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What Determines Healthy Sexuality

Lorraine Benuto, Ph.D., edited by C. E. Zupanick, Psy.D. Updated: May 12th 2017

Across time, shame and taboo have been associated with sexuality. This has perhaps contributed to its mystery. Whatever the reasons, sexuality remains a topic that is not often discussed. The purpose of this center is to provide general information about what healthy sexuality is and what is a sexual problem or disorder.

figure standing in bright sun A commonly-used saying by many is that Variety is the Spice of Life. Sexuality often involves variety. When we speak of "normal" sexuality, it may be useful to keep this saying in mind. People often wonder what is normal, healthy sexuality. When it comes to sexuality, defining what is normal, and what is not, is complicated because there is a great deal of variety in sexuality.

Defining "normal" sexuality is complicated because we often use the words, "normal" and "healthy" to mean the same thing. While "normal" and "healthy" may often refer to the same thing, their meanings are somewhat different. In science, when we say something is "normal" we mean it is average. "Healthy" refers to what is adaptive. As we will soon see, sometimes what is considered average or "normal" is not necessarily considered adaptive or "healthy" by some people. Sexuality is so diverse, and what determines normal sexuality depends on many different things. It is easy to understand the difficulty in answering the question, "Am I normal?" This is because there are many variables that make up healthy sexuality.

Because of this, it is very common for us to wonder whether our sexual needs, interests, and desires are normal. In fact, couples who participate in couples' therapy almost always ask questions about what is normal, and what is not. To determine whether one's sexuality is normal or not, it is important to consider the definition of both sexuality and abnormality. The definition of sexuality includes many pieces including (but not limited to) sexual:

  • attitudes
  • desires
  • behaviors engaged in
  • preferences
  • identification
  • function.

In psychology, abnormality is defined using three different perspectives:

  • the frequency perspective considers a behavior abnormal when it happens rarely or infrequently in the general population.
  • from a social norms perspective, behavior may be considered abnormal if it is not socially acceptable.
  • a maladaptive perspective considers behavior abnormal when it causes problems in the person's life or to society (Getzfeld, 2006).

From a frequency perspective, a sexual behavior is considered abnormal when it is infrequently reported. The frequency perspective defines "abnormal" by first determining what is average, or normal. When we consider the idea of frequency, we may want to keep in mind that what we know about sexuality is only as good as what people are willing to tell us. A large portion of sexuality research is based on self-report. When people are asked questions of a sensitive nature (and certainly questions about sex are of a sensitive nature), they may not tell the truth. Therefore, what we know about the frequency of sexual behaviors may be an underestimation, or overestimation of the truth. For example, when we ask women how many sexual partners they have had over the course of their life, they tend to round down, whereas men tend to round up. Therefore, if you hear that the average adult has had 10 sexual partners, it is important to keep in mind this could be more or less than the true number.

From a social norms perspective, it becomes clear that culture (i.e., ancestry, religion, politics, society) largely determines what is considered "normal sexuality." It is important to recognize that what is considered normal, natural, or moral in one society or culture may very well be abnormal, unnatural, or deviant in another. Even within the same culture, social norms may change over time. Social norms include a historical perspective because what was once considered abnormal may very well be considered normal today (Firestone, Firestone, & Catlett, 2006). For example, in the 1950s a woman who had sex before marriage may have been considered very promiscuous whereas today, sex outside of marriage is much more acceptable in many societies.

Finally, from a maladaptive perspective, normal sexuality is defined from a healthy perspective, not an average one. A maladaptive perspective would consider whether the sexual behavior is causing problems, or is harmful to the individual, or to society. Frequency involves an objective look at "normal" or average consideration., "Adaptive" determinations of abnormality involve a subjective evaluation about whether the behavior interferes with someone's life.

Clearly, all of this makes defining "normal" sexuality quite difficult! Because of these issues, using terms such as "natural" and "healthy" may be a more complete approach when we are discussing sexuality. When we discuss healthy sexual practices good questions to ask ourselves are:

  • Is there consent - Are both partners freely agreeing to this?
  • Is the behavior exploitive, coercive, manipulative, and/or self-destructive? (Firestone, Firestone, & Catlett, 2006)
  • Does the behavior cause problems or harm to any of the participants, or to society?

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Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

John you are to blame - Kelly - Oct 21st 2011

Your wife must be "God", because you sure give her a lot of credit for the things YOU are doing.  Only YOU are responsible for your actions/choices.  Will it be her fault when you get caught?  Will it be her fault when you bring home disease?  Hmmm...  My educated guess says:  Currently I'm sure it's her fault when you abuse her.  Whether it's physical, emotional, verbal, financial.....  "if you wouldn't have ______________ then I wouldn't have to (punish) you".  Am I painting a familiar picture?

women and sex - dollarbabe - May 23rd 2011

I agree and disagree on the comments provided.Women need to make love.Men need a good f**k.So what do we do, compromise man soften up and women get more grindy.I love sex,I love being intimate,I unfortunately lost that passion with my hubby.Sometimes it is who we are with that determines the pleasure.Try new things, buy toys watch movies role play -- with your partner it makes it fun and exciting... become that horny woman that scream F**K ME F**K ME. become the man that cuddles and has pillow talk. MWAH have fun be good.


BULL DUNG!! - BEEN THERE - Jan 1st 2011

I am so sick and tired of hearing how women don't like sex OR after they are married, they don't want to give it up. Maybe the men should take a look at their selves. How did you treat her BEFORE you were married, or when you lived separately? You proabably wined and dined her, called her several times a day, and YOU cleaned your own apartment. Now, you come home, and sit your ass in front of the TV. You expect HER to cook and clean by herself. AND you probably were an awesome lover BEFORE, now you just stick it in and f*ck her - over in 3 minutes. You've gotten lazy and expect her to masturbate while you pump. Yep. OR, how about you low lifes that like to go out with the boys and come home stinking like a brewery, drooling and disgusting, and you just want to come? THAT'S what I call, a M_____ F_____. You just want a woman to take care of your needs - including sex; but, don't want to meet HER needs. Selfish spoiled brats. Yep. Been there. Divorced, too.

women hate sex ?? - john - Dec 20th 2010

This is nonsense.  Women love sex but don't like being bored.  They become bored with their husbands and look for variety elsewhere.  Hence their husbands will complain if their wives disinterest in sex while their wives are being satisfied elsewhere.

to sex behind your wifes back - whatever - Aug 7th 2010

I wonder why she would hate sex. I find it funny you say all women hate sex, when your having sex with willing women. That's kind of funny. You are very selfish. I wonder if maybe her reason for hating it so much might be a problem with past issues such as rape or molestation? Ever think about her side of the story? Bravo to another tard who makes it easier to believe that all men are typical. Your so typical, can't control his penis. Ever thought about keeping it on a leash?

Women are to blame - John Hash - May 20th 2010

For the most part, women determine how the sex is going to be healthy or not in a marriage. She will either put up with it or despise it. Rare do you find a woman who loves it. 

Because my wife hates sex, I sleep with many women on the side to satisfy me. I was a virgin before I married her, until ager 26 because I wanted to wait for my perfect woman, and I had plenty of blown opportunities not to be a virgin, I but now I blame her for pushing me away for my promiscuity. I can't stop having sex with other women.

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