Expert opinion: Sexual behaviour vs. Sexuality

Elvis Munatswa, researcher and counselor in men’s health, shares his views on the difference between sexuality and sexual behaviour.

Recent articles on sexuality and sexual behavior seem to suggest that there is no difference between sexuality and sexual behaviour. In common language, sexuality is often used, where the author meant to say sexual behaviour. Sexuality and sexual behaviour are related concepts, however there is need to distinguish between the two. The oscillation from one to the other has grave connotations, particularly in interpretation and such an occurrence perpetuates stigma around the related topics. The following discussion is therefore an attempt to clarify between the two and hopefully change how the terms are being used as near equivalents.

Human sexual activity, or human sexual practice or human sexual behaviour, is the manner in which humans experience and express their sexuality. People engage in a variety of sexual acts from time to time, and for a wide variety of reasons. Sexual activity normally results in sexual arousal and physiological changes in the aroused person, some of which are pronounced while others are more subtle.

Sexual activity can be classified in a number of ways. It can be divided into acts which involve one person, also called autoeroticism, such as masturbation, or two or more people such as vaginal sex, anal sex, oral sex or mutual masturbation. If there are more than two participants in the sex act, it may be referred to as group sex. Autoerotic sexual activity can involve use of dildos, vibrators, anal beads, and other sex toys, though these devices can also be used with a partner. Sexual activity can be classified into the gender and sexual orientation of the participants, as well as by the relationship of the participants. For example, the relationships can be ones of marriage, intimate partners, casual sex partners or anonymous. Sexual activity can be regarded as conventional or as alternative, involving, for example, fetishism, paraphilia, or BDSM activities. People engage in sexual activity for any of a multitude of possible reasons. Although the primary evolutionary purpose of sexual activity is reproduction, research on college students suggested that people have sex for four general reasons: ‘physical attraction’, ‘as a means to an end’, ‘to increase emotional connection’, and to ‘alleviate insecurity’.

Sexuality is much more than body parts and sex (though it includes these things, too). Sexuality includes our gender identity (the core sense that we are female or male). Sexuality includes gender role (the idea of how we should behave because we are a female or male). Sexuality includes our sexual orientation (heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual). Sexuality includes how we feel about our bodies, referred to as “body image”, and poor body image can have a profound effect on people’s ability to have healthy relationships. A person with poor body image may not think they deserve a good partner, and so they may be willing to settle for someone who will not respect them or who may even abuse them. Sexuality includes our sexual experiences, thoughts, ideas, and fantasies. Sexuality includes the way in which the media, family, friends, religion, age, life goals, and our self-esteem shape our sexual selves. Sexuality includes how we experience intimacy, touch, love, compassion, joy, and sorrow. Sexuality is expressed in the way we speak, smile, stand, sit, dress, dance, laugh, and cry.

There are a few common labels people use to identify their sexuality. Sexuality is not defined by who a person has sex with – it’s about how one feels and how one chooses to identity oneself.  The basic categories include:

  • Attracted mostly to people of the opposite sex or gender.
  • Attracted mostly to people of the same sex or gender (used by guys, and often girls too).
  • Attracted mostly to people of the same sex or gender (used by women).
  • Attracted to both men and women. Some people use terms like pan or pansexual to say they’re attracted to different kinds of people, regardless of their gender.
  • Not really sexually attracted to anyone

This distinction is quite necessary especially when there are consequences involved. For instance, from sexual behaviour, sexual health is a necessary topic and for sexuality, discrimination is a necessary topic. For sexual health, there are concerns about sexually transmitted diseases, erectile dysfunction, premature/late ejaculation, painful penetration and so on. Whilst as far as sexuality is concerned, homophobia is one of the worst discriminations. Some people are prejudiced because of their sexual orientation. It is however important to remember that whatever sexuality anyone identifies with, different acts of sexual behavior are practiced.