Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


6 Ways to Develop Sexual Integrity

Resolve the conflict between our values and our choices.

Integrity is when our behaviors coincide with our values, words, and beliefs. Sadly, today we have a great many people struggling with integrity in their sexuality, as the modern world offers them impulsive, instantaneous opportunities to seek sexual gratification, even those desires that we are afraid and ashamed of. It’s often those impulsive choices that reveal that our professed morality and words don’t necessarily match up to our hidden deep-seated desires. That conflict, between our sexual desires/behaviors versus our moral beliefs and identity, is creating tremendous pain and struggle for many people these days.

Though a tiny minority (less than 1%) of people experience life consequences or problems due to their sexual behaviors, between 7-13% worry about controlling their sexual behaviors. People who identify as porn addicts don’t actually watch more porn than other people—they just feel worse about it. The same is true for those who identify as sex addicts—they don’t have more sex than many other people such as swingers or some gay men, but they feel much worse about the sex they are having. Consistently, these struggles are traced back to the beliefs that people hold about sex, masturbation, and porn. These are the beliefs and values these people were taught, in school in abstinent-only education, at home, by parents scared to talk to their kids about sex, and at church, where any sex other than heterosexual monogamy has been condemned.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The same is true when it comes to casual sex. People who view casual sex in positive ways, typically feel better afterward. But, people who believe that casual sex is immoral and slutty, feel bad about themselves if they have casual sex. This is one reason why as much as 90% of casual sex involves alcohol. People use alcohol to disinhibit themselves, to overcome the internal barriers they have towards acting on their desires. Then, they feel bad in the morning, with a guilt-laden hangover.

There are multiple ways to help people address this conflict.

  1. Change Your Behavior: For some, it’s about changing the behaviors and increasing their self-control. Some might be surprised to hear me say this. But, if our impulsive, spontaneous and disinhibited behaviors are causing us pain, then it’s important to prioritize self-awareness and mindfulness in these choices. I tell patients, “It’s time to turn off the autopilot and take control of the wheel. This is your life.” Then, we work on ways to increase awareness of decision points, where they can exert self-control and choice. Avoiding alcohol in situations where they may engage in values-inconsistent behaviors is a key first step. Don’t want to feel bad about having casual sex when you’re drunk? Step one: stop drinking. Step two? Figure out, while sober, why you want something that you have to be drunk to do, and the things that go into this internal conflict.
  2. Examine Your Values: But for many others, it’s about examining their values, and considering those values in a new, independent and adult light, and resolving the conflict by choosing new values. This actually happens many times in life. Do you hold the same political values as your parents? Younger people today view homosexuality as acceptable, despite the fact that most of us grew up with homophobic values. Many people grew up with racist beliefs and ideas, which they now reject. The same process can be true when it comes to pornography and other sexual behaviors, such as kink or casual sex. But this doesn’t happen by accident. To examine your values, you need to consider your beliefs about casual sex, about masturbation and sex toys, about anal or oral sex, about porn, infidelity and a great many aspects of sexuality that people don’t like to think about. You need to consider Bill Clinton’s famous question, "What is sex?" A recent study indicates that 11% of people believe that anal stimulation with another person, which doesn’t include orgasm, isn’t actually sex. You need to think about these things, especially in light of today’s technological opportunities. Is it cheating if you have cybersex with someone? What about if that other person is an artificially intelligent program? Is it still cheating? Sexual scientists and researchers examine these attitudes using tests like the Brief Sexual Attitudes Scale or the Trueblood Sexual Attitude Questionnaire. As technology and society change, though, sexual practices are developing and changing. So, these tests aren’t quite caught up to the modern world of things like financial domination or transgender politics. Here’s one kinky test to help you figure out what kinds of kinks you’re interested in, though it doesn’t get into the moral conflicts you might have about these desires.
  3. Watch More Porn: An interesting effect happens as people watch pornography. They become more egalitarian, more supportive of women and men sharing roles and work, and less accepting of gender-based discrimination. They also become more accepting of sexual diversity and less stigmatizing towards homosexuality. They become less religious, and may even experience more crises of faith. Enjoying porn leads to people changing their beliefs about sex and gender, and, in some cases, rejecting the dogmatically rigid sex/gender values they were taught in church. Our society is becoming less dogmatic about sex, more egalitarian, and more accepting of sexual diversity. Where our pain and struggles emerge from a conflict between these different sets of values, watching porn may, in some cases, lead to people being more accepting and less judgmental, both of themselves and others. This is why sex therapists are typically required to attend SARs (Sexual Attitude Reassessment seminars) where they are exposed to porn and sexual diversity, and are forced to confront and examine their beliefs about the “right” kind of sex.
  4. Learn From Your Desires and Fantasies: Some people lead complicated, parallel lives. They work hard to live a life that looks just like the life they were taught to want. Then, in their secret sexual fantasies, in their heads, online or in real life, they explore aspects of sexuality they don’t feel comfortable with in their public life. One man I worked with had a lifelong interest in urophilia, sexual behavior involving urine. When he was caught at work watching this porn, he had to make his interests known to his wife of 15 years. Turns out, she was GGG (Good, Giving, and Game) and willing to incorporate it into their sex lives, and now he didn’t have to keep it secret, nor feel such tremendous shame over it. Some people have deep, burning attractions towards certain porn performers. I tell those people to learn from that attraction, and to accept that this performer represents qualities they find sexually appealing and attractive. Your job is not to go find that porn performer, but to use that attraction to understand what kind of sexual qualities you want in a partner.
  5. Learn to Talk About Your Desires: The overwhelming majority of people (some studies suggest well over 90%) never share their sexual desires or fantasies with anyone, out of fear of rejection. This inevitably leads to people having a discrepancy between their sexual realities and their desires. It’s hard to have integrity in that situation, because we constantly feel as though our lives and desires are in conflict. Sometimes, we don’t actually want those fantasies to come true. But, true sexual integrity often involves acceptance—acceptance by oneself, and by one’s partner. I encourage people to find ways to share their fantasies and interests with their partners, and for people to accept and avoid shaming their partners for their fantasies.
    Wikimedia Commons
    Source: Wikimedia Commons

    Fantasies and sexual interests don't mean they are something a person has to have. A majority of men (around 75%, at least) fantasize about a threesome with two women. But only a fraction of men, less than 6-10%, ever make that fantasy a reality. Many women may have fantasized about rough sex with Bigfoot, but I don’t think the American Bigfoot Society has suddenly seen a surge in female membership on expeditions to find the creature. We can learn to accept sexual diversity in fantasy and desires, in ourselves, and our partners, eradicating the secret sexual shames that make sexual integrity and congruence so much more difficult.

  6. Develop Your Sexual Principles: What are the key components for you, which decide what makes sex healthy, right and good? Honesty? Consent? Mutuality? The point of all this work is to lead to you deciding what the principles are for sexual integrity, as opposed to using an “act-based” model of sexual health. Religions have long taught that this kind of sex (heterosexual monogamy) is good, while other kinds (such as masturbation or homosexuality) are bad. Nowadays, in this changing world, we need to help people learn to decide for themselves, from a basis of ethical values, how to engage in sex with integrity. “Teach men to fish, rather than giving them a fish.” Teach people to only engage in sexual behaviors if they can do so with integrity, based on honesty, respect, consent, and mutuality. This is how we help people to resolve the conflict of living in a world of sexual opportunities, for which they were unprepared by abstinence-only education, religion, and childhood teachings. These are the steps towards developing sexual integrity and ending the deeply painful struggles that many people are now experiencing.
Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

David's new book, Ethical Porn for Dicks: A Man's Guide to Responsible Viewing Pleasure explores these issues in more detail, and is available now. Follow David on Twitter.

More from David J. Ley Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today