An Overview of Sex and Sexuality


The topic of sex and sexuality is incorporated into nearly every culture around the world; however, many people are unfamiliar with the appropriate words used to define sexual expression and interactions, often using these terms interchangeably. While sex is the act of engaging in sexual behaviors, sexuality describes how an individual chooses to express themselves as a sexual being. Additionally, sexuality can be shaped by many factors such as experiences, societal expectations, attitudes, values, and beliefs. This article reviews sex and sexuality, exploring how these concepts affect everyday experiences and interactions.


What Is Sex?

Sex is a very broad subject that influences and affects nearly every aspect of human social life. Essentially, it is an intimate act involving either one person or multiple people. The traditional definition for sex refers to penile-vaginal intercourse, either for procreation or for pleasure. Sexual attraction and intercourse may occur between two or more people. Although attraction and intercourse occur between different pairs of biological sexes ( i.e., males and females, just males, or just females), one’s sexual behavior still does not determine their sexuality.1

Sex can be defined in two ways. Sex can either be considered a person’s biological identity as female or male, or it can be defined by physical manifestations of sexual behaviors, which includes acts such as kissing to penile erection, vaginal lubrication, and orgasm.

While many may think sex is only between two people, group sex involves the sexual interactions between three or more people at the same time and may include individuals of any sexual orientation or gender identity.  There are many forms of group sex. One form is called a threesome, or a ménage à trios; this sexual activity includes three people, either as three females (FFF), three males(MMM), two males and a female (MMF), or two females and a male (FFM). Another form of group sex is called an orgy, which includes four or more individuals participating in sexual relations with all the same-sex individuals or a combination of the sexes. It involves several individuals having sex with multiple partners at the same time and in the same place.

Sex can even be performed with a singular person. Sex with oneself is called masturbation; it involves touching one's own genitalia for pleasure, usually with the intention of reaching orgasm. Sex toys may be used to enhance pleasure for individuals in certain sexual behaviors, such as the ones listed above. 

Sex can be performed for a variety of reasons. The reasons may include using sex as an expression of love, an attempt to achieve physical pleasure, a way for two people to become closer and take their relationship to new levels, or a decision to conceive a child.2


How Is Sexuality Different From Sex?

Sexuality involves much more than just having sex or engaging in sexual activities. Sexuality includes sex, but it is also a broader concept that interconnects multiple realms of human experience. Sexuality is defined as the feelings, behaviors, and identities associated with sex. There are many aspects of sexuality. It includes the physical and psychological traits that differ between males and females, the emotional and sexual attractions an individual feels toward others such as who he/she finds attractive, and the person with whom he/she establishes and maintains sexual relationships. Sexuality is also influenced by societal expectations and social structures, such as religion, politics, and medicine. One of the biggest differences between sex and sexuality is that sexuality is very personal and individualized, even though it describes how people relate to others and how they define themselves in their societies.

Sexual orientation refers to the primary romantic, emotional, and sexual attraction a person feels toward others. There is a wide range of sexual orientations that a person may identify with, which include heterosexuality, homosexuality, asexuality, pansexuality and bisexuality.3


How Does Puberty Affect Sex?

There is a large mental component involved in the act of sex. Initially, puberty brings many changes for both males and females. Physically, some changes for males include body growth, changes in the penis and testicle, maturation, pubic hair growth, vocal changes, fertility, nocturnal emissions, and acne.  For females, some changes associated with puberty include breast growth, menstruation, body hair, vocal changes, and acne.

Masturbation is beneficial to many males and females because it is a time of self-exploration and change. Sexual urges, fantasies, and masturbation are all normal; these occurrences are the body’s way of adjusting to the significant changes associated with puberty. Although these changes first begin to appear as adolescent bodies are preparing to become adults, it is natural for these physical phenomena to continue throughout one’s lifetime.

Hormones also affect certain emotions that lead to the focus of sexual desires. Sexual urges, whether they are fantasies, thoughts, or physical actions (such as masturbation), are completely normal occurrences. The social taboos surrounding much of what happens during adolescent growth must be counteracted with the biological fact that these urges are natural. Furthermore, it is often the case that male sexuality is prioritized over female sexuality. This greater recognition may appear because the male’s penis is larger than the female’s clitoris, a penile erection is more obvious than clitoral an erection, or the penis is located externally while the vagina is more internally located.

Female sexuality is not as accepted or talked about in our society as male sexuality. Yet both genders experience very similar changes during puberty. Both girls and boys may begin to have strong emotions that they have never felt before, such as increased sensitivity, stronger anger impulses, and elevated anxiousness. They may also experience new feelings about sex, ranging from confusion to pleasurable sexual arousal that had not been present before.


What Are the Physical, Mental, and Emotional Aspects of Sex?

Sex can be divided into different components such as physical, mental, and emotional aspects. The physical aspects include the bodily experiences that are felt during sex, the mental aspects include the expectations of sexual encounters of both boys and girls, and the emotional aspects include differs in their interest of participation in sex and cultural differences about the ideas of sex.

Physical Aspects

First sex is often associated with the “loss of virginity” and can be an important experience in a person’s life. Engaging in consensual intercourse for the first time can be a positive experience that is shared with a partner, rather than something that is lost during one’s first sexual experience.

For some females, engaging in sexual intercourse for the first time may cause them to experience pain or feel slightly uncomfortable; in this case, the pain could occur because the female does not have enough lubrication, her partner is penetrating too quickly, or the partners may need to try a different sex position. Communication with one’s partner is important if one feels pain or discomfort during intercourse, as sex should be enjoyable for both partners, and communication is an easy method to help resolve these issues. Note that some females have comfortable and enjoyable first–time sexual experiences with little or no pain. Both of these situations are normal.4

Additionally, it is normal for some females to bleed during or after their first time having intercourse. Bleeding is likely to be caused by the stretching of the hymen or some other minor irritations. The hymen is a thin piece of mucosal tissue that surrounds and partially covers the vaginal opening, and the shape of the hymen caries from female to female. The hymen has many cultural significances. Some societies associate the hymen with a signal of virginity; however, the presence(or lack thereof) of an intact hymen is a poor indicator of the female’s virginity. The hymen can be torn or stretched by many nonsexual activities ranging from intense physical exercises such as horseback riding or gymnastics, or to everyday activities, such as the use of tampons. Virginity is not a physical assessment of one’s body; it is a personal decision and has a different definition for everyone. 1

Mental Aspects

Experiences and expectations of sexual encounters do not significantly differ between boys and girls. Boys often associate their first experience of intercourse with more pleasure than girls, finding it more acceptable to have intercourse without love. However, this does not imply that all males having sex for the first time are not in love. Virginity is typically regarded as a stigma in males’ youth culture that one may try to discard. On the other hand, girls expect more pain, experience less orgasms, and often feel more regret than boys do during their first sexual interaction. Moreover, for females virginity may be regarded as more precious, so deciding to have sex for the first time is essentially an offering it is a sign of love.5

Likewise, the opinions on virginity and sex are fluid and open to change. For example, intercourse is highly dependent on the situation. Sometimes fun, casual sex can be just as wonderful and intimate as sex with a committed, long-term partner. Overall, the “type” (casual or committed) of sex one is having should not matter as long there is consent between both partners and they are practicing safe sex. Instead, it is crucial that both and/or all partners enjoy and are comfortable with the intercourse that is happening. After all, sex is a very personal experience and the only opinions that should truly matter are between partners.

Emotional Aspects

There are also emotional connections to sex. Each individual differs in their interest of participation in sex. Some people prefer sex in committed relationships, while others enjoy hookups. In committed relationships, there may be a feeling of emotional stability and intimacy. On the other hand, hookups may be exciting due to the novelty it creates. However, males are far more likely than women to believe that causal sex without an emotional relationship is acceptable.3

Some theories have arisen in explaining the gender differences in sexual attitudes. The first theory is the biological-based view that explains the genetic and hormonal differences in men and women. The second theory stems from the idea that the differences are caused by a function of social roles and cultural influences, where some cultures think that sexuality is more acceptable for men than females. The third theory indicates that gender differences is caused by the fusion of both biology and culture.6

It is important to note that there are cultural differences about the ideas of sex. Some cultures may define sex as strictly for procreation and support the idea that sex should only be performed between married couples with the feelings of love and intimacy attached. However, others may see sex as recreational along with procreational, where sex can be done casually without the need of emotional attachment.

Sexual interactions can involve committed or casual relationships which include both heterosexual and homosexual partners. Different people maintain a variety of traditions and beliefs when it comes to sex.  Some believe it is a monumental experience that should only be practiced between two married individuals.  Others have a much more casual view of sex and focus more on the physical pleasure it brings them, rather than the spiritual or cultural significance of the sexual interactions.

Sex can be a complicated and controversial subject. That being said, sex is often one of the most wonderful and satisfying interactions partners can experience, especially when they communicate and share a passionate closeness. Every sexual experience will be unique to the individual involved in the act.  However, this wonderful experience also comes with incredible responsibility. For this reason, one should be fully prepared to practice safe sex and to handle any possible complications that may arise before engaging in the act.


What Should I Consider When Thinking About Sex?

For many individuals, first sex is an important experience that acts as a stepping stone to adulthood. It can be beneficial for one to talk to trustworthy adults about their consideration in being sexually active. Consent, contraception, and good communication are important topics to consider when one is deciding to be sexually active.

Make the Decision

Like most other sexual decisions, deciding when to have sex is unique to each individual. Only the individual will be able to know when they are ready to have sex. Having knowledge about sex will help one feel comfortable when they think that they are ready to have sex. It is also helpful for an individual to talk to their parents or other adults whom they trust to provide supported guidance about their decision whether or not to have sex.7  Although first sex can be a wonderful experience for individuals, it is important, however, to make sure that one knows the risks of sex such as sexually transmitted infections and unwanted pregnancies, as well as  the emotional risks such as having sex before one is ready or having sex with someone who does not trust the other individual.

The following are some questions one might ask themselves when considering if they are ready for a sexual relationship:

  • Is my decision to have sex completely my own?
  • Is my decision to have sex based on the right reasons, such as feeling emotionally and physically ready, and not because of peer pressure?
  • Would my partner respect my decision whether to have sex or not?
  • Do I feel comfortable talking to my partner about sex?
  • Have my partner and I been tested for STIs and know how to prevent unwanted pregnancies and other complications?
  • Are my partner and I willing to use protection to prevent unwanted pregnancies and STIs?
  • Do I feel 100% comfortable with myself and ready to have sex with my partner?8  

The more confidently one answers “yes” to these questions may indicate that the individual is ready, because it indicates that one does not feel pressured in their decision to having sex. Knowing the resources available to prevent unwanted pregnancies and infections and knowing that one is comfortable with their partner is a great way to determine if they are ready for this step.


Consent from one’s partners is needed in any form of sexual activity. Rape is a serious and invasive sex crime that can be a life-threatening experience. The survivor may feel anger, doubt, and may even develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Anyone can be a victim of rape regardless of factors such as gender, age, social class, and sexuality. Thus, it is crucial to communicate with one’s partner to receive consent. It is both partners’ responsibility to make sure their partner is not being pressured to engage in any sexual activity that they are not comfortable doing.

One of the most important things to consider every time one engages in sex is whether or not there is consent. Consent is necessary in EVERY situation in which any form of sexual activity is occurring. In certain regions of the world, lack of consent can be punishable by law. For this reason, it is important to always receive a clear and exuberant “yes” from any and all partners. Similarly, it is important to recognize that consent can be withdrawn at any time during sexual intercourse. Therefore, if there comes a point when a person becomes uncomfortable and wishes to stop, they are always able to withdraw consent and stop immediately.  There are many ways of touching another person's body that feel good, but there may be ways that an individual does not want to be touched. For this reason, it is essential for both partners to have good communication. 

Good Communication

Good communication will not only ensure that both partners are on the same page, it will always make intercourse much more enjoyable for both partners. Sex can be hard to talk about, but open communication about sexuality will prevent potential misunderstandings and future problems. Being open to one’s partner about what they like and do not like will help develop their relationship into one that is full of trust, understanding, and pleasure.

Safe Sex

Alongside communication, sexually active individuals should always practice safe sex. There are various methods which both partners can utilize including condoms, dental dams, hormonal birth control, etc. It will be up to partners to decide which methods to use, but it is very important that at least one form of protection is utilized. The most common combination of contraception includes a barrier method (e.g., the male or female condom) used in conjunction with a hormonal method (e.g., the birth control pill, intrauterine device [IUD], or Depo-Provera ["the shot"]).Never use more than one female condom or male condom at one time, as the friction between the latex may cause perforations that can expose one to various infections and/or unintended pregnancy. Failing to follow these precautions increases the chance that negative consequences will arise. For more information on these methods and their efficacy rates, please see our contraception article.1 Though protection may seem like a mood-killer within the moment, there are ways to incorporate putting on a condom as a part of your foreplay that can be exciting and sexual. One way to put on condom in a sexual way is to go hands-free. The first partner gently places the condom in their mouth with their lips holding it steady while the outside of the tip of the condom rests on their tongue. Then, the partner guides the condom onto their partner’s penis by wrapping their mouth around it.  Another way is to ask their partner to guide them; this can be accomplished by ask one’s partner to put their hand over their’s to show them how they would like the condom to be put on.9


Talking About Sex

The topic of sex may arise between partners, parents, family, friends, children, or even in academic and religious settings. Being able to communicate sexual thoughts and feelings to others is a very important part of one’s sexuality. The ability to communicate without fear of ridicule plays a crucial role in becoming sexually comfortable.

Sexual discussions can sometimes feel uncomfortable, but they are important to have. Though there are many things to consider when talking about sex, knowing about these topics beforehand can help ease the tension when discussing it.

The following tips are helpful when deciding how to speak to someone about sex:

  • Understand oneself. Be familiar with one’s own values, body, and feelings and be ready to stand firmly behind them. An individual should not feel the need to change to meet society’s, a partner’s, the media’s, or anyone else’s sexual definition of them. One can find out who they are sexually and love themselves. A person should be open about this when speaking with others and try to help those people understand if a personal definition of sexuality is unfamiliar to them. Also, take responsibility for oneself. At the end of the day, it is an individual’s own body and 
    no one else’s. What 
    an individual decidesto do with it is completely their decision. Understand this and communicate one’s desires clearly with whoever they are speaking with so that there will be little-to-no misunderstandings. Good communication with a partner can help prevent mass miscommunication conflicts, and may even result in higher comfortability during exploration in the bedroom.
  • Understand who one’s audience is. Understanding who an individual’s target audience is will better prepare one to connect with that audience and allow the communication to go more smoothly. It is important to note the age, gender, culture, or level of knowledge this audience has on the topic. One should adjust the ways they talk to someone depending on who that person is. For example, if an individual were to talk to a child about sex, they would use a different tone, easier diction, and simpler concepts than if they were to talk to an adult.  Planning how an individual will to their audience allows 
    them to easily understand the individual’s points, and this preparation also minimizes miscommunication.
  • Be clear about one’s beliefs and goals. Do not let anyone else persuade an individual to do something they do not believe in. Aperson’s sex life is their own and it is influenced by their belief system and goals. Sex, like anything else, involves compromise and change but one should never feel the need to change their beliefs for the sake of others’ desires. A partner that wants an individual to sacrifice their values is probably not the type of person they want supporting them sexually. Being clear and standing firm about these beliefs and goals will help someone make the choices that are right for them.

    Not only is it important for one to communicate their personal thoughts about the topic of sex, but it is also crucial to know how to be a listener when one is listening to other people’s feelings about sex. The following list addresses how to listen to someone in a discussion about sex:

    • Listen actively. Listen to potential sexual partners and try to understand their view of things. Try to solve problems effectively with positive feedback and suggestions. Make sure that communication is a reciprocal conversation rather than a speech.
    • Be open. Be open to communicating with others who have a different opinion. An individual does not have to agree but one should hear them out and try one’s best to understand and respond to how they feel in a positive way (i.e., by saying phrases such as “I understand what you are saying” or “I see where you could have gotten that from what I said”).1
    • Give it time and listen passively.  Sometimes sexual discussions lead to big life changes. Take time to listen and understand what another has said by “taking a break” if a listener needs one. Kindly ask to take some time to digest everything one has just heard. Go for a walk and let one’s mind focus solely on what they said. This will give the individual time to clear one’s head and approach the discussion with a deeper analysis of what the other individual wanted you to hear. Likewise, sometimes an individual needs to just listen to someone else’s point of view in order togain a sense of the entire problem.10        


    Sex and sexuality are extensive subjects that are present in many aspects of people’s lives. On one hand, sex is traditionally defined as the sexual behaviors between two people; however, it can also occur alone or with multiple partners. On the other hand, sexuality is the personal feelings, behaviors, and identity a person associates with sex.  Puberty allows physical and mental changes such as the growth of pubic hair, changes in voice, and the increase of sexual thoughts. Just like it is important for an individual to discuss and be comfortable talking about one’s sexuality with another person, it is essential for one to also be comfortable with themelves. One should never be ashamed of who they are and what they want sexually. Be open and forth-coming with oneself about what those desires are. No matter how different or “strange” one may think they are, embrace individuality and reach out to others. Those others may be surprised to learn how many people feel the exact same way as they do. Similarly, do not feel like the need to rush into practicing and learning everything about sex. It is a life-long growing experience that gets better as time passes. An individual has plenty of time to enjoy all of its unique aspects of sex and sexuality. The important thing is that the person leaves themself open to growing, learning, and experiencing everything sex has to offer.


    1. Hyde, Janet Shibley, and John D. Delamater. Understanding Human Sexyality. Twelfth ed. New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2014. Print.
    2. Miller, Keli. "The Top 20 Reasons Why People Have Sex." WebMD. WebMD, n.d. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.
    3. LeVay, Simon, Janice I. Baldwin, and John D. Baldwin. Discovering Human Sexuality. Third ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2015. Print.
    4. Peters, Anna. "Ready for Sex?" Terrence Higgins Trust. N.p., 27 Jan. 2016. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.
    5. Kuortti, Marjo, and Pirjo Lindfors. "Girls' Stories About Their First Sexual Intercourse: Radiness, Affection and Experience-Seeking in the Process of Growing into Womanhood." N.p., 20 Nov. 2013. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
    6. Fisher, Terri. "What Sexual Scientists Know About.". 2012.
    7. "How To Know If I Am Ready For Sex." Am I Ready? Planned Parenthood, 30 Nov. 2015. Web. 24 Feb. 2017.
    8. "Quiz: Am I Ready for Sex?" Center for Young Women's Health, 18 Nov. 2014. Web. 23 Feb. 2017.
    9. Thore, Kelly. "25 Sexy Ways to Put on a Condom." Cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitan, 06 Jan. 2017. Web. 23 Apr. 2017.
    10. Folkman, Jack ZengerJoseph. "What Great Listeners Actually Do." Harvard Business Review. N.p., 01 Oct. 2016. Web. 02 May 2017.

    Last Updated: 22 February 2018.