Love and Sex in the Digital Age

Technology and the intimate relationship

Do You Have Sexual Integrity?

Nobody knows what’s right for you, but here are basic tenets of sexual integrity

Sex Scandals Gone AWOL

Thankfully, 2014 has provided a bit of a sex scandal lull (other than Anthony Wiener’s failed bid for NYC mayor). As a result, the lascivious adventures of Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, David Duchovny, General Petraeus, and even the fabulously fun and ever-reliable Charlie Sheen are starting to feel like ancient history. Considering all the “men in power behaving badly” stories of the past few decades, it’s actually pretty amazing that we’ve somehow waltzed through several hundred news cycles without a major sex-related scandal, especially in this day and age of Twitter, Instagram, TMZ, and 24/7 breaking news. Maybe people are getting better at hiding their indiscretions, learning from the oh-so-public missteps of the aforementioned celebrities and politicians. Or maybe Americans as a whole are beginning to develop a modicum of sexual integrity.

Understanding Sexual Integrity

At this point you might be wondering what I mean by “sexual integrity.” You might also be a little bit worried that I’m about to turn into the sex police, telling you what is and is not acceptable sexual behavior according to my standards. Rest assured, that’s definitely not happening. In fact, in positing the concept of sexual integrity I’m doing quite the opposite. Essentially, I view sexual integrity as unique to each individual based on that person’s background, values, and life-situation. And nobody, not even a sex and relationship expert like myself, can or should try to tell you what your personal version of sexual integrity should look like. In fact, if someone tries to horn in on this very personal self-determination, I suggest that you tell them to go flip sand.

Nevertheless, there are some basic tenets to sexual integrity. These underlying principles are not about sex, per se, instead they are about you as an individual. In short, the personal principles inherent in sexual integrity involve things like honesty about what turns you on and transparency about all aspects of your sexual and romantic history. If you are completely open and honest about these things with yourself and with your long-term intimate partner/spouse, and in a boundaried way with new sexual/intimate partners, then you probably have sexual integrity. The best part of sexual integrity is that if you are honest, transparent, and risk vulnerability by recognizing and revealing your deepest desires and hopes, you are much more likely to feel loved, intimately connected, and valued - and also to have a rewarding sex life.

When developing a plan for sexual integrity it is important to remember that your sexual desires and choices may be perfectly OK in your mind but a source of consternation for others in your life - your religious parents, for example, or your spouse who didn’t sign up for all of your philandering, or that person you’ve been fooling around with who is deeply in love with you even though you’ve not in any way returned that sentiment. If you’re married, for instance, but you want to occasionally fool around with people who aren’t your spouse, this behavior may or may not be acceptable. To a large extent it depends on whether you told your spouse about this before you got married, and, if so, how he or she responded, along with any decisions you and your spouse have mutually agreed upon since that time. If your partner has agreed to an “open relationship” and is okay with occasional sex outside the relationship, and you’re not keeping what you do a secret from him or her, then extramarital sex probably doesn’t violate your sexual integrity. If, however, you’re in a supposedly monogamous relationship and you’re keeping your infidelity a secret, then you are violating your sexual integrity - an act that is likely to damage both your relationship and your self-esteem.

Similar relationship-related sexual integrity questions can arise around things like porn use, what and how much you should reveal about yourself and your sexual desires to someone you’ve just started dating, same-sex attractions, bisexuality, fetish interests, etc. So yeah, defining and living a life of sexual integrity is not always easy. That said, I firmly believe that every person, regardless of gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious background, emotional/psychological issues, or any other life-defining factors, could and probably should consider implementing sexual integrity. This means that before engaging in any sexual activity - casual, committed, or something in-between - each person should know what it is that matters to him or her both sexually and interpersonally, not just in the moment but in the longer-term. Once a person has sufficiently defined those boundaries, that individual is much less likely to engage in sexual activity that will cause emotional distress either during or after.

Sexual Integrity Considerations

Obviously each person is unique, which means each person’s definition of sexual integrity will also be unique. However, there are several standard considerations, listed below. For most readers, of course, some of these queries will be very much in play while others won’t matter at all. And for each reader there will probably be factors that I’ve failed to list. In other words, this list of questions is merely a starting point in developing your personal understanding of sexual integrity. Questions to ask include:

  • What did your family of origin teach you about sex? If your mother and father were always very strict in their opinions about sexual behavior, that will likely play into your thinking. If, however, your parents came from the free love generation and espoused a looser, more accepting version of sexuality, your vision of sexual integrity will probably reflect this attitude.
  • What is the doctrine espoused by your religion? If you are highly religious, this may be a very important consideration. Two things you may have to ask yourself are: Do you agree with every little thing your church tells you, and do you want to strictly follow your church’s doctrine? If you are part of a socially conservative religion and you feel strongly about the teachings, then things like pornography and premarital sex are probably not for you, and your vision of sexual integrity will almost certainly reflect that.
  • What does your community (in general) believe? Even if family of origin and religious affiliation don’t have much influence on you, social mores likely will. For instance, if you’re in college and all the people around you are single and getting it on like bunny rabbits, casual sex probably won’t look too bad. If, however, you are married and living in an upscale suburb where infidelity is frowned upon, engaging in casual sex might look like a bad idea.
  • Is a certain behavior safe? Safety comes into play on numerous levels. Most obviously, there is the threat of STDs to deal with. Less obviously, it is important to understand that not everyone you meet through an online site or a hookup app is safe and sane. There are definitely at least a few people in the digital universe who are perfectly willing to abuse and mistreat you. I have listed a number of tips for safe and successful online dating in a previous blog.
  • Am I harming anyone else with my behavior? This is a biggie. Yes, porn use, casual sex, and various other sexual activities are, by nature, pretty narcissistic. Still, you must consider the impact of what you are doing on other people. If you are in a committed, supposedly monogamous relationship, any form of infidelity will likely be hurtful to your partner. If, on the other hand, you’re in a healthy and committed but open relationship, and extracurricular sex does not violate the boundaries of that relationship, your partner will probably not be so upset. You also need to understand that sex is never casual for some people. With some sexual partners there is an emotional commitment from them whether you want it or not. This means that if you’re only interested in casual sex, you need to be clear about that up front.

Once again, sexual integrity is different for everyone. What works for your best friend may be totally wrong for you, and vice versa. The trick, when developing your personal version of sexual integrity, is figuring out what works and makes sense for you (and, to a lesser extent, the people around you). Once you have established a workable plan for yourself, you are much less likely to experience negative consequences if/when you are sexual. You also will need to be flexible. If at some point down the line you find that your values have changed, then your plan for sexual integrity might also need to change.

 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. An author and subject expert on the relationship between digital technology and human sexuality, Mr. Weiss has served as a media specialist for CNN, The Oprah Winfrey Network, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and the Today Show, among many others. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.

Robert Weiss is the author of Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Sex, Intimacy and Relationships.

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