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Healthy Sex vs. Unhealthy Sex

Updated: Jun 16, 2018

Have you ever wondered if the intimate relationship you are in is healthy for you? If you have this question lingering on your mind for too long, or have the feeling that something is off, it may be time to do something about it.

Our sexual exploration is one of the most thrilling experiences a human being can have, but at times people have difficulty recognizing whether their sexual behavior is healthy or unhealthy, despite the adverse consequences that they may be experiencing as a result.

Certain sexual behaviors are considered psychosexual disorders and are studied within the area of sex addiction. Other sexual behaviors are considered psychologically "normal," like masturbation or consensual and open sex with multiple partners. However, even healthy sex can be carried out in an unhealthy way.

How do we know when sexual behavior is unhealthy or damaging to our mental, emotional and/or physical health?

Healthy sexual behavior agrees with a person's values, it's respectful of self and others, it's honest, both partners feel safe and free to chose, and it deepens intimacy and joy. Unhealthy sexual behavior compromises values, it's dishonest and exploitative, at times disrespectful of self and others, and it doesn't deepen intimacy (Hunter, 1992).

During a lifetime, a person may experience changes related to sexual behavior, identity, and values. It's important to maintain a transparent and open form of communication with our partner where there are no taboos.

When is sexual behavior an addictive behavior?

A sex addict usually presents obsession and intense preoccupation with sexual thoughts and sexual activity. Sexual behavior is considered sex addiction when it's compulsive, it's out of control, and it continues despite adverse consequences. This is what's called "the 3 Cs" of addiction:

  • Compulsive

  • Control (loss)

  • Continued

Compulsive means that there's a conflict between an intention not to engage in a sexual behavior and the actual behavior, which violates the intention. Out of control means that the sex addict cannot control the urge to engage in sexual behavior. With loss of control, the sexual experience also becomes increasingly pervasive- what started as "normal" or casual sexual exploration can turn into a habit that becomes part of that person's life.

If a young person, male or female, doesn't practice control over her/his sexual urges and behaviors, that person is likely as an adult to continue a sexual pattern of compulsion and loss of control even in a committed and fulfilling relationship. To avoid these patterns, it becomes important to understand at an early age the concept of conscious relationships.

Addictive disorders tend to progress- with time the addict needs more to get the same effect, a common feature of addiction. There are three levels of sex addiction that a person can experience, but this doesn't mean that all sex addicts will progress from one level to the next. Sex addicts are more likely to repeat or intensify the sexual behavior of their preference. For example, a person who has multiple affairs is more likely over time to continue this behavior and increase it, rather than switch to a different sexual behavior.

Three levels of sex addiction:

LEVEL 1: Acceptable/tolerable sexual behavior (e.g. masturbation, viewing pornography)

LEVEL 2: Victimizing sexual behavior that is illegal (e.g. exhibitionism, voyeurism, obscenity)

LEVEL 3: Illegal/grave consequences sexual behavior (e.g. rape, incest, child molestation)

Studies show that 81% of men and 19% of women have been admitted for treatment for sex addictions (Carnes, 1991).

Framing healthy sexual behavior.

Addictive Sex

Feels shameful

Is illicit, exploitative

Compromises values

Draws on fear or excitement

Reenacts childhood abuse

Disconnects one from oneself

Creates world of unreality

Is self-destructive and dangerous

Uses conquest or power

Is seductive

Serves to medicate or kill pain

Is dishonest

Becomes routine

Requires double life

Is grim and joyless

Demands perfection

Healthy Sex

Adds to self-esteem

Has no victims

Deepens meaning

Uses vulnerability for excitement

Cultivates sense of being adult

Furthers sense of self

Expands reality

Relies on safety

Is mutual and intimate

Takes responsibility for needs

May bring legitimate suffering

Originates in integrity

Presents challenges

Integrates most authentic parts of self

Is fun and playful

Accepts the imperfect



Coombs, R. H. (2004). Handbook of Addictive Disorders.

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