Many couples I have worked with, and currently am working with, have at some point or another during therapy paused in hesitancy before disclosing the nature of their sexual relationships. This also happens in individual therapy. What exactly do I mean by this? Well, after moving past the initial awkwardness they are experiencing, couples have shared that they have engaged in threesomes, have enjoyed swinging (i.e., partner-swapping), or have provided permission to the other to go outside of the relationship for sexual acts. In individual therapy, patients are often reluctant to share when they have recently met someone and then “quickly” had sex.
Their hesitancy appears to come from a belief that the behaviors they have engaged in are “wrong” or not socially acceptable, and if they disclose such personal matters, that they will be met with instantaneous judgment. I can’t speak for all therapists (though there are a lot of “should’s” here!), but it is my experience that my patients quickly realize my office is a therapeutic space of non-judgment, open-mindedness, and understanding.
Beyond my own personal, but rather open-minded approach to sexuality, I also take a stance of understanding one’s sexual integrity. So what does this term, sexual integrity, actually mean?
Defining Sexual Integrity
Essentially, sexual integrity is acting in accordance with your own values, beliefs, and morals in the context of sexual matters. In relationships, this typically means having open and honest discussions with your partner and being in agreement about sexual acts, particularly if going outside of your relationship. If you and your partner are in agreement about going outside of the relationship (e.g., having what is called an “open-relationship”) without the presence of coercion on other side, then doing so is in line with your personal sexual integrity and that of your primary intimate relationship. That being said, sexual integrity involves being honest about your sexual preferences and open about all aspects of your sexual, romantic, and relationship history. This honesty and openness is important with regard to yourself and your intimate partner.
Sexual integrity is not about being told what is “right” or “wrong”; it is unique to each individual and each couple based on their own preferences and values. Any knowledgable, professional, and credible therapist shouldn’t tell you what your sexual integrity should look like. Rather, they should understand this concept and embrace what works for you (and your partner if you are in a relationship).
Sexual integrity is incredibly important; having sexual integrity leads to more sexual satisfaction, relationship satisfaction, and personal satisfaction.
How You Develop Your Sexual Integrity
Since sexual integrity is a combination of your values, beliefs, morals, and experiences, it is not surprising that many factors contribute to the development of your definition of sexual integrity. The following is a list of some possible factors that may have influenced your definition of sexual integrity.
- Religion: This may seem like an obvious one, but for good reason. If you were raised in a religious household, or currently espouse strong religious beliefs, the doctrines contained within your religion related to sex likely have had a strong influence on your sexual beliefs. For example, beliefs about not having sex until marriage or not viewing pornography are some ways in which religion may guide your definition of sexual integrity.
- Trial and Error (Experiences): Perhaps you never envisioned yourself having or desiring a threesome, but were not exactly in opposition either. An opportunity to do arises one day, and afterwards, and you decide this is something you enjoy and want to include in your sexual life. Or, conversely, you end that experience realizing threesomes are not for you. Sometimes sexual integrity definitions are a result of experience, and figuring out what it is that you like and don’t like. This typically requires some amount of open-mindedness to try new things, which is related to the next factor.
- Family-of-Origin: For many, sexual integrity beliefs are influenced by their family-of-origin and what you learned about sex. If your family was very open about sexuality, you may have developed a more 0pen-minded approach to sexuality and comfort with discussing sexual matters. Conversely, if your family never discussed sexuality and the topic was nearly taboo, this is just as likely to have an impact on your comfort with sexual discussions and perhaps your level of open-mindedness with sexual activity.
- People Around You: The people you surround yourself with also have an impact on your approach to sexuality. If you are in college and your friends are having casual sex, then it is quite possible, if not likely, that casual sex is or will become an acceptable option for you. The opposite is also true. Research has shown that parent’s actions have more of an impact than peers, however if your religion and family have not had much of an impact on the development of your sexual integrity definition, it is likely your peer relationships and social mores will.
Sexual Integrity is Different from Infidelity
Sexual relationships outside of your primary intimate relationship are not always infidelity. Again, if you are open and honest with your partner, and in agreement about what is allowed and not allowed in your relationship, then it is not infidelity. Instead, it is integrity. (To learn more about what constitutes relationship infidelity, read our previous blog). Your definition of sexual integrity may be entirely different from that of your best friend, siblings, or parents. However, what matters is that it works for you, which really means that you are being honest and forthright with yourself and your primary romantic partner if you are in a relationship. Sexual integrity is also flexible, so it is possible that your beliefs and values may change over time, which can result in changes in your sexual integrity definition.