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Understanding Sexual Activity

Understanding Sexual Activity — at a Glance

  • Sexual activity includes a wide range of behaviors.
  • Some sexual activities are more common than others.
  • Talking with a partner about sexual behaviors may seem difficult, but it can help increase closeness, trust, and pleasure.

Many of us find that sexual activity is an important way to connect with ourselves and other people. But even though sexual activity is very common and images of sex are all around us, people often have many questions about it. It is normal and common to have questions about sexual activity.

Here are the answers to some of the most common questions we hear about it. 

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What Is Sexual Activity?

Sexual activity is any voluntary sexual behavior we do. Some we do by ourselves, like masturbation. Other sexual activities we do with other people. 

This page focuses on the kinds of sexual activity we do with other people.

What Are Some Common Sexual Activities?

There are many common ways that people have sex. Here are just a few examples:

  • masturbation or mutual masturbation — people masturbating together
  • kissing — on the mouth, with the tongue, on body parts
  • massages —touching someone’s body in an erotic way
  • touching a partner’s nipples, breasts, or sex organs
  • sex talk — phone sexcybersex, “talking dirty” during sex
  • rubbing bodies together — with or without clothing
  • watching or reading erotica
  • anal and vaginal intercourse
  • oral sex — stimulating a partner’s sex organs with the mouth
  • using sex toys, alone or with a partner

What Are Some Less Common Sexual Activities?

Some sexual behaviors are less common. Here are some examples of less common sexual behaviors:

  • SM (sadomasochism) — the use of domination and/or pain for sexual arousal. 
  • BD (bondage and discipline) — sexual role play that includes elements of SM. 
  • paraphilia — one of a wide variety of uncommon sex practices that a person may find necessary for sexual arousal and orgasm. 
  • watersports — using urine or urination as a part of sex 

Why Do People Have Sex?

One reason people have sex is to try to have children. But that is one of the least common reasons people say they’re sexually active. There are many other reasons. Not all of them are good reasons. People choose to be sexually active to

  • express love, commitment, and caring
  • feel loved or cared for
  • experience physical pleasure
  • give someone else physical pleasure
  • fulfill curiosity
  • have fun
  • make up with their partners after a fight
  • relax
  • prove their masculinity or femininity
  • demonstrate power over a partner or allow a partner to demonstrate power
  • prove maturity
  • get even with another person

Whatever the reason, having sex is sometimes a healthy choice, and sometimes it is not. People decide to have sex for different reasons. And we may have different reasons from day to day or at different times of our lives.

Our families and cultures shape our ideas of what is sexually acceptable. Negative messages we receive about certain reasons for having sex or for certain sexual activities can be very powerful. We may feel guilty or uncomfortable about the reasons we have sex. We may even fear discussing, learning about, or doing it.

Just because a sexual behavior isn’t common or some people disapprove of it or the reasons people enjoy it, doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with it. Many people enjoy less common kinds of sex, but they are often less likely to discuss it with others. One way to think about uncommon kinds of sex is this: if no one is hurt by the kind of sex someone might enjoy, than it is probably okay.

Am I Ready for Sex?

We all have sexual feelings. But we don't always engage in sexual activity when we have those feelings. When to have sex is a personal choice. Figuring out when you're ready for sex continues through life. People need to make decisions about sex in their teens, 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, and beyond — every time a sexual situation develops.

A good sex life is one that keeps in balance with everything you're about — your health, education and career goals, relationships with other people, and your feelings about yourself.

If you’re considering having sex, ask yourself these questions:

  • How clear can you be with your partner about what you do and don’t want to happen?
  • How will having sex will make you feel about yourself?
  • How will sex affect you physically and emotionally?
  • Are you considering having sex because you want to or because someone is pressuring you?
  • Will sex change your relationship with your partner?

Sometimes it's helpful to talk these kinds of decisions through with someone you trust — a parent, a friend, a professional counselor, or someone else who cares about you and what will be good for you.

How Do I Talk with My Partner About Sex?

Talking about or showing our partners what feels good and what excites us can be an important part of a healthy and fulfilling sex life. Some people are able to share sexual desires and fantasies with a partner without embarrassment. For others, it is a bit more challenging.

But what turns you on might be very different from what turns on someone else. Discovering what feels good is part of what makes sex fun and enjoyable. And our partners can only know what we like if we tell them or show them with our body language.

Taking a risk to suggest a new or different sexual activity may make us feel embarrassed, vulnerable, or silly. Whatever your feelings are, there are things you can do to help the conversation go more smoothly.

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t believe that your partner will think you are weird for suggesting a new sexual behavior. Often, these fears are worse than reality. You’ll never know until you ask.
  • Practice the conversation ahead of time. Predicting your partner’s questions or concerns will help you feel more confident asking for what you want.
  • Never pressure your partner into trying a sexual behavior that she or he is not comfortable with. It may take time to warm up to your ideas. Be patient!
  • Always respect your partner’s limits about what he or she wants to do and does not want to do.
  • Ask your partner to share her or his desires. Maybe there is something your partner always wanted to try but hasn’t had the courage to bring up.
  • Don’t think your partner is not attracted to you just because he or she says “no” to a behavior that you suggest. Remember, your partner is rejecting the behavior, not you.

It is common to be concerned about a partner’s reaction when suggesting something new. But talking about what feels good and what is arousing can help sex partners have richer and more pleasurable sex lives. It also helps develop communication, trust, and openness in a relationship.

Sex and Consent
It is important that partners are in agreement about sex. Words, gestures, and actions are all ways people consent to sex. But it is important not to misunderstand your partner’s intentions. If there is doubt or confusion about what you or your partner wants, stop and ask for clarity.


It is just as important for us to be able to stop sex because we feel uncomfortable as it is for us to share our sexual desires by asking for what we want. Being able to talk about what you want is an important part of any healthy relationship.


Sex can also have legal consequences. Drugs or alcohol may impair a person’s ability to agree to sex. Do not have sex with someone who is too drunk or high to give consent. It is also illegal for adults to engage in sexual behaviors or sexually explicit discussions with minors. The age of consent varies from state to state. Making sure that someone is old enough and sober enough to agree to sex should be the first step before anything sexual happens with another person.

How Can I Protect Myself During Sexual Activity?

Infections can be passed from skin-to-skin contact or through the sharing of body fluids, especially

Sexually active people can reduce their risk of infection by practicing safer sex.

Any kind of sex that allows semen to enter the vagina could lead to pregnancy. If you do not want to get pregnant or cause a pregnancy, be sure to use birth control.

Make sure to discuss safer sex with your partner before you have sex. Also talk about birth control if pregnancy is possible. People are much more likely to take risks if they don’t plan ahead.

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Understanding Sexual Activity