What is healthy sexual development?

A lot of people are worried about young people’s sex lives. You may have heard that today’s young adults are having less sex than previous generations. They’re starting to have sex later, and they’re having fewer partners. It’s a worry.

But wait … young people these days are also too sexualised. They think about sex all the time, and can’t even talk without sexually objectifying each other … 

So – are they having too much sex or not enough? One thing is certain – they’re not having the right amount.

Well, two things actually – they’re not having the right amount of sex; and it’s all pornography’s fault

I don’t agree with these complaints. My concern is this: it’s easy to say that young people are having too little sex, or too much – but what exactly is the right amount of sex? More generally – what does healthy sexuality look like?

I work as a researcher on pornography and healthy sexual development – and our team quickly realised that if you want to understand the relationship between these things you have to know what these “things” are. Pornography is relatively easy to define (although, as with all words, when you start to get to the edges it all gets a bit messy). But what is healthy sexual development? It turns out it’s hard to find a straightforward definition. So we sat down with a team of experts from all different backgrounds – psychology, education, the law, gender studies, sexual health and gender studies – and hammered out a list of the characteristics of healthy sexual development

The first important point is that healthy sexual development isn’t the same for everybody. There are many different ways in which you can have a happy, healthy sex life. You can be married in the suburbs with two kids having sex once a week with the lights off. Or you can be single, going out dancing, picking up strangers and having enthusiastic, sweaty fun in the toilets of a nightclub. You can be in a committed threesome; or an extended network of polyamorous fuckbuddies and friends-with-benefits. You can enjoy spanking or roleplaying or being wrapped in cellophane and suspended from the ceiling. A healthy sex life can involve oral sex or anal sex or vaginal sex or many other body parts. Or maybe you’ve decided that sex isn’t really your thing and what you really want is a life of cuddling and boardgames. All of these can be examples of sexually healthy lives.

But the variation isn’t infinite. Underlying all of these many different ways to be a healthy sexual being are fifteen ‘domains’ of healthy sexual development:

  1. Freedom from unwanted activity. Healthy sexual development takes place in a context in which we are protected from unwanted sexual activity. This is a fundamental starting point.
  2. Sexual development should not be aggressive, coercive or joyless. The best sexual development is “fun,” playful, and light-hearted (Okami et al., 1998, p. 364). 
  3. Education about sexual practice. We all need to have accurate knowledge about how our bodies work.
  4. Awareness of public/private boundaries. One of the earliest things we learn about a healthy sex life that while sex itself is nothing to be ashamed about, we must make distinctions about what we perform in private and what we perform in public. 
  5. An understanding of consent. We must learn what consent is, the complexity of the consent, and its fundamental place in healthy sexual practice.
  6. An understanding of safety. What are the risks involved in becoming a sexual being? This includes not only physical risks such as unplanned pregnancy or Sexually Transmitted Infections, but a range of other risks – the emotional risks of becoming involved in an abusive relationship; or the more mundane risk of being trapped in a boring relationship.
  7. Self-acceptance. We need to develop a positive attitude, rather than a shameful one, towards our own sexual beings – whether that’s our body shape, our sexual identities, or the sexual pleasures that we prefer. 
  8. Acceptance that sex can be pleasurable. We all need to accept that sex can be pleasurable, and that’s fine. Again, it’s nothing to be ashamed of. We do not need to feel guilty because we enjoy physical pleasure. That doesn’t mean we have to want sex – just that we don’t need to be ashamed if we do want it.
  9. Sexual agency. If we want to communicate assertively what we want from sex and relationships, we need to know what it is that we want. To grow up as healthy, happy sexual beings we need to know that each of us has the right to the final say about what we do with our bodies, and to explore what we enjoy.
  10. Relationship skills. We need to learn the skills that underlie all healthy human relationships; for example, how to be assertive without being aggressive in communicating what we want.
  11. Open communication. It’s difficult to have a healthy sex life if you’re ashamed to talk about what you want and what you enjoy. Growing up in a supportive environment can help us communicate openly about sex; if we don’t have that environment when we’re younger we can work on developing these skills later in our lives.
  12. Lifelong learning. Healthy sex lives don’t stop evolving the first time we have sex. We can continue learning and developing throughout our lives.
  13. Resilience. In sexual practice, as in many other areas of our lives, we will make mistakes. Do we have the skills to learn from these, and to grow from them?
  14. Understanding of parental and societal values. All of these aspects of healthy sexual development occur within a cultural context and we need to be aware of that and know how to navigate it. That doesn’t mean that we just accept negative values around us – such as homophobia or whorephobia. But we can’t be naïve about them either. 
  15. Competence in mediated sexuality. We are surrounded by mediated messages about sex – from entertainment, education, religious groups … we need to learn how to use different kinds of media appropriately. Pornography is often designed for entertainment rather than as an instruction manual. Religious teachings about sex are often designed to maintain patriarchal control of women’s and queers’ bodies and are not fit-for-purpose as sex education. 

So if you’re worried about whether you – or your children – are having healthy sex lives, so long as you’re meeting these criteria it doesn’t matter if you’re having sex once a year with the lights off or swinging from a chandelier spraying champagne from your bottom. If it’s informed, consensual, and happy you’re going to be fine. 

That’s what healthy sexual development looks like.