Sexual values: what are they and why are they so important?

Most of us can easily name what our values in life are, but what about our sexual values? Stylist investigates why we need to take them more seriously. 

Recently, I was asked a question that caught me completely off guard: “What are your sexual values?”

Disappointingly, I found myself unable to answer; at least not without giving it some good thought first.

The person asking the question was Cindy Gallop, creator of MakeLoveNotPorn; a website that platforms videos of real, authentic sex, as opposed to the unrealistic and misogynistic scenes often portrayed in mainstream pornography.  

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“I regularly ask people this question,” she tells me. “And nobody can ever answer, because we’re not taught to think like that.”

If Gallop had asked what my values in life were, I would have been able to answer straight away: I like honesty, kindness and fairness. I’m passionate about people having access to equal opportunities and I hate snobbery and harsh judgment of others.

But when it came to sex, I was stumped. Deep down, I suppose I knew – but the point is I’d never given it any active thought before. It had never been a conversation I’d been encouraged to have, and it wasn’t a phrase I’d heard before.

Gallop prompted me further: “What matters most to you? What kind of connection do you want to build with sexual partners? Because, the important thing is that good sexual values translate into good sexual behaviour – as well as a wonderful time for everyone involved.”   

It was an enlightening chat that hammered home that the concept of our sexual values isn’t something we address enough – or, in many cases, at all.

But, having these conversations can help with consent, pleasure and compatibility. It’s about how we want to be treated and how we want to treat others. It can cover everything including whether you care about having an orgasm every time you engage with a sexual partner, if you’re open to more adventurous sex, whether you want monogamy or even if you don’t want to have sex at all. All very important things.

So why aren’t we talking, or at least thinking, about them more?

Gallop tells me that she pioneered the concept of sexual values with the launch of her website 13 years ago as a response to the fact that when we don’t talk openly and honestly about sex in the real world, porn becomes sex education by default – and this is never a good thing. 

Establishing our sexual values can help with consent, pleasure and compatibility.

“Sexual values bring a values-based system to how we operate our sexuality and our sex life in the same way we do in every other area of life,” she explains. “Because while our parents bring us up to have good manners, a work ethic, a sense of responsibility and accountability, nobody ever brings us up to behave well in bed.”

Sexual values are linked to our personal feelings about what is acceptable and desirable behaviour. Just like our other belief systems, these are shaped by our life experiences, the society we live in, our upbringing and relationships.

“You don’t get sexual values from one place”, explains Sally Baker, senior therapist at Working on the Body. “It tends to be a convergence of influences: familial, moral and cultural.”

Baker suggests that we don’t consciously formulate our sexual values until they’re put in doubt. “We often wait until we’re exposed to things that make us question our stance,” she says.

However, she agrees we would all benefit from thinking and talking more about them and points out that openness around sex is always a positive thing. Especially as, particularly in Britain, it’s something we’re not very good at.  

“We still live in a society where talking about sex is taboo,” agrees Rhian Kivits, a Relate-trained sex and relationship therapist. “Many families haven’t found ways to talk openly about sex and there’s still a gap in sexual education, which is more focused on health and reproduction rather than taking a holistic view of sex and covering topics like sexual practices and pleasure.”

Rather than purely being taught how not to get pregnant why aren’t we encouraged to consider what kind of sex we want to be having or what kind of sexual partner we want to be? Addressing these questions can help us become healthy, happy and well-rounded sexual beings.

And, as Gallop points out, values like empathy, sensitivity, generosity, honesty and respect are as important in bed as they are in every other area of our lives. 

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“It’s key that we feel clear about our sexual values because this allows us to feel in control of our sex lives and to enjoy a strong sexual self-image,” says Kivits. “When we’re in touch with ourselves in this way, we’re more likely to be able to make choices that feel good and feel comfortable with ourselves sexually.”

It’s also helpful for partners to discuss their sexual values, she explains, so they understand and respect each other’s attitudes, feelings, preferences and boundaries.

One thing that is clear is that we could all benefit from having these conversations as early as possible, ideally as part of sex education, otherwise young people will likely find themselves feeling pressured into acting in certain ways and accepting certain behaviours.

“In the same way we’re taught to do the right thing in life – for example, to speak up if we don’t feel good about what’s going on, to step in and intervene if a friend or a stranger is being treated badly, to be true to ourselves and what we know is right – we should teach exactly the same things in a sexual context,” suggests Gallop.  

And while identifying our sexual values is critically important to provide a secure foundation for a great sexual relationship and great romantic partnerships, not addressing them has wider consequences.

Socialising our sexual values can change our attitude towards consent and rape culture, Gallop explains. “We need to embed in society an openly talked-about, promoted and most aspired-to gold standard of what constitutes good sexual values and good sexual behaviour,” she enthuses. “When we uphold that publicly everywhere, that’s how we stop normalising sexual harassment, abuse and violence.” 

“Think about how you want to be treated in bed and therefore how you would like to behave towards other people in bed.”

How to discover your sexual values 

If you’ve never thought about your sexual values, it’s never too late to start.

“Take a long hard look into yourself and identify what you stand for,” suggests Cindy. “What do you believe in? What do you value? What are you all about?”

“Think about how you want to be treated in bed and therefore how you would like to behave towards other people in bed.”

Whatever your values are and whatever feels right for you, it’s important they originate from a place of authenticity, self-knowledge and self-acceptance. “This means they’ll be healthy,” explains Kivits. “If they come from a place of shame or from the idea that you have to adhere to a rigorous set of rules, they might be less than positive.”

“It’s also important to remember your sexual values belong to you,” she adds. “It’s not up to anyone else to tell you what they should be.” 

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