Back to Resources
Written by Marshall Harth, Professor at Ramapo College.
“Our powers to express ourselves sexually last a lifetime – rom birth to death. Whether or not we are in a sexual relationship with another person, we can explore our fantasies, feel good in our bodies, appreciate sensual pleasures, learn what turns us on, and give ourselves sexual pleasure through masturbation. If we are taught to be embarrassed or ashamed of our sexual feelings, we may have spent a lot of energy denying them or feeling guilt.”
“We are all sexual: young, old, married, single, with or without disability, sexually active or not, transgendered, heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. As we change, our sexuality changes, too. Learning about sex is a lifelong process.
Sex Love and Relationships
We live in a very sexual world. Sex seems to be everywhere. It is used to sell videos, magazines, records, and movies. We watch actors play women and men who are swept away by passion. There are seldom any real consequences. However, anyone who expects real life to be that way is in for a big surprise.
There’s a difference between sexual desire and love. Sexual desire is a powerful physical excitement. Love is a powerful caring for someone else. It can also be physically exciting. Love can exist without sexual desire, and sexual desire can exist without love. Many people are happiest when both love and sexual desire are shared by both partners.
Having sex with another person is very personal and very intimate. You can’t have sex without getting involved in someone else’s life, even if it’s a one-night stand. No matter how brief, sexual relationships are partnerships. Sex partners who understand this are honest and caring with one another. They have regard for one another’s feelings and are willing to talk openly about their own. They also share responsibility for birth control and protect one another from sexually transmitted infections like HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, herpes, genital warts, and chlamydia.
Not all people are interested in sexual relationships with people of the opposite sex. They may be interested in relationships with members of the same sex. No one knows for sure what makes people heterosexual, bisexual, or homosexual. Our sexual identities develop as naturally as the rest of what makes us who we are.
The benefits and risks of sexual relationships are much the same for all people, regardless of sexual orientation – with one exception. Homosexual and bisexual people are often subjected to harassment and discrimination based on their sexual orientation.
If you want to talk with someone about your sexuality, whether you’re homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual, try a trusted friend, teacher, or counselor. You can also contact Queer Peer Services at x7473 or visit the Queer Peer Services Website.
© Copyright June 1996 Planned Parenthood® Federation of America, Inc.
return to top
To Have Sex or Not
Deciding to have sex with someone can be a very hard decision. If you are contemplating whether or not you are ready to have sex with a particular person but are indecisive on the matter, answer the following questions and maybe they will help you make the decision that is right for you. In this case the word partner means sexual partner.
- Am I ready to have sex?
- Do I trust my partner?
- How long have we been together?
- Does the amount of time we’ve been together matter?
- If we have sex will the relationship grow?
- If we have sex will the relationship end?
- If we have sex will I become more dependent on my partner?
- Does my partner respect me?
- Does my partner want more than just sex from me?
- Does my partner have any interest in me other than physically?
- Does my partner sincerely care about me?
- Do my friends and family know and like my partner?
- Ever since we started the relationship has my partner pressured me for sex?
- Are we in a committed relationship?
- Are we in a monogamous relationship?
- Do we know each other’s sexual histories as well as personal histories?
- Do I consider my partner one of my best friends?
- Can I be open and honest with my partner?
- Do I feel comfortable around my partner?
- Am I myself around my partner?
- Am I just having sex to say that I am sexually active?
- Am I having sex just out of curiosity?
- Am I comfortable with not being in a committed relationship and having sex?
- Do I want sex just for pleasure?
- Will my partner be comfortable with using birth control and what kind?
- Have we discussed why we want to have sex?
- Do we know each other’s sexual boundaries, likes and dislikes?
- Have I discovered my sexual orientation?
- Do my partner and I communicate in a healthy way?
- Have we told each other how we feel about one another?
- Are we having sex because we don’t have any other way of expressing love?
- Am I in love?
- Is it important to me to be in love in order to have sex?
- Is my partner too aggressive?
- I am certain that I will not regret it with this person?
- Has my partner done nothing to show that they are concerned with my feelings?
- Do I feel threatened or intimidated by my partner?
- Am I having sex only so this person will like me?
Hopefully these questions help you with your decision. Just remember to value yourself and always be sure to get treated with the respect you deserve. If you are not ready to have sex make that clear to your partner and do not give into doing anything that makes you uncomfortable. If you decide to have sex be responsible and aware of birth control and safer sex. Sex can be a wonderful experience of intimacy and pleasure if you are comfortable and ready within yourself.
return to top
Have you and your partner decided on abstinence? Abstinence has many positives, one of which is that it allows you to build a strong foundation for a close relationship. Choosing abstinence may help you focus more on communication and respect for one another. Having sex is not the only way to have an intimate relationship. Intimacy can be achieved through getting to know one another on an intellectual and personal level, which can lead to deep friendship and trust.
Information from ETR Associates
What is Abstinence?
Abstinence can mean different things to different people at different times.
Abstinence can mean:
- No sexual touching at all, for now.
- Some sexual touching but no sexual intercourse.
- Any kind of physical contact except intercourse.
Make sure you both agree about what abstinence will mean to you. Be clear and know what your limits are. This will help lessen the chance of misunderstandings. It will also make it easier to avoid situations that could make it hard to stick to your decision.
Know Why You Are Waiting.
If you understand why you are waiting it will be easier to convey these reasons to your partner as well as allow you to commit to your decision. There are many good reasons to abstain from sex. The reasons offered below might help you become clearer on why you have decided on abstinence.
- You might believe that sex belongs only in a marriage or other serious, committed relationships.
- You might be focusing on school or a career that takes a lot of your time and attention.
- You might want to use abstinence to prevent pregnancy.
- You might want to use abstinence to protect yourself from STDs, including HIV.
- You might want to know each other really well and feel very close before you have sex.
- You might just not feel ready to have sex at this time in your life. Not feeling ready is a perfectly good reason to wait.
How to Make Abstinence Work For Your Relationship
Being abstinent works better if you make the decision together. You both need to be clear and respectful of each other’s opinions. Both of you need to agree on why you have chosen abstinence and constantly communicate how it is working for you. Ask yourselves:
- Is abstinence working in the relationship?
- What do we like about being abstinent?
- What don’t we like about being abstinent?
- Is abstinence still the best choice for this relationship?
- Is the relationship growing from our abstinence?
- Do you both still want to be abstinent?
By keeping the lines of communication open you may avoid misunderstandings. By making decisions together that respect and support each person’s needs can help build love and trust. Always remember that if your partner does not respect your decision and honesty then you should ask yourself if the relationship is worth being in. You should never have to be pressured into sex. Sex without your consent is rape.
Know What to Expect
At times you might find it hard to adhere to your decision. That is why it is important to be aware of these times and come up with ways on how to handle them without compromising your abstinence.
Here are some ways to handle things that could make abstinence difficult:
- Pressure from friends. Focus on your reasons for waiting to have sex. Standing up to outside pressures together can bring you closer.
- Strong sexual feelings. It’s OK to have sexual feelings and not have sex. You can talk about this and think of other ways to direct your sexual feelings. You can also avoid being alone in “sexy” situations.
- Pressure from partner. If one partner is urging the other to have sex in spite of the agreement, you need to talk about it.
- Alcohol and other drugs. Using alcohol or other drugs affects judgement and decision making. Agree to avoid these substances, or discuss how you will handle situations if they come up.
Benefits of Abstinence
There are many benefits to abstinence. Being abstinent can:
- Strengthen your relationship. Making an important decision and solving problems together helps develop your “relationship skills.”
- Help you talk to each other. Sometimes couples have sex instead of talking. Being abstinent can give you room to talk more and express your feelings in ways that aren’t sexual.
- Keep you safe. You won’t have to worry about protecting yourself from pregnancy or STDs, including HIV.
- Bring you closer. Not having sex can put the focus on other things such as trust, caring, and friendship.
Make sex special. Deciding not to have sex can make sex more special and exciting when you feel the time and person are right.
return to top
Self-respect is the key to a healthy and rewarding sex life. We cannot expect others to respect us if we do not respect ourselves. Being your own woman means doing what you know deep down is right for you. Sometimes your friends give you lots of support. But sometimes they can try to pressure you into doing things you’re not ready to do. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what makes you comfortable and what doesn’t, what you want and what you don’t want.
Women who respect themselves are less likely to get involved in sexual activities that wound their pride, are unpleasant, or hurt them. Some women try to put up with discomfort or pain, hoping they’ll get used to it. They may not know what to expect from sex play.
Avoid regrets – trust your feelings about becoming sexually involved. Our society does not help a woman understand her real feelings about sex. Thinking about your answers to each of these questions may help you understand some of yours:
- What are my sexual desires?
- What are my sexual limits; am I clear with myself about what I will do and won’t do?
- Do I want to have sex?
- What do I want to get out of it?
- Will I get what I want?
- What does my partner want? Why?
- Could I get hurt?
- Will this relationship be honest, equal, respectful, and responsible?
- Am I prepared for any physical or emotional outcome?
Don’t let your partner rush you. If things are moving too fast, slow them down. If you feel pressured or overwhelmed, take a break. Worthwhile partners will care about your feelings. They will support your need to take your time. They will be proud to protect you from sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy.
It is wrong for a partner to pressure you, ask you to take risks, or ignore your feelings. It is not a good sign if your partner keeps secrets.
Communication is very important. People often think very differently about sex and what it means. For example, many people expect that having sexual intercourse will increase their intimacy. In fact, having sex does not guarantee intimacy. It can even be a barrier to intimacy. Or sometimes, one partner is having sex just to have sex while the other is hoping for a lifetime relationship.
Sex cannot take the place of conversation. Partners who talk with one another about their real feelings don’t hurt each other as much as those who keep their feelings to themselves. Talking about what they expect from sex helps couples decide whether or not they should have sex together.
Get good advice about how to handle sex and relationships from people you can trust. Try to benefit from the experience of older friends and family members.
© Copyright June 1996 Planned Parenthood® Federation of America, Inc.
return to top
What is sexual orientation?
Sexual orientation is one of the four components of sexuality and is distinguished by an enduring emotional, romantic, sexual or affectionate attraction to individuals of a particular gender. The three other components of sexuality are biological sex, gender identity (the psychological sense of being male or female) and social sex role (adherence to cultural norms for feminine and masculine behavior). Three sexual orientations are commonly recognized: homosexual, attraction to individuals of one’s own gender; heterosexual, attraction to individuals of the other gender; or bisexual, attractions to members of either gender. Persons with a homosexual orientation are sometimes referred to as gay (both men and women) or as lesbian (women only).
Sexual orientation is different from sexual behavior because it refers to feelings and self-concept. Persons may or may not express their sexual orientation in their behaviors.
What causes a person to have a particular sexual orientation?
How a particular sexual orientation develops in any individual is not well understood by scientists. Various theories have proposed differing sources for sexual orientation, including genetic or inborn hormonal factors and life experiences during early childhood. However, many scientists share the view that sexual orientation is shaped for most people at an early age through complex interactions of biological, psychological and social factors.
Is sexual orientation a choice?
No. Sexual orientation emerges for most people in early adolescence without any prior sexual experience. And some people report trying very hard over many years to change their sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual with no success.
For these reasons, psychologists do not consider sexual orientation for most people to be a conscious choice that can be voluntarily changed.
Is homosexuality a mental illness or emotional problem?
No. Psychologists, psychiatrists and other mental health professionals agree that homosexuality is not an illness, mental disorder or emotional problem. Much objective scientific research over the past 35 years shows us that homosexual orientation, in and of itself, is not associated with emotional of social problems.
Homosexuality was thought to be a mental illness in the past because mental health professionals and society had biased information about homosexuality since most studies only involved lesbians and gay men in therapy. When researchers examined data about gay people who were not in therapy, the idea that homosexuality was a mental illness was found to be untrue.
In 1973 the American Psychiatric Association confirmed the importance of the new research by removing the term ‘homosexuality’ from the official manual that list all mental and emotional disorders. In 1975 the American Psychological
Association passed a resolution supporting this action. Both associations urge all mental health professionals to help dispel the stigma of mental illness that some people still associate with homosexual orientation. Since original declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder, additional research findings and both associations have subsequently reaffirmed this decision.
Can lesbians and gay men be good parents?
Yes. Studies comparing groups of children raised by homosexual and by heterosexual parents find no developmental differences between the two groups of children in their intelligence, psychological adjustment, social adjustment, popularity with friends, development of social sex role identity or development of sexual orientation.
Another stereotype about homosexuality is the mistaken belief that gay men have more of a tendency than heterosexual men to sexually molest children. There is no evidence indicating that homosexuals are more likely than heterosexuals to molest children.
Why do some gay men and lesbians tell people about their sexual orientation?
Because sharing that aspect of themselves with others is important to their mental health. In fact, the process of identity development for lesbians and gay men, usually called ‘coming out’, has been found to be strongly related to psychological adjustment – the more positive the gay male or lesbian identity, the better one’s mental health and the higher one’s self-esteem.
Why is the ‘coming out’ process difficult for some gays and lesbians?
Because of false stereotypes and unwarranted prejudice towards them, the process of ‘coming out’ for lesbians and gay men can be a very challenging process which may cause emotional pain. Lesbian and gay people often feel ‘different’ and alone when they first become aware of same-sex attractions. They may also fear being rejected by family, friends, co-workers and religious institutions if they do ‘come out’.
In addition, homosexuals are frequently the targets of discrimination and violence. This threat of violence and discrimination is an obstacle to lesbian and gay people’s development. In a 1989 national survey, 5% of the gay men and 10% of the lesbians reported physical abuse or assault related to being lesbian or gay in the last year; 47% reported some form of discrimination over their lifetime. Other research has shown similarly high rates of discrimination or violence.
What can be done to help lesbians and gay men overcome prejudice and discrimination against them?
The people who have the most positive attitudes toward gay men and lesbians are those who say they know one or more gay person well. For this reason, psychologists believe negative attitudes toward gays as a group are prejudices that are not grounded in actual experience with lesbians or gay men but on stereotypes and prejudice.
Furthermore, protection against violence and discrimination are very important, just as they are for other minority groups. Some states include violence against an individual on the basis of her or his sexual orientation as a ‘hate crime’ and eight U.S. states have laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Can therapy change sexual orientation?
No. Even though homosexual orientation is not a mental illness and there is no scientific reason to attempt conversion of lesbians or gays to heterosexual orientation, some individuals may seek to change their own sexual orientation or that of another individual (for example, parents seeking therapy for their child). Some therapists who undertake this kind of therapy report that they have changed their client’s sexual orientation (from homosexual to heterosexual) in treatment. Close scrutiny of their reports indicates several factors that cast doubt: many of the claims come from organizations with an ideological perspective on sexual orientation, rather than from mental health researchers; the treatments and their outcomes are poorly documented; and the length of time that clients are followed up after the treatment is too short.
In 1990, the American Psychological Association stated that scientific evidence does not show that conversion therapy works and that it can do more harm than good. Changing one’s sexual orientation is not simply a matter of changing one’s sexual behavior. It would require altering one’s emotional, romantic and sexual feelings and restructuring one’s self-concept and social identity. Although some mental health providers do attempt sexual orientation conversion, others question the ethics of trying to alter through therapy a trait that is not a disorder and that is extremely important to an individual’s identity.
Not all gays and lesbians who seek therapy want to change their sexual orientation. Gays and lesbians may seek counseling for any of the same reasons as anyone else. In addition, they may seed psychological help to ‘come out’ or to deal with prejudice, discrimination and violence.
Why is it important for society to be better educated about homosexuality?
Educating all people about sexual orientation and homosexuality is likely to diminish anti-gay prejudice. Accurate information about homosexuality is especially important to young people struggling with their own sexual identity. Fears that access to such information will affect one’s sexual orientation are not valid.
Information provided by: American Psychological Association
return to top