As a therapist, I am often asked to differentiate between positive and healthy sexual behavior and that behavior which can be considered “pathological,” or unhealthy. The difference is often a very fine line, seeming vague and unclear to most observers. When it comes down to it, two different people can be engaged in the exact same behavior, but for two radically different reasons– one that enhances the person’s life and the other that undermines it. When trying to determine what is healthy or not when it comes to sex, what it often boils down to is intent.

By intent,  I mean the purpose underlying the person’s actions. Is the sexual act creating pleasure and fulfillment in the lives of everyone involved, or is it coercive and manipulative, pleasing one person but exploiting or harming others? As an example, I recently did an interview with a magazine writer who was inquiring about the swinger subculture. The journalist wanted to know if it was a healthy activity for couples, and my answer, as is often the case, was… it depends. Has the couple discussed clearly what they expect from their encounter? Have they discussed hard limits and boundaries? Are they clear on why they are looking to open up the relationship? In that case, if everyone is on board and clear about what they want, then the experience may be positive and add fuel to their sexual relationship. However, it is also not uncommon for someone to drag the other person into a party under covert threat of the dissolution of the relationship if the other person doesn’t go along, and in that case, swinging becomes a nightmare for the manipulated partner and an excuse for random sex for the other one. In this case, both couples are engaging in the swinger lifestyle, but one feels happy, like they are enhancing their lives, while the other couple’s behavior is rife with emotional abuse, manipulation, and destruction of trust. Two couples doing the exact same thing but with different results. All because of differences in intent.

I have always been a sex-positive person and I practice that philosophy in my work. But I also acknowledge that welcoming and friendly communities, such as the kink or polyamory community may also sometimes draw in the wrong kinds of people who are there for the wrong reasons. Just like organized religions may draw in psychotics, who feel like they may more easily hide their delusions behind the cover of religion, so too unfortunately does the kink lifestyle lend itself to attracting abusers, who may feel like they can more easily hide themselves under the cloak of S&M.  There is a big difference between a loving couple, or any two people who mutually respect each other, who are engaged in some sort of role play which they feel draws them closer together or provides them with a feeling of self-exploration, and someone who proclaims him (or her) self as a dominant master who must be obeyed, regardless of consent.

I could go on and on, but the central point is that a sexual behavior on its own cannot be used to determine pathology. It needs to be viewed in its appropriate context and judged based on a multitude of factors such as intent, consensuality, and how it affects the lives of the people involved. Recently,  I was asked at a sex-positive conference whether there was any sexual behavior that I considered harmful, and I said yes– that behavior which is either compulsive, nonconsensual, or exclusive. I addressed this issue in greater detail a previous article- Kinky Sex or Paraphilia— if you are interested in reading more. Taking each of these criteria one at a time, we can see that it all comes back to this central idea of intent– does the behavior feel out-of-control and compulsive or is it entered in a more level-headed way; is the behavior consensual or is it done to coerce, manipulate, or abuse another?; is the behavior just one of a wide-spectrum of sexual possibilities or is the person only able to enjoy just this one thing? These are all aspects I carefully examine in assessing someone’s sexual behavior.

Remember– when it comes to sex, it all comes down to intent.