Sexual Activity

Sex and sexual activity are big topics that can be difficult for most people to understand. If you are on the autism spectrum, it might be especially hard to understand all the social nuances related to sexual activity.

In this section, we will discuss the basics of:

  • What sex is
  • Why people have sex
  • When people have sex
  • How people talk about sex
  • What people do when they have sex
  • How to communicate sexual and autism-specific needs with partners

This section of the guide will cover the basics of sex and sexual behaviors, but don’t expect to be an “expert” or know everything about sex after reading it. Your values and thoughts about sex and how to communicate about sex are things you can always learn more about.

A Note on How We Talk About Sex in this Guide:

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In this resource, we want to give you accurate, specific information. And for that reason, we might use phrases that are not commonly used informally when talking with friends or partners. For example, we use terms like “sexual behaviors,” “sexual experiences,” and “sexual activities” instead of simply “having sex,” because we want to acknowledge that some behaviors, experiences, and activities are sexual even though they don’t always include the act of having sex. In social situations, you might hear people talk about the same things, but use terms like “hooking up” or “making out.”

We are not using those terms because they are hard to define, and we want to make sure you understand what exactly we are talking about. However, if you use these more precise terms in casual conversations about sex, they might sound odd. To help you make the distinction, we are including some slang terms with definitions of specific activities throughout the section.

What Is Sex?

You might have heard people say they want to “have sex.” Sex is a way to experience and express pleasure and intimacy with yourself and others (like a partner, girlfriend/boyfriend, or any person with whom you have a relationship in which you both want to be physically intimate).

But the word “sex” can mean many different things to different people. Because “sex” is not just one activity, a lot of words and behaviors might be involved when people say they are “having sex.” For example, you might hear people talk about sex like it is only one activity: penile-vaginal intercourse (which we will explain more later in this section). In fact, sometimes, this is the only thing people are referring to when they ask, “Did you have sex?” But this is not the only definition of sex. The most commonly discussed types of sex are vaginal intercourse, anal sex, and oral sex. But lots of people define sex as any physical contact with another person that feels sexual.

Sex is a normal, natural, and healthy activity that people engage in for many reasons. Sexual behaviors can include touching, kissing, vaginal intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, and many other things. Any two people are physically capable of having sex, no matter their gender or sex.

Why Do People Have Sex?

People have sex for a lot of reasons. Some include:

  • To connect with another person
  • To express feelings for another person
  • To feel good or have fun
  • To conceive a baby (this is only possible in certain circumstances – learn more here)
  • To release sexual tension (which can be a desire felt in the body or mind)
  • To relax muscle tension

There are no set rules regarding dating and sexual activity. You are never required to have sex (or do anything sexual) with someone just because you’ve gone on a certain number of dates or spent a certain amount of time together. You are also not obligated to have sex (or do anything sexual) just because someone says you “should” have sex or that they want to have sex. When people have sex because they feel like they “have to” or “should,” sex doesn’t feel as emotionally good as it does when people have sex because they want to. In such cases, it would be better to not have sex. Remember, you decide over your own body. The Consent and Healthy Relationships sections discuss these topics in more detail.

When Do People Have Sex?

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There are no set rules about when people can or can’t have sex. People can have sex any time they are in a private space. It can be planned, or it can be spontaneous. Some movies show sex happening after a date, for example. In real life, schedules and preferences are different for everyone. When you have sex depends on when you and your partner want to, what works for your schedule, and where you are.

Nevertheless, it is common to have sex in bed immediately before you go to sleep or in the morning after you wake up.

Time and Choice 

For example: Sam and Simone woke up early on Tuesday morning and had two hours before they had to go to work. They had sex in their bedroom, washed up, then headed to work. The following Tuesday morning, they also woke up early, but they didn’t want to have sex. They made breakfast and spent the morning reading instead

Public Displays of Romantic or Sexual Affection

Public displays of romantic or sexual affection make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially if they happen unexpectedly. For example, even though kissing is not sex, watching other people kiss can make some people feel uncomfortable. That is especially true if someone you know from a situation that isn’t supposed to be sexual, like school, work, or your family, sees you kiss or touch someone in a romantic way when they were not expecting it.

While it is usually appropriate to kiss a partner on the cheek in public, it may make onlookers uncomfortable if you “make out,” or kiss a partner many times in a row. Similarly, if you only kiss on the cheek but you are also sitting very close together, or one of you is sitting in the other person’s lap, that might also make the people around you uncomfortable.

For example: Daniel and his girlfriend, Naomi, went to dinner with their friends one night. At dinner, Daniel and Naomi sat very close together and kissed on the cheek and the lips many times. Daniel and Naomi’s friends felt very uncomfortable and embarrassed seeing this. They didn’t enjoy spending time with Daniel and Naomi that night and didn’t invite them the next time they went to dinner.

At What Point in a Relationship Do People Start Having Sex?

When to begin a sexual relationship depends on a lot of things, such as your personal values, what you and your partner want, how long you’ve known each other, and your level of intimacy. So, like most things related to sex and sexuality, the answer is different for every person and every relationship.

Some people prefer to get to know someone for a few weeks, months, or years before having sex, while others are ready and comfortable having sex the first time they meet someone. For example, you might feel comfortable giving someone a hug after a first date, but you might not feel comfortable kissing them on the mouth until you know them better. That might be after several weeks of spending time with them, several months, or never.

In our society, generally, intimate sexual activities are considered more appropriate for stronger levels of intimacy in a relationship. As in all other areas of sexuality, what’s considered an “intimate sexual activity” varies from person to person. In general, holding hands and hugging are not intimate sexual activities. Kissing may or may not be considered intimate. Any other type of sexual touching or sex is considered intimate sexual activities.

This section of the guide focuses primarily on things you should consider before becoming sexually active or having sex with a new partner for the first time. Remember that once you start having sex with someone, you don’t have to keep having sex with them. Your feelings or your partner’s feelings may change. Part of being sexually active with someone is respecting their feelings and needs, and accepting changes in the relationship.

How Do People Talk About Sex?

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Many people feel uncomfortable talking about sex. So, they make jokes, find other words, or simply try to avoid talking about it at all.

There are many slang terms, euphemisms (deliberately using a vague or polite expression to describe something you are uncomfortable talking about), and ways to talk about sex, sexual behaviors, even parts of the body. It can get really confusing to know what people are talking about! Some of these common expressions are quite crude or considered vulgar.

It can be good to talk about sex if you want to learn more information or communicate with a partner. But, since sex is such a complicated and personal topic, there are social rules for what to talk about, with whom, and where.

As a general rule, you should keep discussions about sex and sexual activities private and limited to people you know and trust. The chart below gives some general examples of what to talk about, where and with whom. But, again, expectations vary from person to person, regardless of the type of relationship they have with you, so there are no specific rules.

Sex Conversations

 

Talking about sex is personal and, therefore, should be done in private. The following places could be private, assuming that you are alone with the person you are talking to and no one else can overhear your conversation.

  • On the phone
  • In your living room
  • In the car
  • In a doctor’s office

What specifically you talk about will depend on your relationship with the person to whom you are speaking. For example, you may talk with your romantic partner about how you like to do a specific sexual activity (how fast, in what positions, etc.) and whether something you did together was enjoyable. You would also want to talk with a sex partner about contraception and how you will practice safe sex. Communication is an important part of sexual relationships. You can find more information in this section.

Parents typically are the people you ask basic questions about relationships, sex, and sexuality as you grow up, mature, and ultimately become active sexually. You would not normally talk to parents about what specific sexual activities you do or not enjoy.

Some close friends might be comfortable talking with you about whether you have had sex, with whom, and how you felt about it (happy, loved, dissatisfied, etc.). You might also talk about these broader feelings with a parent or adult family member if you feel comfortable doing so and if they are willing to talk about these things with you.

A trusted adult can also have a conversation like this with you. Depending on the closeness of your relationship, you could ask questions (for example, “where do I buy condoms?”) or talk about how you are feeling about a sexual encounter.

Ask First Before Starting a Conversation With Somebody About Sex

Lots of people find talking about sex and sexuality embarrassing or uncomfortable. It’s okay if you don’t want to talk with most people (or anyone!) about these topics. It is important, though, to find a trusted person to talk with in case you need advice or help.

Always make sure the person with whom you want to talk, whether a close friend, trusted adult, or partner, also feels comfortable and is willing to talk with you about sex. If you are not sure, you should ask.

You might say:

  • Can I ask you a question about sex?
  • Do you feel comfortable talking about sex right now? If not, would you be willing to talk about it with me later?

Remember though, just because someone has discussed sex with you once, doesn’t mean they want to talk about it all the time, or at another time. Always check with the person before starting a conversation about sex.

It may be a sign that someone is not interested in talking if they:

  • Change the subject when you ask them about a specific topic
  • Don’t say anything
  • Tell you they are busy
  • Take a very long time to answer a message

These are just a few examples. These reactions might mean the person feels uncomfortable talking about sex, or it might just mean that the person is distracted by something else or that it’s not a good time to talk.

For example, the day after Marisol had sex for the first time, she wanted to talk about it with her friend Linda. Marisol sent Linda a text that said, “I had sex last night. Can I call you to talk about it?” Linda said “yes,” and Marisol enjoyed talking with her friend about her feelings and the new experience. A week later, Marisol had sex with her date again. She wanted to talk to Linda, so she sent her a text. Linda did not answer for a long time, so Marisol decided to write about her feelings and experience in a journal instead.

What If You Are Not Comfortable Talking With Others About Sex?

You may not want to talk about sex yourself. That’s normal. It’s a challenging topic, and even though you may not feel comfortable talking about it, communicating with your partner(s) (and doctor, as needed) about sex is important.

Some people find that writing things down makes it easier than talking aloud. Just make sure to keep personal information private and safe if you are putting it in writing. The Online Relationships and Safety section and the Public vs. Private section of this guide can teach you how to do that.

So, remember…

  • Ask first – see if the person is comfortable talking about sex.
  • Keep in mind whom you can trust to discuss such personal matters with.
  • Speak in private.

When you engage in sexual activities with somebody, you share something private with them. Information about these sexual activities doesn’t “belong” only to you. It is mutually shared and private to both of you. In general, before talking to friends or others about sex with your partner, it is respectful to first talk to your partner about what is okay to share and with whom.

Talking to Your Doctor

037-surgeon-wearing-uniform-graphic-iconAn exception to this is talking with your doctor. If your doctor needs to know information about what type of sex you have had, when you had it, how many partners you have had, or other similar information, you should always answer your doctor truthfully. Your doctor is asking this information in order to care for your sexual and physical health, not in order to gossip or socialize with you. If your doctor or anyone else asks, “Are you sexually active?,” it typically means “have you ever or recently engaged in sexual activity with another person?”

You should feel comfortable when talking about or sharing information about sex with your doctor. Even if your partner may be more comfortable keeping information about your sex life private, they should never force you to lie or make you feel uncomfortable. Read the Healthy Relationships section of this guide to learn more about healthy communication. 

Talking About Sexual Assault

026-sexual-harassment-seg-graphic-iconSometimes people might do sexual things (touching, penetration, intercourse, etc.) to you that are unwelcome. If you were not interested in engaging in sexual activity and the person you were with ignored your wishes, you may have experienced sexual assault, sexual abuse, and/or sexual harassment. These are serious emotional and legal matters. 

Don’t confuse the “rules” about talking about consensual sexual activity with what you should do and say in the case of sexual assault, sexual abuse, and sexual harassment. If you experience these things, you should not keep them a secret, even if the person who assaulted you tells you to. Your physical and emotional safety is more important than their privacy.

If you think or know you have been the subject of sexual assault, abuse, or harassment, you should tell someone you trust about it. They can help you decide what to do next.

More information is in the section on Sexual Assault.

Sexual Innuendos 

When people talk about sex, there are many different slang terms, nicknames, or other ways of referring to body parts and sexual activity.

When talking with someone for the first time, a good rule of thumb is to approach the subject carefully by using more formal terms and indirect references to ensure you are using mutually comfortable words and language. It makes others more comfortable if you use the same words that they use.

The following is a list of some of the formal, polite, and crude terms people use when talking about sex and the body. Keep in mind that slang terms may differ based on where you live and whom you are talking with. Just because a term is listed below, it doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone knows what it means or even uses it! In addition, some words are considered vulgar (or as curse words). These words may offend some people or make them uncomfortable, so we have not included them here.

Sex terms

*Even though a lot of people call the parts of your body that are covered by your swimsuit “private parts,” that does not mean that the rest of your body is “public.” Your whole body is private, and you decide who touches it and when. You also decide what parts of your body to talk about. The “private parts” of your body (those covered by your swimsuit) are especially private.

What Do People Do When They Have Sex?

Sexual expression is a healthy and normal part of most people’s lives, but everyone expresses themselves sexually in their own unique way, and everyone has different preferences for what does and does not feel good to them during sex.

There is no “normal” way to have sex. As long as you are respecting your partner (and yourself) through consent, privacy, communication, and the practice of safe and protected sex, there is nothing “wrong” with you or your sex life.

There is also nothing “wrong” with you if you do not want to have sex or do not want to engage in certain sexual behaviors. Some people don’t often feel sexual desire, and some find certain sensations unpleasant. There are also potential emotional or physical consequences for sexual behavior, so make sure to consider whether you are ready to be sexually active. The Am I Ready? section of this guide explains those more. Whatever the reasons, it is okay if you do not want to engage in some or any form of sexual activity – and it is also perfectly normal and healthy!

Many people enjoy a variety of sexual activities while having sex. Not all of them need to happen during one sexual encounter. If you’re not interested in doing certain sexual things, then you don’t have to.

Below is a list of sexual behaviors and activities. If you want to learn more about what any of these activities are, you can click on the activity’s name. We have provided descriptions and definitions for each of these activities, but this information is just to help you understand the basics. In general, the list is ordered from less intimate activities to more intimate activities. Often, but not always, people start with less intimate activities and progress to some of the more intimate ones.

Sexual Activities and Behaviors

 

Kissing


Sexual Touching


Foreplay


Masturbation


Manual Sex


Oral Sex


Vaginal Sex/Intercourse


Anal Sex/Intercourse


Orgasm

Cleaning Up After Sex

 If you masturbate or have sex, it is important to clean up afterwards to show respect for others, keep your sexual activity private, and to avoid hygiene issues (such as infections). Cleaning up looks different for each person and situation, depending on the type of activity that happened and the person’s preferences.

  • The important thing to remember is to wash off any fluids that came from the sexual behavior such as semen, vaginal fluid, sweat, or spit. If you used lubrication, washing that off is also important.
  • Also clean up the area where the sexual activity occurred, such as the bed or shower, and make sure it is clean for future use.
  • Urinating soon after vaginal intercourse reduces the chances of getting a urinary tract infection, and is another important part of a cleanup routine.
Is sex different for people with autism?

Sex is not different for people on the autism spectrum, but there are some issues that you may experience with sex as someone on the spectrum.

Sensory Issues

Many people, including people on the spectrum, say that certain sexual behaviors (like hugs, cuddling, masturbation) help them with muscle tension, stress, or anxiety.

At the same time, some people on the autism spectrum also say that certain sensations from sex feel unpleasant or even painful. This can be true for everyone – for every person, certain things do or do not feel good to them when having sex. If you’re on the autism spectrum, you may have some sensory sensitivities that come up during sex. For example, the feel of open-mouth kissing or the sound of certain body parts moving back and forth may feel uncomfortable.

When something doesn’t feel good to you, whether it’s a physical feeling, a sound, or a behavior, there are ways to manage it. You do not need to do uncomfortable things! Talk with your partner about what you like and don’t like, and how you can modify a sexual behavior to make it more enjoyable for both of you. For example, if direct skin-to-skin contact does not feel good, you could try wearing lightweight clothes. Everyone has certain things they need to be able to enjoy sex. Needs that are related to your autism are no different, and deserve to be respected.

Communication Needs

006-people-seg-graphic-iconIt’s important to be able to communicate your needs and preferences to your partner in whatever way works for you. If it is hard for you to communicate how you usually would once you are having sex, it might help to communicate your needs to your partner beforehand or find a different way to express yourself during sex.

Ideas for communicating with partners – whether before or during sex:

  • Keep a notepad by the bed to write on, or write messages beforehand and point to them
  • Type out what you need to say on a phone or other device
  • Have a verbal conversation beforehand about what you are comfortable with
  • Use a yes/no/maybe list to clarify what you do and do not like
  • Come up with a “safe word” or sound that means “stop”
  • Decide in advance on some gestures/movements that mean “yes” and “no”
  • Teach your partner in advance to notice signs that you are overwhelmed or need a break

Talking about these things in advance is a great idea to keep you and your partners safe and comfortable. Lots of people get overwhelmed for different reasons during sex, so communicating these things can also help your partners, whether they are on the spectrum or not.

Disclosure of Diagnosis

The decision of whether to disclose being on the autism spectrum is always up to you. If you don’t want to tell a partner that you are on the spectrum, there are still ways to communicate your needs. Whether or not you choose to disclose, explaining what you need to feel comfortable during sex is a good way to start the conversation.

Examples of disclosing while communicating your needs:

  • “I’m on the autism spectrum, so that may impact how I feel and interact with you when we have sex. Hair tickling my skin can be overwhelming – would you mind pulling your hair back when we’re hooking up?”
  • “Because I’m autistic, I might have trouble expressing myself verbally during sex, so it’s helpful for me if we decide on a sign that means ‘stop.’ How about if I tap three times on your back if I need to stop?”

Examples of communicating those same needs without disclosing:

  • “The feeling of hair tickling my skin can be really distracting. Would you mind pulling your hair back when we’re hooking up?”
  • “I sometimes have trouble expressing myself verbally when I’m overwhelmed, so it’s helpful for me if we decide on a sign that means ‘stop.’ How about if I tap three times on your back if I need to stop?”

Good partners will want to make sure you are comfortable. They may want to ask questions to make sure they understand your needs and boundaries.

If you tell someone that you are on the autism spectrum and they try to make you feel bad or ignore your sensory or communication needs and boundaries, that is a sign that they are not respecting you. They are probably not someone that you want to have sex with or continue having sex with.

Conclusion

Sex and sexual activity are big topics that can be difficult for most people to understand. There is a lot of information available about these things, and it can feel overwhelming to understand much of it. If you are on the autism spectrum, it might be especially hard to understand all the social aspects of sex. Hopefully, this section helped answer some basic questions you might have had about sex. Even though there is a lot of information in this guide and elsewhere, these are just the basics. There is always more to learn!

Key Takeaways
  • 062-people-seg-graphic-iconThe most commonly discussed types of sex are vaginal intercourse, anal sex, and oral sex. But lots of people simply define sex as any physical contact with another person that feels sexual.
  • Sexual behaviors can include touching, kissing, vaginal intercourse, oral sex, masturbation, and many other things.
  • Sex should only happen in a private place between consenting individuals.
  • Since sex is a private activity, it’s important to learn where, when, and with whom it is appropriate to talk about different aspects of sex.
  • It’s especially important to communicate with your doctor about your sexual health.
  • You should communicate your needs, desires, and boundaries with your partners, and your partners should respect those things. You should also respect the needs, desires, and boundaries of your partners.

Sexual Activity Quiz

Disclaimer

Information found on OAR’s Sex Ed. for Self-Advocates website, related videos, resources, and links are not a substitute for professional medical advice. All users of the site should consult with a physician or other health care provider to discuss specific concerns if they require further information or clarity.