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What is sexuality and what does it mean to me?

Although the word ‘sexuality’ leads us to think of the sex act, it is much more than just sexual relations and reproduction as a biological function. Sexuality is a holistic concept that includes a person’s physical and psycho-emotional need for love, intimacy, and pleasure; it is a set of behaviours we engage in to get what we need and want, behaviours that follow both written and unwritten laws. Or that we engage in despite them.

The term ‘human sexuality’ refers to the way people identify and express themselves as the sexual beings all humans are. Sexuality is an integral part of human life. Being aware of our own sexuality helps us to genuinely embody our thoughts, feelings, and emotions and makes it possible for us to bond with others.

For many authors, sexuality is the central axis of human life—beginning in early childhood and lasting long past the reproductive years. Sexuality includes not only sexual relations as such, but also sexual identity and sexual orientation—eroticism, pleasure, intimacy, and reproduction.

We experience sexuality by expressing it in our thoughts, fantasies, desires, beliefs, attitudes, values, behaviour, practices, roles, relationships. Sexuality is influenced by many combining and intersecting factors—biological, psychological, social, economic, political, cultural, ethical, legal, religious, historical, and spiritual.

A short history

Human sexuality has been a major subject of interest for humans since we began walking the earth. We find evidence humans reflecting on sexuality in the art of the very first civilizations and in the earliest writings that have been passed down as our cultural heritage.

A well-known example is the Kama Sutra— an ancient Indian Sanskrit text on sexuality, eroticism, and emotional fulfilment written between 400 BCE and 300 CE (the precise dates remain unknown as historians continue to explore the origins of this foundational work).


Contrary to popular belief, the Kama Sutra is not a manual of sexual positions.

In fact, it is an extensive guide to the art of living well, the nature of love, finding a life partner, maintaining one’s love life, and other aspects related to the pleasure-oriented faculties of human life.

A wide variety of sexual behaviours are also represented in ancient Greek and Roman art and literature, including both heterosexual and homosexual relationships, as well as group sex.

Later, the Christian Church had an enormous influence on the way Western cultures perceive sexuality: the church introduced the concept of the original sin, praised chastity and innocence in women, and supported sexuality only within the bounds of a church-sanctified marriage. Physical attraction was considered irrelevant in choosing a partner; marriage was to be based on a material calculation.

However, this attitude has come to be seen as hypocritical because sexuality, lust, and eroticism are present at all times, and even those who profess to be communicating the will of God are not immune to it.


There seems to be a correlation between vigorous oppression of sexuality and the secret flourishing of outrageous debauchery.

Even in the Middle Ages, also called the Dark Ages, artists managed to add erotic accents in paintings depicting the saints, while authors mocked the false sanctity of priests with scathing sarcasm.

Surprise—women are sexual beings too!

Scientific interest in sexuality appeared much later, only in the 19th century. Initial research was limited to classifying various sexual behaviours as ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’. For example, female sexuality—a woman desiring sexual pleasure—was considered out of the ordinary, an illness. This was called ‘female hysteria’ and required appropriate treatment.


It is believed that vibrators—the first electrical sex toys—were invented around this time along with the first electrical appliances.

Mechanical vibrators were invented to provide a genital massage that could induce ‘paroxysm’ and temporarily ease the symptoms of ‘hysteria’, in other words doctors were helping sexually frustrated women experience orgasms.

It was not until the dawn of the 20th century that the scientific establishment in America and Europe began to suspect that women might naturally have a sex drive and desire sexual pleasure. Women had always been considered merely the most respectable means of satisfying male lust.

Girls were brought up with the belief that married women have a responsibility to provide sexual pleasure/relief for their husbands and to give them children. Female sexual desire was firmly policed as unladylike, and sex outside of marriage was considered a sin.

Thanks to Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), the ‘father of modern psychology’, this belief was debunked. By observing his patients, Freud concluded that both women and men are sexual beings and that sexuality begins to develop at a very early age.


Not just a biologically determined instinct

Unlike animals, human sexuality is erotic—so much more than a simple reproductive instinct. We consciously define and refine the behaviours that bring us sexual pleasure and stimulate the erogenous zones, including the mind.

As the discipline of psychology has developed, so has its sub-branch, sexology—the study of human sexual behaviour. New knowledge continues to emerge, transforming long held but wrong-headed beliefs and providing increasingly clear answers to questions that can help you understand your sexuality.

We should remember that different cultures and societies still have very different attitudes towards sexuality—some are open and liberal, while others are prescriptive, and certain taboos remain in almost all societies. But no matter where you live and whom you live with, understanding your own sexuality is essential to building  successful and long-lasting relationships.

Healthy sexuality means being physically healthy, and especially being free from sexually transmitted diseases, but healthy sexuality also means cultivating a positive and respectful attitude towards the sexuality of others and contributing to the creation of safe, pleasurable sexual relations without discrimination or violence.

Sexuality is also related to a wide range of health benefits that reach far beyond the bedroom. A healthy sex life:

  • boosts immune system
  • improves the libido (sex drive)
  • helps strengthen pelvic floor muscles to prevent incontinence
  • lowers blood pressure and decreases the risk of heart attack
  • reduces pain and cramps, such as menstrual cramps and headaches
  • improves sleep and eases stress

Complex, different, changing

Human sexuality is complex and can be very different for different people, and one person can also express their sexuality in a variety of different ways. Not all people seem equally sexually attractive to us—if you enjoy spending time with someone or find them good looking, it does not automatically mean you want to be intimate with that person.


And vice versa—a person who you find very sexually attractive may not be particularly beautiful or intelligent.

Sexual relationships also change over time: a burning physical passion can transform into a companionable sweetness, where emotional intimacy becomes more important than physical intimacy.

Human sexual behaviour is not limited to sexual intercourse and can be surprisingly diverse. Sex can be performed alone, in pairs (with a same- or opposite-sex partner) or in a group setting, that may or may not involve coitus.

Sexual fantasies are also a normal part of human sexuality—some people do what they can make those ‘dreams’ come true, while others would never engage in the sexual activities they fantasize about.

Some people feel no sexual desire at all and are perfectly happy with this. As long as you feel satisfied and at ease with your own sexuality and you are respecting the needs and boundaries of others, your personal sexuality can be considered healthy and normal.

What is sexual orientation?

‘Sexual orientation is an enduring pattern of romantic or sexual attraction (or a combination of these) to persons of the opposite sex or gender [heterosexuality], the same sex or gender [homosexuality], or to both sexes or more than one gender [bisexuality].’ (from Wikipedia)


Asexuality is also sometimes considered a sexual orientation, although asexual people find sex and sexuality unimportant, so their preference is a negative one.

Sexual orientation can change over the course of a lifetime. For example, a person can be heterosexual in their youth, especially if they find themselves having to integrate into a society that is not open to same-sex relationships. This same person may later realize they are attracted only others of the same sex and find the freedom to express this.

Sexual discrimination

If sexuality were a simple matter, there wouldn’t be so much confusion, tension, and misunderstanding surrounding sex.

Some people feel comfortable as they are and never question their sexuality, while others may spend a lifetime seeking to understand their sexual identity.

It is not uncommon for people to be aware of their sexual desires but never to express them, as they realize what they long for is unusual and not socially acceptable. For others, it may be very difficult or impossible to accept any form of sexuality that is different from theirs. If such people constitute the majority of a society, sexual minorities are subject to various direct and subtle forms of discrimination, including physical violence and social exclusion.


As sexual health is closely linked to mental health and overall well-being, living in permanently unfavourable conditions can have severe consequences.

Studies show that compared with the general population LGBTI (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people have an increased risk of depression, anxiety, substance abuse, homelessness, self-harming, and suicidal thoughts.

This is particularly true of young LGBTI people who are coming to terms with their sexuality and experiencing victimisation and bullying at school.

If you someone close to you is experiencing such problems, or if you are struggling with your own sexuality or face discrimination based on your sexual orientation:

  • stop spending time with someone if they are abusive to you—time is the most valuable currency of our lives
  • seek help from a trusted support person—friend, relative, doctor, psychologist
  • call your local phone helpline to talk, if not there are resources available on the internet
  • take your own sweet time to figure out your sexuality
  • if you think you’re gay/lesbian but you don’t want to ‘come out’, that’s okay

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Sex and Society, Volume 2. Marshall Cavendish. 2010. Available at: - https://books.google.lv/books?id=YtsxeWE7VD0C&pg=PA384&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
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