By Jeremy Godwin
This episode contains adult content intended for a mature audience.
What is sexuality, and why does a healthy approach to sex and sexuality matter for your mental health? That’s what I’m talking about this week on… Let’s Talk About Mental Health — the weekly podcast about looking after your mental health, with simple ideas you can put into practice immediately.
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This podcast episode was originally released on 10 July, 2022.
Hello and welcome to Episode 139, and thanks so much for joining me!
I’m Jeremy Godwin and I talk about looking after your mental health. I spent most of the 2010’s dealing with severe anxiety and depression, after a breakdown in late 2011, and that led me to want to learn more about my mental health… so I went back to school and studied psychology and sociology, and now I share simple tips for how to improve your mental wellbeing, from someone who actually understands what it’s like to go through mental health challenges. Each episode I look at how to improve one specific aspect of your wellbeing.
This episode is all about sexuality and I’ll be talking about what sexuality is, why a healthy approach to sex and sexuality matters for good mental health, and how to approach sexuality in a healthy way. So, let’s talk!
Before we begin, my book Let’s Talk About Mental Health (Volume One) is out now; you can buy either the eBook or print version on Amazon or the eBook on Apple Books using the link in the episode description, and your purchase helps to support my work (plus it will help you with your wellbeing!).
And a quick note that I have the flu when I’m recording this on July 1, so I may sound a bit stuffed-up and croaky throughout.
Alright, now on with this week’s episode about sexuality…
Most people think that sex was invented in 1992 by Madonna, when she published her coffee table book about her personal area, but in fact sex has been around for a lot longer (even though a lot of people might pretend otherwise).
On a completely random note, this week’s topic makes me think of the Salt ’n’ Pepa song Let’s Talk About Sex because (a) I’m old enough to remember when that was first released and (b) the theme song for this podcast was originally going to be a parody version of Let’s Talk About Sex; this is a true story that I have told to my supporters on Patreon and I’m going to quickly tell it here before I go any further simply because I’ve been dying to tell this to all of you for the past two-and-a-half years, and this seems like the right time (then I promise I’ll get onto the actual topic for this week!).
Before I launched this podcast back in late 2019, I had actually purchased a high quality instrumental of the song and had even recorded vocals that went “Let’s talk about mental health, let’s talk about staying well, let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things you may feel…” but then I couldn’t figure out how to auto-tune it so I didn’t sound like a dying camel (since I can’t carry a tune in a bucket), so I ended up wiping the idea completely and instead found a piece of music that felt like it fit… which is how I ended up with the theme tune I have now. It’s funny how things turn out, isn’t it?!
Anyway, so the other point I want to make (which actually is relevant to this week’s topic!) is that the song Let’s Talk About Sex was pretty revolutionary at the time because very few artists (other than Madonna) were talking openly about sex in the 90’s, because most people were too busy being uptight and judgemental towards others… so, really, not a lot has changed!
I grew up in Australia in the 80’s and 90’s where we were still being fed a steady diet of old British shows like Are You Being Served? and The Benny Hill Show, and that meant that culturally most discussions of sex were all very “nudge-nudge wink-wink”, like Mrs Slocombe’s never-ending double entendres about her demanding cat, and it’s taken a long time for us to get to a place where we can have healthy conversations about sex and sexuality (true story here: there was an educational show about sex on one of the major TV networks in the 90’s called Sex, and the media went nuts about how disgusting it was — by today’s standards it was pretty tame, but it just goes to show how conservative this country was, considering that, in general, Australia is fairly laidback).
Now, to be really honest, this is a topic I’ve been considering covering for quite some time and I kept on pushing it back… mainly because I know it’s potentially a controversial one, but I really do like to dig deep and talk about the more challenging topics that most people don’t want to discuss (I mean, hey, I covered death back in Episode 92 and, let me tell you, that freaked a whole bunch of people out!). However, it feels like now — more than ever — there’s an important conversation to be had about the relationship between both sex and sexuality with mental health, especially since in some parts of the world there is a greater move towards conservatism and trying to control people’s bodies and minds. I try not to get too political in this show, however regardless of where you are in the world it seems that talking openly and without shame about sex and sexuality remains a political act… which is kind of dumb, since the majority of the population wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for sexual reproduction.
Speaking of the growing push to more conservative values, here’s a bit of full disclosure about this episode: I was also originally going to call this episode Let’s Talk About… Sex but then I had to change it to Let’s Talk About… Sexuality because I knew that Instagram and other platforms would most likely have shadow-banned any posts I made using the word “sex” (because apparently words are bad, but violence is perfectly fine — yep, there’s some more social and political commentary for you!).
So let me get this out of the way before we go any further: if you think that it’s OK to watch someone’s head be blown off on television but that we definitely should not be exposed to two people kissing or making out, then this is not the episode for you… and, frankly, this might not even be the show for you, because I call bullshit on the way that society seems to think violence is perfectly acceptable but that sexuality is taboo and shameful. That might sound like a slightly dumb thing to say in an episode that goes out the week my new book is being released (and, by the way, that happened to line up randomly; I love the way the universe works!) but do you know what? Frankly I don’t care, because as you’ll soon discover throughout this episode my entire message is to be true to yourself when it comes to both sex and sexuality… because to be anything other than completely honest with yourself — and kind to yourself — causes pain and suffering.
OK, before I get too far into this rant let’s go through some definitions and let’s talk about…
What sexuality is
And there are a whole bunch of things that fall under the umbrella term ‘sexuality’ including the practice of sexual activity, the capacity for sexual feelings and/or attraction, and also a person’s identity in relation to the gender or genders to which they are typically attracted, also known as sexual orientation (and those definitions come from the Oxford Dictionary).
So, those aspects of sexuality are all interrelated however let’s look at each of them individually for a moment so we can discuss how they relate to your wellbeing.
First, the capacity for sexual feelings or attraction (or both). Some people experience it, and some people don’t (which is known as asexuality; in other words, not experiencing sexual desire or sexual attraction, or both), and either way it’s a very personal thing — plus, it’s important to be aware that your feelings and attractions can change and evolve over time, just as any aspect of your personality can. Feeling (or not feeling) sexual attraction does not define who you are and how you choose to identify, just as curiosity or consensual experimentation does not mean you have to land on an identity immediately (and, by the way, exploring your sexuality is a perfectly natural and healthy thing to do no matter where you’re at in your life).
Secondly, let’s talk about sexual activity, and the piece here is about recognising that sexuality is a fundamental part of being a human being; regardless of whether you might be sexually active, sexually curious, or not interested at the moment (or ever), these are simple biological functions that affect everybody in some way, shape or form. So why is it such a big deal then? I’ll tell you why… for many, many centuries, sexuality has been tightly controlled and regulated by religious groups and governments alike, and that has led to a whole bunch of repression which, in turn, leads to a lot of extreme behaviour on both ends of the spectrum; you only have to open up social media to see people either protesting against anything and everything that they believe is wrong, and then other people flashing their bits so they can sell diet shakes and call themselves an influencer. Quite frankly, those two extremes are pretty ridiculous; I’m not a particular fan of extremism in any form and I think peace of mind is to be found in taking a balanced approach to all things.
And then, thirdly, that definition mentioned sexual orientation, which is also personal because it speaks to your comfort level in terms of how you identify to yourself and how you identify publicly. You’ll notice that I said ‘orientation’ rather than ‘preference’ and that was a deliberate choice; the word ‘preference’ infers it’s a choice (like you just wake up one day and decide to be gay or straight or whatever), which most research seems to suggest is just not the case and in fact our sexuality is more like a spectrum. The other thing to be aware of is that the term ‘sexual preference’ was used in a negative way for a long time to describe anyone considered to be involved in so-called ‘deviant’ behaviour and so it’s really weighed-down by a lot of judgement; throughout most of the 20th century, there was a strong belief in personality traits being a choice (whereas we now know that our genes play an enormous role in who we are) and so those perspectives were used to judge and control people who behaved in any way outside the so-called ‘norm’. The term ‘sexual orientation’, on the other hand, is far more objective in the way it recognises that there are many different expressions of sexuality, which is why it’s much more appropriate to use it.
OK, so taking all of those aspects of sexuality into account, here’s a wild perspective on life: do what you want, and if something isn’t harming others then just leave people be. And just because you don’t like something or your religion says something is wrong, that doesn’t give you the right to impose your beliefs on others. I mean, I think that high-waisted jeans are a crime against nature, but I don’t go around protesting in front of H&M or throwing eggs at millennials who are dressed like they’re off to a music festival in 1987 (seriously though, what is with those jeans? They were wrong the first time around in the 80’s! My apologies to anyone who likes them, but I said what I said!). Anyway, the point is that your identity is your business, and nobody else’s, and all of this shaming stuff is utterly ridiculous; when we associate intimacy with shame, it can cause a lot of damage to our mental health.
So, with all that in mind, let’s move on and talk about…
Why a healthy approach to sex and sexuality matters for good mental health
And it matters because a healthy approach to sexuality enables you to let go of shame and judgement. Let me just say this loud and clear, once and for all: other peoples’ judgements are about them, not you.
You do not owe anybody an apology for being yourself, and quite frankly you are far more than just that one small aspect of your identity, regardless of what others might think or say. Honestly, the least interesting thing about me is the fact that I’m gay, and I don’t know about you but I don’t want to be defined by that because it reduces me down to a label and completely disregards everything else about me. I’ve never had an issue with who I am, even when I was being bullied for it basically non-stop throughout high school, and I think that’s because I knew who I was at a very young age and I also instinctively understood that other people’s problems with me were about them, not me. You don’t feel threatened and angry about something that you don’t find confronting, and so even though all of that might have felt really personal when I was a teenager, it actually had nothing to do with me whatsoever.
A healthy approach to sex and sexuality means giving yourself space to be honest with yourself, allowing yourself to be curious, and taking the time to ask yourself questions if you feel you need to. It has absolutely nothing to do with anyone else and you don’t owe anyone anything. I had a conversation with a friend a while back about the fact that people who identify as straight don’t have to come out like anyone who isn’t straight might feel compelled to do (which I don’t think a lot of straight people actually understand), and so let me say two things in terms of a healthy approach to sexual identity: first, if you identify as straight then please be self aware enough to understand that there is a privilege there, purely because it’s considered the ‘norm’ in society and so anyone in your life who identifies as anything other than straight has a very different set of life experiences to you.
And secondly, if you don’t identify as straight then I want to share a quote from one of Alice Oseman’s Heartstopper novels (I don’t remember which volume, because I took a screenshot when I was dealing with the flu and now I have no idea, but it’s one of them); the quote is: “There’s this idea that if you’re not straight, you HAVE to tell all your family and friends immediately, like you owe it to them. But you don’t. You don’t have to do anything until you’re ready.” So, that quote applies whether you’re 18 or 80; you do things at your pace and you do what feels right for you.
So, it feels like a good time to move on to the how-to part of the episode so now let’s talk about…
How to approach sexuality in a healthy way
And let’s start with take time to understand yourself — because we are all complex human beings and a lot of what we think we know about ourselves is actually a product of multiple factors, like our upbringing and society in general. Rather than letting all that stuff influence who you think you are, take the time to connect with yourself and be honest with yourself about how the entire topic of sexuality relates to you at this stage in your life; remember, your identity and how you express it is completely up to you and provided you are doing no harm (to others or to yourself) then there really is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I talked about how to do that back in Episode 62, about self awareness, so check that out for more on the subject. OK, next…
Be true to yourself — and by that I mean in terms of both your feelings towards sex in general as well as how you express your sexuality. Why do I say that? Because, like I said earlier, being completely honest with yourself about your interests, desires and needs will help you avoid the pain and suffering that comes from denying your true self (because that version of you still exists somewhere deep down inside, even if you try to pretend it doesn’t). If you’re struggling with the idea of that, talk to someone; find a professional (like a counsellor or therapist) who you can talk to in a safe and judgement-free environment. Also, there are a few episodes I’ve covered in the past that may be helpful: needs in Episode 137, authenticity in Episode 55, and truth in Episode 72. OK, so my next point is…
Know the difference between sex and intimacy — because physical intimacy and emotional intimacy are two very different things. A healthy relationship is about a lot more than just sex; emotional intimacy goes much deeper than physical intimacy (and I talked about that broadly in Episode 66, about connection), and I never thought I’d find myself doing this with a straight face but I’m actually going to pull a quote from Madonna’s Sex book that says this far better than I can; the quote is: “Sex is not love. Love is not sex. But the best of both worlds is created when they come together.”
Also, know the difference between sex and connection — sometimes we may find ourselves using sex as a means of trying to experience connection with others, and there’s nothing to say that it can’t be, however you also need to go into any situation with your eyes open and with full mental alertness; for example, if you’re repeatedly shagging around just to feel some sort of connection but you find yourself feeling hollow afterwards, that can have a damaging effect on your mental health in the long term. I know this scenario won’t apply to everyone but it’s worth considering, broadly speaking, especially if you’re active in the dating world. Look, no shame or judgement here (you make the choices you make), but please make choices for yourself that are healthy. I have had quite a lot of conversations recently with people where I’ve suggested to them that maybe they need to approach dating differently, especially if all they’re finding on the dating apps are people who are obviously looking for a quickie… if that’s what you’re after as well then great, everyone’s on the same page, but if not then you can wind up feeling rejected, so it’s worthwhile thinking about what matters most to you (in terms of sex or connection) and then focus your energy on what actually matters. OK, next…
Understand the importance of consent — and this applies regardless of whether you’re in a relationship or not. You have the right at all times to give or withdraw consent based on what you feel comfortable with, and you’re under no obligation to continue in any situation regardless of where you’re at in the process… and the same applies for the other person. When we take the time to tune in to our bodies we can better identify our comfort levels and then make informed choices about what we feel we’re OK with at any given time, and that is perfectly fine… don’t ever let anyone pressure you to do something you don’t want to. OK, next…
Understand that rejection is not personal — which is one of those bits of advice that’s annoying because it often feels really personal, but it’s not… because it’s entirely about the other person and where they’re at. I talked about rejection back in Episode 81 and I want you to remember that even though it is perfectly natural to feel that way if something has happened, it really isn’t about you. OK, next…
Communicate — and this is quite possibly the biggest foundation of healthy sexuality because it’s about constantly talking with your partner or partners (whether current or potential) so that you can understand one another’s wants and needs, and also so you can understand each other’s boundaries. I covered communication in Episode 134 so check that out for more on the topic. Alright, so my next point is…
Avoid comparisons — and let’s just be really honest here, shall we… if you compare yourself to other people then you’re probably never going to feel comfortable to do anything ever again! Comparison truly is the thief of joy; you have something to offer just by virtue of being your unique and authentic self, so don’t try to be something that you’re not. And also let me say something here about representations of sex in the media: it’s not realistic, so don’t try to compare yourself to what you see on-screen. You’re under absolutely no obligation to perform at a level that might require a stunt coordinator and to put this into context, let me say this: you know those high-action sequences in movies that we all know look amazing but are obviously performed using CGI and all manner of camera-trickery? You hopefully know that you can’t recreate one of those scenes in real life, and the same applies to scenes of a sexual nature. Stop comparing yourself to others and just be yourself! OK, next…
Find a balanced approach in life — because life really is about finding balance in all things. You don’t have to be perfect (and you never will, because ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist). My advice is this: work on cultivating a healthy body image (which I covered in Episode 136) and also be proactive about confronting and working through any shame or guilt you may carry with you (and I talked about shame in Episode 71 and guilt in Episode 124). Dealing with all of those things will help you to feel better about yourself, which in turn leads to a healthier dynamic with others. OK, next…
If you’re on medication, understand it can affect you sexually — and this applies to lots of different medications however it is especially common for those taking antidepressants to find it reduces your sex drive either partially or significantly. It’s worthwhile having an honest discussion with your treating professionals (like your doctor) so that you can take a balanced approach to your healthcare. OK, next…
If you need support, get support — and I touched on this before but I’ll say it again (this time in more detail); if you’re working through anything, or struggling with anything, in terms of your sexuality or sexual identity, talk with a professional like a counsellor or therapist. There are even specialised sex therapists you can work with as well if it is something that feels right for you. My entire point here is to not go through problems alone. Alright, so my next point is…
Be respectful of others — and I deliberately left this until last because it’s probably the most important one of all, especially in terms of how you can practice greater kindness towards others. We all have our own journeys to go on and when you choose to be respectful of others, you are acknowledging that you don’t have to agree with other people in order to respect their right to be who they are and to explore their feelings at their own pace. And let’s just be really blunt here for a moment: what consenting adults choose to do is really nobody else’s business. I really don’t mean that to come out as a lecture, but what I mean is that when we are more accepting towards others and realise that how you live your life is nobody’s business but your own, we each do our part to make this world a kinder and more accepting place.
Summary and Close-Out
Because when it comes to sexuality and mental health, what it all boils down to is this: When we allow sex and sexuality to be wrapped up in feelings of shame and judgement, we make it harder for people to be their true selves. There are nearly eight billion of us on this planet and we each have our own unique life experiences and diverse belief systems; to say that one way of living is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ really is a bit ridiculous. When you are honest with yourself and true to who you really are, it helps you to improve your mental health because you don’t feel the need to hide in the shadows or to pretend you’re something that you’re not. Never be ashamed of who you are; if you choose to do no harm, are kind and give more than you take, then nothing else really matters.
The choice is yours, as it is with all things related to your wellbeing… so, what choice will YOU make today?
Each week I like to finish up by sharing a quote about the week’s topic, and I encourage you to take a few moments to really reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by the author Nancy Friday, and it is:
“Sexuality is the great field of battle between biology and society.”Nancy Friday
Alright… that’s nearly it for this week.
Next week I’ll be talking about slowing down. There’s a funny thing that happens if you push yourself physically, mentally or emotionally (or all three); you become exhausted… and exhaustion throws you so far out of balance that it can be hard to see how to find your way back. So, next week I want to talk about how slowing down from time to time can actually serve to create greater balance in your life. I’ll be talking about what slowing down is, why it matters, and how to slow down in a thoughtful way.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Sunday the 17th of July, 2022.
In the meantime, you’ll find more content about better mental health in my new book, Let’s Talk About Mental Health (Volume One); you can buy it in print or eBook from Amazon or buy the eBook from Apple Books… it’s linked in the episode description or visit my website at letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
And watch my weekly videos on YouTube for more tips on better mental health, plus sign up to my mailing list for my free weekly newsletter, Thursday Thoughts, where I share a quick dose of inspiration (and those are all linked in the episode description).
Plus if you enjoy what I do and find it helpful then I’d love it if you became a supporter on Patreon where I offer exclusive benefits for my supporters, and you can also show your support by leaving me a five-star review on the podcast platform you’re listening to me on. Plus check out my Instagram @ltamentalhealth and say hi!
Thank you very much for joining me today — look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time!
Let’s Talk About Mental Health is proudly produced by Reconnaissance Media, helping you find gratitude and meaning. For more information visit reconnaissancemedia.com
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Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Simple ideas for better mental health.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2022 Jeremy Godwin.
The information provided in this episode is for general awareness on the topic and does not constitute advice. You should consult a doctor and/or a mental health professional if you are struggling with your mental health and wellbeing. You’ll find additional information on the Resources page of this website.