What Is Sexuality?

Here is a picture that may help.

What is sexuality? This, it appears, is the multi-million dollar question. It is said the subject is too complex for one consistent definition. And despite all the books I have read, I could not find one clear model that I could use to understand my sexuality, let alone discuss the concept with my children. Without a simple visual model and a common language, I feel the opportunity to have full and frank conversations with my kids is lost. But I have developed a solution that seems to be working, and here it is. Perhaps it could be helpful for you too?

Shying Away From Sexuality

I think the similarity of the word sexuality to sex has people shying away from conversations about it and investigations into it. Some people I discuss sexuality with even begin to whisper as if they are talking about something taboo. However, as the World Health Organisation (WHO) declares, sexuality is a central aspect of being human[i]. and as such, we should be able to have open and intelligent conversations about it. Suppose we continue to ignore or reject the central role it plays in our lives. In that case, we are in danger of preventing our children from being open and honest about theirs and building strong and positive relationships with themselves and others.

What Is Sexuality?

From all of my reading and personal experience,  I have developed a definition of sexuality that makes sense to me. It is based on the one from WHO and is as follows.  :

Sexuality is the relationship between our physical bodies and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that we use to form intimate connections.

And while I acknowledge sexuality is influenced by so many social, cultural, political and legal factors, as this definition suggests, there are two main aspects to our sexuality, being:

  1. Sexual agency
  2. Physical connection

These two dimensions of sexuality are described beautifully by Alexandra Solomon in her book Taking Sexy Back.[ii].  Very simply, though, sexual agency is the set of things that are true to us, representing who we really are. Physical connection, as it suggests, is how our sexual agency is expressed in intimate relationships with others.

The key elements of sexuality are shown on the following diagram, and the components of each are discussed further below. I initially called this model the Sexuality Circle. It sounded great in my head. Then, in conversation with a friend yesterday, I asked her if she would “like to see my sexuality circle?”. Yes – it certainly sounded better in my head than it did aloud. So, for now, it is just the Model of Sexuality until I find a more appropriate title!

The sexuality model

Sexual agency

The elements of the sexual agency are all about you – your unique, quirky, true self. They include:

  • Biological sex – what you were born with. That is the set of chromosomes and genitalia you came into the world with. Some people know biological sex as gender, or just sex (e.g. male or female).
  • Gender identity – can be the same or different as your biological sex. It is your personal sense of self as a man or woman, both or neither. Options include cisgender (has a gender identity the same as your biological sex), transgender (identifies as a gender different to biological sex) and gender non-binary (does not identify as either male or female).
  • Attraction – the gender identities you feel drawn to connect with. The basic options here are the opposite sex (what we know as heterosexual or ‘straight’), the same-sex (homosexual or gay), or pansexual (which is flexible in terms of identity attraction).
  • Desire – how much you want intimate connection. It is also known as libido. The possibilities here range from no desire (asexual) to high sexual desire. It is important to note that just like most other elements of sexuality, this one changes over time.
  • Pleasure  – what makes YOU feel good. This element is often missed or belittled in discussions of sexuality, but it is of vital importance. Once you understand your attitudes towards pleasure and what feels good to you, then you can have the ability to create intimate connections that are honest and mutually satisfying.
  • Self Intimacy – some would call this solo sex or masturbation, but I think both are extremely limiting and have negative connotations. I prefer the term self-intimacy because that is exactly what this is – getting close to, understanding and being comfortable with your body. Through self-intimacy, you also come to understand the areas of your body that bring you pleasure, and this knowledge is powerful. By demeaning self-intimacy, we also deny ourselves the ability to love our sexual nature.

Each person has their unique combination of identity, attraction, desire, view of pleasure and approach to self-intimacy. The aim of ‘sexual freedom’ is for each person to:

  • understand their unique traits
  • appreciate how many of these will fluctuate over time
  • feel confident bring their special mix into intimate relationships with others. 

Physical Connection

At some point out, individual elements of sexuality will have the opportunity to connect with these same elements of another. We then can touch each other and have close body contact. It may lead to sex, which I think also requires a definition. Here is one that works for me:

Sex is the act of stimulating the sexual organs for pleasure and/or procreation.

This broader definition recognises that because of the diverse nature of the participants, we need to acknowledge it as something more than just penis in vagina penetration. In doing so, this definition of sex allows us to begin conversations with our children about sexual health, even before they engage in intercourse.

I have broken out touch and body contact separately in this model because I think it is important to acknowledge these as pleasurable and meaningful sources of intimate connection. Unfortunately, these are often overshadowed by the obsessive pursuit of sex, which I will discuss in more detail later.

I have also put in a bubble called pornography. Why have I highlighted this? The reason is that pornography has become the de facto sex education for our children, so it is vitally important to acknowledge. But represented as just one small part of the sex circle, it is also acknowledged as just one view, one perspective of sex. There is a whole lot more space in the sex circle to explore. In this way, I aim to show sex ≠ porn.

Sexual Fluidity

You will notice that there is a wiggly line on all but one of the circles in sexual agency(biological sex). This symbol denotes that these elements of our sexuality fluctuate over time. Every piece of research proves it – our gender identity, who we are attracted to, our level of desire and self-intimacy, and what gives us pleasure are all changeable. In our thirst for certainty, we would like to cling to one way of being, a single definition of our sexuality across our lifetime. But let’s get real – this is not the way it works. 

Sexual fluidity is a term used a lot these days, and I am not sure it is the best description. But regardless of terminology, the fact that we are acknowledging our changing sexuality is a breakthrough. I have already had my 11-year-old daughter telling me that her school friend has decided she is lesbian. The poor children feel the need to decide so early “what they are” and then label it. Getting our kids to understand the concept of sexual fluidity sure takes the pressure off what is already an incredibly tense time in their development.

Embracing sexual fluidity also supports their growth to a higher state of adulthood. Dr Robert Keegan has developed the Theory of Adult Development.[iii] that shows growing up as a journey. It is a progression from relying on other people’s opinions and instruction to trusting your ability and establishing an independent life. The second-highest stage of adult development (Stage 4)  is the Self-Authoring Mind. In this stage, you stop letting others define who you are and determine your sense of self-worth. You develop your worldview and values and recognise that you are always changing and growing.

The journey to absolute independence does not end there, though. Stage 5, the Self-Transforming Mind, empowers you further by releasing all expectations and identities. You begin to understand how complex life is and that there is continual change occurring. You could argue then that by teaching our children that their sexuality will change over their lifetimes, we are giving them permission to grow up.

A Distorted View of Sexuality

I love the use of circles for this model of sexuality because it allows me to show how our notions of sexuality can become distorted. Our commercialist culture focuses on labels and the most tangible artefacts of our sexuality -our appearance and the act of sex.

In my mind, our view of sexuality is being distorted to look like this.

A distorted view of sexuality.

The pursuit of physical connection overtakes our sense of agency, and our preoccupation with sex overtakes our perception of what physical connection is or could be. Moreover, the majority of our understanding about sex is comprised of porn, which in turn filters back out to overshadow our own sexual truth, including what we actually find pleasurable. It places pressure on our elements of agency, making them vulnerable to other people’s definition of what sex is.

As highlighted in my article Numeracy, Literacy and Porn, three-quarters of young women say that pornography increases pressure on girls to act a certain way and increases their level of insecurity in intimate relationships.[iv]. Around 70% of teenage boys admit that pornography has had a damaging impact on their view of sex and relationships.[v].

Let’s All Grow Up!

If we are going to help our kids grow up embracing their sexuality and living confidently in this world, then we first have to understand what sexuality is. The model I have developed has allowed me to gain a much deeper appreciation for my own sexuality and all it comprises. The model has allowed me to consider where I may have lost my agency at certain times in my life and how certain elements have become out of balance. It has helped me have open and critical conversations with my kids and develop a common language about their experiences and expressions. It is not perfect, but it is a start. If you think you could develop a better one, please go ahead! Anything that allows more liberated discussions will only be helpful.

Shying away from the topic helps no one – it only allows the perverse distortions to continue and harmful thoughts, feelings and behaviours to proliferate. If we really care for our kids, we need to care for their whole person – including their sexuality. Of course, our job is to be role models for our children. So, in this way, we also need to understand, appreciate and care for our own sexuality. This awareness and these discussions could finally be the beginning of the sexual revolution we have been waiting for – one that brings together all people and is founded on equality and respect. Now there is a vision I am willing to work towards!

[i] Defining sexual health. (2022). World Health Organization. https://www.who.int/teams/sexual-and-reproductive-health-and-research/key-areas-of-work/sexual-health/defining-sexual-health

[ii][ii] Solomon, A. H. (2021). Taking Sexy Back: How to Own Your Sexuality and Create the Relationships You Want. ReadHowYouWant.

[iii] Kegan’s Theory of the Evolution of Consciousness | Tomorrow’s Professor Postings. (2021). Stanford University. https://tomprof.stanford.edu/posting/1110.

[iv] Havey, A., Puccio, D., & Thomas, K. S. (2017). Sex, Likes and Social Media: Talking to Our Teens in the Digital Age. Vermilion. Page 102.

[v] Havey, A., Puccio, D., & Thomas, K. S. (2017). Sex, Likes and Social Media: Talking to Our Teens in the Digital Age. Vermilion. Page 94.

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