Knowing Your Values and Why That Matters

Values are the beliefs that we have that guide attitudes and behaviors. Our values come from lots of places, like our parents and family, friends, the media, social norms, and our own experiences. Values are often learned and may change over time with new experiences and with age. College is a highly developmental time for young people, and your values may change as you learn new things and meet new people. While in college, your values may shift and look different from your family’s. This can be really challenging for people, but it is also very normal—it’s all part of developing your identity and figuring out who you are.

To help you think about your core values, try this values activity.

As you think about your values, it’s important to make sure that you know what values you have as they relate to sex and sexual health. For example, if honesty is one of your values, that might mean that you are honest with a partner if you cheat, or that you share some details of your sexual history (including a possible history of sexually transmitted infections) with a partner. If one of your values is education, that might mean educating yourself and those around you about sexual health and risk reduction. What does it look like to you to live your values related to sex and sexual health? How do you know that your values are thriving in your sexual life?

What Is Sex?

When it comes to sexual health, it’s important for people to know and understand their values. As part of exploring your values, you should also consider what sex means to you. This is also part of your values! Sex is defined differently by each person. Some people may define sex as anything with the word “sex” in it, like oral sex, vaginal sex, and anal sex. Other people might not consider oral sex to be sex. To some, sex could be defined as any activity that could put them at risk for sexually transmitted infections. Still others may define sex as any penetrative activity. There are so many different definitions of sex; it is important to think about how you define sex.

According to research, people define sex in a number of ways. Most people (almost 95% of people) consider penis-vagina penetration to be sex. Interestingly, 93% of people consider penis-vagina sex with no female orgasm to be sex; so there is a difference for 2% of people. 71% of people say that performing oral sex is sex, and almost 81% of people consider penis-anal penetration to be sex. There were also differences by gender and age. Men 18-29 years old were much less likely to think that stimulating a partner’s genitals with your hands is sex compared to women and compared to older age groups. Women 18-29 were also less likely than older age groups to think manual (hand) stimulation was considered sex. Because these percentages are so different, it’s important to think about what sex is to you.

Knowing your definition of sex will allow you to better communicate with a partner and to better get and give consent. What if you define sex one way and your partner defines it another way? That could be super awkward! Figuring out what it means to you will make it easier to talk about with a partner.

What Is Abstinence?

Now that you’ve taken time to think about what sex means to you, how would you define abstinence? When someone says they are “abstinent,” what do you immediately think? Abstinence generally means not having sex, but knowing sex could mean something different to everyone, does that mean people define abstinence differently, too? Probably! Thinking about how you define abstinence can help with your values and also help you communicate with a partner. Does abstinence mean avoiding any type of behavior that has the word “sex” in it? Does it mean not having penis-vagina sex? If that’s the case, then what about people who do not engage in penis-vagina sex? Does that mean they spend their whole lives being abstinent? Thinking about what this means to you is all part of determining your sexual values.

Am I Ready?

If you’re not currently having sex (however you define it), you’re not alone: according to the Fall 2018 [pdf] American College Health Association-National College Health Assessment (ACHA-NCHA), about a third of college students who took the survey reported never having oral sex, 35% said they’ve never had vaginal sex, and over two-thirds said they’ve never had anal sex. Not everyone is engaging in sexual activity! It’s up to you to decide what you’re willing to do and when. Knowing your values can help with that.

Some people might think they’re the only person they know who isn’t having sex, but the stats show that isn’t true. If you’re thinking about having sex, ask yourself why—are you going to do it for your or your partner? Or maybe because you’re tired of being the only one who isn’t “doing it”? Consider the pros and cons, as well as your values—if you’re not ready to engage in sexual activity, that’s okay! Wait until it feels right to you.

What Activities Am I Comfortable Doing?

Everyone should decide what they’re comfortable doing when it comes to sexual activity. This could change all the time—among partners, by day, by year, by experience. It’s still important to know your green, yellow, and red light activities.

Green light: These are activities you are totally comfortable doing. You’ll probably always be okay engaging in these activities.


Yellow light: These are activities that you may or may not be comfortable doing, and it could depend on the situation, person, day, etc.


Red light: These are activities that are a hard stop. No, no way, nada, not doing that.

Please note: Even if you know your partner’s green/yellow/red activities, you should always get consent! These activities may change overtime, but they’re not supposed to be something you talk your partner into doing. These are more for you to know what you’re comfortable with so you can communicate that with a partner.

Take some time to think about which sexual activities go with which color. Here are some examples, but you can come up with your own:

Kissing Anal sex (receptive) Grinding/dry humping with clothes on Getting hickies Oral-penis sex
Oral-vaginal sex Using a blindfold during sexual activity Watching a partner masturbate Mutual masturbation Open mouth kissing
My partner watching me masturbate Grinding/dry humping with clothes off Cuddling Using a sex toy with a partner Watching pornography with a partner
Watching pornography alone Finger-anal stimulation Giving hickies Penis-vagina sex Finger-vaginal stimulation
Sexting Using food during sexual activity Oral-anal sex Having a partner look at my genitals Sexual activity with a barrier method
Looking at my partner’s genitals Self masturbation Sexual activity without a barrier method Anal sex (insertive) Biting during sexual activity

You can also use the in-depth “Sexual Inventory Stocklist” over at Scarleteen.

Sex and Popular Culture

Sex seems to be everywhere. It’s hard to turn on a television, listen to music, read a book, or watch a movie without seeing sex in some way. It seems if people aren’t having sex in pop culture, then they’re talking about it…or wishing they were having it! Pop culture and the media can give us lots of ideas about sex and sexuality—some that might not be very healthy or accurate. Knowing that popular culture and the media can impact our values, it’s important to understand sex, sexual health, and sexuality and be able to distinguish what’s true and what isn’t and how pop culture might be impacting our views on sex. Here are just a few ways that popular culture could skew our views on sex:

Popular culture doesn’t always send a great message about consent. Movies and TV don’t really show people getting or giving consent to sexual activity, and there are songs that imply that consent isn’t important (or that getting someone drunk in order to have sex with them is okay).


There are many views about whether pornography is good or bad, or healthy or unhealthy; that is up for you to decide. One thing that pornography could do is alter our views about sex and sexual health. Safer sex isn’t always present in porn, and it seems like everyone is able to have an orgasm easily (which isn’t always the case). While pornography might be a turn on for some people, it’s important to remember that porn isn’t usually realistic.


You’ve probably heard that social media use is generally associated with decreased mental health. We might not have as many face-to-face interactions and connections with other people. Communicating mainly through text or online could make it more difficult to have important conversations in person, and it’s always best to talk about sex in person—it’s hard to understand context through text. Social media might also make it seem like everyone is having sex and everyone is in a happy relationship, and that’s not necessarily the case.


Dating apps make it easy to find people with a couple of swipes and also make hookups easier. A recent study found that online dating was associated with higher numbers of sexual partners, not always using condoms, and having multiple sexual partners at the same time.

It’s not a bad thing for pop culture and the media to impact our values, including our values around sex and sexual health. We should examine the impact it might have, though, and determine if it’s positive or negative. It’s never a bad idea to take what we see in pop culture with a dose of skepticism.

"Make sure you know your own personal boundaries/limits/desires/expectations prior to having a conversation about sex. This way you can ensure you commit to them and make sure your partner understands what you expect or are not okay with."

Cary, Bowling Green State University