desires, the less likely they are to communicate about them with a partner—and the less sexually satisfied they tend to be.
If you don’t feel like you can talk about your sexual wants and needs, this can lead to less fulfilling sexual experiences for everyone. Even if your partner is very invested in bringing you pleasure, if they don’t know what it is that you truly enjoy, they might make incorrect assumptions.
Expecting your partner to read your mind in every sexual situation doesn’t just make it harder to get what you want, it can also lead to conflict, difficulty becoming and staying aroused, and loss of desire. It’s hard to maintain a desire for sex that isn’t truly satisfying.
So, how can you unburden yourself of the shame, embarrassment, and guilt? The keys are self-acceptance and resetting your beliefs about what’s “normal” when it comes to sex and the human body.
Think first about where your negative feelings come from. Is it because you think your sexual fantasies are “weird” or unusual? Is it because you don’t like your genital appearance? Is it because you think sex itself is “dirty”?
Once you’ve uncovered the source, the next step is finding the right tools and resources to resolve it. Sometimes, a little bit of good sex education is all it takes. For example, some men feel shame about their penis size and think it’s too small when, in reality, they’re very close to average or even above average. Likewise, many people feel shame about having kinky sex fantasies when truth be told, most of us have had kinky sexual thoughts before.
Finding educational materials that can help you to expand your definition of what’s normal can help with feelings of reassurance and self-acceptance. The sources of sexual shame sometimes run very deep and so working with a certified sex therapist who can guide you through the process may be necessary. There are no one-size-fits-all answers here—the key is to find a way to release the shame that addresses your needs and works for you.
To be sexually healthy, you must feel comfortable and confident communicating about sex.
Many people find it easier to have sex than to talk about it. But if you aren’t communicating, that can cause a number of problems. For one thing, neither partner may get what they really want out of sex. For another, they might make incorrect assumptions about each other that set the stage for relationship conflict.
For example, if one partner isn’t feeling much desire for sex because they’re too stressed with work or childcare, the other partner may mistakenly perceive this low sexual interest as a loss of attraction or lack of love.
Unfortunately, most of us never formally learn how to communicate effectively about sex, especially when you consider that the main message given in a lot of sex education courses is “just say no.”
So, how can you become a better sexual communicator? Unburdening yourself of sexual shame can definitely help with this by removing a heavy barrier. But that’s not enough in and of itself. You need to develop your communication skills and find forms of communication that feel comfortable to you.
You may need to try a few things to see what works. The great thing about sexual communication is that it can take a lot of different forms! For example, if you can’t seem to find the words, you can communicate non-verbally. One way to do this is through moans and groans when your partner does things that feel really good. Or you can talk with your fingers by gently guiding your partner’s hand to touch you where you want to be touched.
Or you can do a demonstration: touch yourself while your partner watches. In this way, you can teach them what you like, while also putting on an arousing show.
Other ways to communicate could include talking after sex and sharing what it is that you really liked, playing an erotic game that encourages you to share your fantasies, or sitting down and having a chat about your sex life.
The options are endless—just find a way to share what it is that you like that feels natural to you.
To be sexually healthy, you need to understand your own body—and feel comfortable in it.
Finally, one of the keys to sexual health is knowing your own body and understanding what it is that feels good to you. If you don’t know what it is that you enjoy, how can you expect your partner to?
This is where masturbation can come in handy (no pun intended). Masturbation is often a very quick act that people return again and again to just one form of stimulation—but that’s not going to help you expand your sexual repertoire.
Try some extended masturbation sessions where the goal isn’t to reach orgasm as quickly as possible. Take your time, mix up your routine, explore your body, and discover new sources of pleasure.
This can be as simple as trying new techniques or getting to the brink of orgasm and prolonging that sensation as long as possible (often referred to as edging). You might also experiment with sex toys, try a different variety of lubricant, or switch up the position, time of day, or location. Alternatively, you might explore temperatures, watch yourself in a mirror as you do it, or switch up your erotic stimulus. For example, if you’re someone who always watches porn during masturbation, you might try tapping into your fantasies or perhaps listening to some erotic stories while you let your imagination run wild.
Keep in mind that, when it comes to sex, sometimes you don’t know what you like until you try it.
I hope you see now that sexual health is about so much more than just reducing the risk for STIs and unintended pregnancy. It’s also about having the right outlook on sex, feeling comfortable in your own skin, understanding what it is that brings you pleasure, and feeling empowered to ask for what you want.
Babin, E. A. (2013). An examination of predictors of nonverbal and verbal communication of pleasure during sex and sexual satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(3), 270-292.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2017). The Psychology of Human Sexuality (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Lehmiller, J. J. (2018). Tell Me What You Want: The Science of Sexual Desire and How It Can Help You Improve Your Sex Life. Boston, MA: Da Capo.
Nagoski, E. (2015). Come as you are: The surprising new science that will transform your sex life. Simon and Schuster.