Lesson 5 of 7  - evolve a high-nurturance family

Q&A About Family
Sexual Stressors

Raise Your Awareness

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/fam/sex.htm

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      Sensual and sexual needs, fantasies, and behaviors are universal and primal. Shelves of adult how-to books and a national association of professional sex therapists and educators suggests that sexual ignorance and dissatisfaction is common.

      Some sexual "problems" can be managed like other relationship problems. Others have  psychological and medical causes that are beyond average adults' understanding or control. Most sexually-related problems stress the whole family system directly or indirectly.

      The questions and answers below aim to...

help you understand and resolve common family sexual problems, 

offer perspective and options on common stepfamily sexual issues, and to...

provide links to selected resources. 

      This article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Web site and the premises underlying it   

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • requisites for a satisfying relationship, and...

  • how to analyze and resolve most relationship problems

      These Q&A items are not comprehensive or absolute. They're based on the premise that family "sexual problems" are often symptoms of other personal and relationship problems. So each adult involved in a "sexual problem" should dig down objectively to identify what primary needs are not being met well enough, and then assess why.

      These Q&A items are based on family-system principles, and do not try to advise on love-making "techniques." They aim to augment, not replace, informed professional counseling. Scan all the  questions before reading any answers. If you're in a stepfamily - or may be, also study Lessons 6 and 7 first.

 Q&A on Family Sexual Problems

      Part of every family's identity is the adults' beliefs, values, and behaviors about sensuality, sexuality, nudity, and privacy. Depending on many factors, these can degrade or improve a family's  relationships and its nurturance level (low to high).  

      Most answers are on this page. Some answers are in other articles (underlined links). The items are for all families, and for stepfamilies.

General Q&A

Q1)  What is intimacy? (Answered in another Q&A article, so close it to return here)

Q2)  What's the difference between sensuality and sexuality?

Q3)  What are basic requisites for sexual harmony?

Q4)  I'm not sexually satisfied in our relationship now, and talking hasn't helped. Is there a best way to fill my needs? Read this.

Q5)  What is sexual abuse? What if any of our family adults was, or may have been, sexually abused  or molested as a child?

Q6)  What is sexual addiction? If a family member seems to be sexually addicted, what are our options?

Q7)  What is incest and the "incest taboo"?

Q8)  What if I and/or my partner had or are having a sexual affair?

Q9)  I get upset when my partner flirts with other people, but s/he won't stop. What can I do?

Q10)  Our family adults have major disputes over teaching our minor kids about healthy sexual realities, values, and behaviors. How can we resolve this?

Q11)  One of our family adults or kids regularly uses pornography and hides or denies it. What can I do?

Q12)  My partner and I disagree significantly over nudity and privacy in our home, and we're having trouble resolving this. What can we do?

Q13)  What should we know before shopping for a sex therapist?

Q&A About Stepfamily Sexuality

        Review these Q&A items about stepfamily basics.

Q14)  Are there sexual problems in typical stepfamilies that intact-biofamily members don't encounter? Yes

Q15)  What is stepfamily incest?

Q16)  Should a bioparent express physical affection with a new partner in front of his or her kids?

Q17)  What can we do if an ex mate uses porn and/or shows our kids X-rated media?

If you don't see your question here, please ask!


Q2)  What's the difference between sensuality and sexuality?

      Answer this out loud, and the compare your ideas to these: Sensuality refers to being receptive to sensory information - sights, sounds, touches, smells, temperatures, movements, pain, and pleasure. Sensitivity can mean "the degree of sensuality (low > high)," and/or "feeing locally or chronically empathic with a person or group."

      Sexuality refers to attitudes, values, preferences, and behaviors that cause sexual desire, arousal, intercourse (sometimes), and potential orgasms. Healthy newborns have instinctual impulses to pleasure themselves sensually, and later as teens to copulate and reproduce.

      Our ancestors, religions, and the media barrage young people with confusing messages and stimuli which induce significant guilt, shame, misunderstanding, and anxiety about sensuality and sexuality, These promote deception, repression, affairs, and "sexual dysfunction." The root causes are psychological wounds and unawareness, and societal ignorance and denials.

      The formation of a person's "sexual identity" (their sexual values, preferences, impulse-controls, and boundaries) is a complex multi-year process that is partly genetic and partly environmental. Our U.S. culture is gradually relaxing fierce inherited sexual repressions and shame, tho some conservative religious denominations and scriptures still righteously justify and foster these.

      Clearly distinguishing sensuality from sexuality can help couples identify and express their needs, and avoid and resolve blocks to healthy shared intimacy. Are your family teens and adults clear on this distinction?


Q3)  What's required for sexual harmony between partners?

      "Harmony" means "minimal stress, and stable mutual satisfaction." This varies by couple, but some requisites are common. Try answering this question out loud, and then compare your answer to this opinion:

      Each partner...

  • is _ usually guided by their true Self; and _ is able to feel pleasure without guilt or shame; and s/he...

  • sees needs for sensuality and sexuality as normal and healthy, not shameful or "dirty;"; and s/he...

  • has equal respect for themselves and their partner, as a person, a fe/male, and a partner; and each partner must be able to... .

  • assert appropriate boundaries and consequences;  and s/he must be...

  • steadily empathic and aware;, and s/he must...

  • be able to _ communicate, _ assert needs, _ exchange honest feedback, and _ problem-solve effectively - in general, and about sexual needs and concerns (ref Lesson 2); and each partner must want to..

  • learn and accept the sensual/sexual values and preferences of their partner, and want to please her or him without violating someone's integrity. This includes knowing and accepting gender traits in sexual responses and needs, and respecting their partner's "not being in the mood" at times; And s/he needs to be...

  • clear on if, how, and when to conceive a child; and s/he...

  • is knowledgeable about, and attentive to, sexual health and safety; and s/he...

  • is physically healthy and balanced (minimally stressed); and ideally each partner...

  • lives in a wholistically-healthy family and community which respect and promote healthy, responsible sensuality and sexuality.

      Pause and notice what you're thinking and feeling. Can you think of other requisites for sexual harmony between partners? Does it seem reasonable that stable sexual harmony is uncommon? How many of these requisites do you have now?


Q5) What is sexual abuse? What if any of our family adults was, or may have been, sexually abused as a child?

      Abuse is an emotionally-provocative word which is often misused. Unless three conditions are clearly present, aggression is more accurate and less inflammatory. Sexual abuse occurs when someone...

  • intentionally satisfies their sensual/sexual and control needs by using an unwilling, unaware, defenseless person...

  • in a way that significantly harms that person physically, mentally, psychologically, and/or spiritually in someone's opinion; and...

  • the victim cannot (vs. will not) flee or defend themselves against this trauma.

      Sexual molestation involves skin contact. Other sexual abuse may not. For example, forcing or encouraging a child to watch or hear adult sexual behavior, shaming or punishing kids for normal sexual curiosity, adults openly exposing or playing with genitals, providing misleading or no sexual information and guidance, and verbally overfocusing on sexual things in everyday life can be sexually abusive.

      If any of your family adults were, or may have been, sexually abused as a child, and they got no competent professional help to heal the resulting psycho-spiritual trauma, it's very likely they...

  • came from a traumatic, low-nurturance childhood,

  • are unaware of major psychological wounds and their consequences;

  • may be addicted and/or obese; and/or isolated or promiscuous; and they may...

  • have some kind of sexual dysfunction; and..

  • may be unable to achieve or tolerate genuine intimacy;  and they...

  • need to _ break protective denials, _ admit these stressors,, and _ want to get knowledgeable professional help with them.

      These factors can unintentionally promote sexual trauma and/or block healthy sexual awareness and judgment in a dependent child. I recommend assessing for ancestral sexual abuse as part of your checking for psychological wounding (Lesson 1). For more perspective on sexual abuse, see this after you finish here..


Q6)  What is sexual addiction? If a family member seems to be addicted, what are our options?

      Sexual addiction uses sensual or sexual fantasies, arousal, and orgasm to temporarily self-medicate against inner pain. It may cause injury to one's self (physical abuse) or to a defenseless person. Each of the four kinds of addiction is a strong sign of psychological wounds and a traumatic, low-nurturance childhood.

      The mate of an addict becomes may become obsessed with (codependent on) their partner's behavior and welfare because of her or his own psychological wounds. This lowers the  family's nurturance level, which promotes wounds in dependent kids. COSA is a 12-step support program for partners of sex addicts.

      Since 1935, the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous philosophy and programs have helped millions of people around the world control (vs. cure) addictions. Currently, these programs don't acknowledge the psychological wounds and unawareness that cause addictions, so they only promote preliminary vs. full recovery. "Evidence: typical addicts have to keep attending 12-step meetings and diligently working their "program" to prevent resuming addictive attitudes and behaviors ("relapsing").

      In recent generations, several different 12-step programs have evolved to help sex-addicts control their compulsion/s: Sex Addicts Anonymous (SAA), Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), and Sexaholics Anonymous  (SA). They differ in some beliefs (moderate to rigid) and recovery priorities. Sexual addiction's prevalence has justified The Society for the Advancement of Sexual Health (SASH). There are many helpful sites now on the Internet - search on "sex addicts," "sexual addiction," and "compulsive sex."

      Help each other to stay aware: any past or present addiction indicates family dysfunction! For more perspective and options about addiction and recovery, see this.


Q7)  What are incest and the incest taboo?

      Like rape, abuse, illegitimate, abortion, and addiction, incest is an emotionally-explosive concept and word, so it's important to know what it means and to use it appropriately. Traditionally, incest refers to sexual intercourse between genetically-related people like siblings or a child and an adult relative.

      Tradition across ages and cultures has consistently prohibited such intercourse (taboo) because it promotes genetically-damaged children and related social problems. Siblings who grow up together seem to automatically have little sexual interest in each other, or at least muted desire. There are exceptions.

      Incest may or may not be sexual abuse (see Q5), depending on whether both people are old enough to know what they're doing and freely consent to it. Some people use incest to mean intercourse between any unmarried people, or any adult and child. In the context of this Website, the real issues are...

  • _ who uses the term "incest," _ why, and _ what effect thinking or speaking the term has on family relationships and functioning; and...

  • if there is unhealthy sexual behavior in a family system (like incest)...

    • what is it, specifically;

    • what (vs. who) causes it (usually psychological wounds + unawareness),

    • how is it impacting family members and the family's functioning, and...

    • what does each affected person need for wholistic health and balance?


Q9)  I get upset when my partner flirts with other people, but s/he won't stop. What can I do?

      Conflict over excessive or compulsive "flirting" can be caused by:

one or both of you being controlled by false selves (ref. Lesson 1); and...

you two being unable to problem-solve effectively, including... 

  • not digging down as partners to unearth the primary needs that cause the flirting and your responses to it, and/or...

  • you not asserting your primary needs and boundaries effectively;

  • being unable to maintain a mutual two-person awareness bubble, and...

  • not having a workable strategy for resolving power, values, and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles yet; and possibly. (ref Lesson 2);

your partner's governing subselves don't really value you and your relationship second (after their integrity and wholistic health); which may mean...

one or both of you chose the wrong person to commit to, for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, and are experiencing painful results.

If this doesn't provide some useful insights and options, study and discuss this article on jealousy


Q10)  Our family adults have major disputes over teaching our minor kids about healthy sexual realities, values, and behaviors. How can we resolve this?


Assess each of you adults honestly for psychological wounds. If you find any, evolve and work a high-priority self-motivated wound-recovery plan with your true Selves in charge. See Lesson 1. 

Take this communication-basics quiz, and compare results. Then discuss and try out these options for improving communications. See Lesson 2. Your real problem may be how you're trying to resolve this family problem.

Discuss these articles on...

  • effective parenting,

  • resolving values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles,

  • three levels of family relationship problems, and...

  • how to analyze and resolve typical relationship problems. 


Q11)  One of our family members regularly uses pornography, and hides or denies it. What can I do?

      Regular use of pornography by a spouse, another adult, or a child is often a symptom of one or more primary problems like these:

If the porn user is your partner...

s/he is probably a shame- based survivor of a low-nurturance childhood, and doesn't know that false selves dominate him or her, or what to do about it; and/or...

s/he is psychologically wounded and uses sexual stimulation (excitement) to distract from major inner pain, and s/he needs to deny this; and/or...

s/he is sexually dissatisfied, and doesn't know a better way to get his or her needs met; and/or...

You two don't know how to problem-solve effectively yet, and need to build Lesson 2 skills together. You may focus on the pornography and/or "lying" as the problem, instead of digging down to identify your primary unfilled needs;  and/or...

The way you're responding to the covert pornography (e.g. timidity, scorn, threats, blaming, lecturing, moralizing, punishing) increases your partner's pain, and makes it unsafe for him or her to identify and fill his or her primary needs; and/or...

Your false selves are using "the pornography problem" to avoid a deeper family-relationship problems - e.g. sexual abuse, childhood abandonment, addiction, affairs, and/or one or both of you having made up to three unwise courtship choices.

If the porn user is a child or teen...

Ensure that your true Selves are guiding you. Then you mates dig down carefully to identify the primary needs of (a) each adult involved, and (b) the child;

Note whether you respect the child's dignity despite her or his behavior or not. A disrespectful attitude (e.g. shaming the child) suggests that a false self  may rule you. That will surely hinder effective communication with everyone as you seek a solution.

Seek informed opinions on the difference between normal age-appropriate sexual curiosity, and pathological use of pornography. Also evaluate the child's level of sexual knowledge, and improve that as needed.

Check to see if you mates have effective strategies to combat these three common stressors. A child using pornography will often trigger these among your family members.

Assess the child's status with normal developmental needs and these common family-adjustment needs. Use your findings to guide how you adults want to co-parent this young person;

Clarify what a sexual addiction is, as you evaluate what the child's behavior may mean. If you feel s/he is addicted, see this.

If some family members are over-concerned with secrecy about "this porn problem" (or you're not discussing it), that may indicate a shame-based false self rules your or their personality. This will cause many secondary problems. See this and this when you finish here.

If you confront the child, use a well-designed I-message, and well-thought-out consequences. Then enforce them respectfully and promptly as needed. Stay aware - part of normal childhood is testing family rules and limits to see what kids can get away with (remember?) 

If the child has other significant personal, school, or family problems, assess him/her for psychological wounds and review these options. 

If you adults can't agree on how to react to this situation, consider using qualified professional help to sort the problems out and evolve an effective united-front response.


Q13)  What should we know before shopping for a sex therapist?

      Sex-related problems are usually symptoms of deeper issues - so the best preparation your family adults can make for resolving such problems is to study and discuss this course together. Problems like sexual abuse, incest, sexual addiction, affairs, and pornography are then best handled by consulting a family-systems therapist with special training and experience in sex-related stressors.

      For marital dissatisfaction related to sex, study and discuss this, and Lessons 1 and 2 together. Then seek appropriate help from a veteran licensed professional sex therapist together.

      See this for general perspective on counseling and therapy.


Q14)  Are there sexual "problems" in typical stepfamilies that intact-biofamily members don't encounter?


  • The incest taboo in average stepfamilies is weaker than typical biofamilies, so there can be significant one-way or mutual sexual attraction between stepsiblings, and a stepchild and stepparent or other relative.

  • Research suggests that the odds of child sexual abuse are higher in U.S. stepfamilies than in intact biofamilies;

  • Ex mates can feel, and may act on, significant sexual attraction. This usually promotes significant personal and interpersonal stepfamily conflict.

  • Typical multi-home stepfamilies have more people, relationships, adjustment tasks, and stressors than intact biofamilies. These combine to make it harder for mates to find or make adequate undistracted couple-time to enjoy intimacy.

  • The odds for adult sexual dysfunction may be higher in typical stepfamily unions than first marriages because a higher percentage of step-adults seem to come from low-nurturance childhoods, including sexual trauma; and...

  • Finding competent professional help may be harder, because few mental-health pros have adequate training in the stepfamily stresses that can hinder sexual harmony.


Q15)  What is incest in a stepfamily?

      See Q7 for basic perspective, and return here.

      Incest between genetically-related people is just the same in a stepfamily as in a biofamily. Sexual attraction and action between stepfamily members not related by genes is often confusing because there is no widely-accepted social norm defining it. Sexual activity between stepsiblings or a step-adult and stepchild is dangerous for psychological reasons, not biological.

      Debating what constitutes stepfamily incest is unimportant, compared to identifying and resolving personal and relationship problems caused by intra-family sexual conflicts

The real issues are...

  • _ who uses the term "incest," _ why, and _ what effect thinking or speaking the term has on family relationships and nurturance level, and...

  • if there is stressful sexual behavior in a multi-home stepfamily...

    • what is it, specifically;

    • what (vs. who) causes it (usually it's caused by psychological wounds and unawareness);

    • how are family adults and kids reacting to it (e.g. fighting, avoiding, problem-solving, gossiping, scorning, moralizing, punishing, pretending, joking, etc.); and...

    • what does each affected person need for wholistic health and balance?


Q16)  Should a bioparent express physical affection with a new partner in front of his or her minor children?

      Young and grown kids seeing their mother or father embrace, fondle, or kiss a stepparent at home or in public can cause significant household and stepfamily stress. Key factors are whether...

a child has grieved their web of losses from (a) biofamily breakup and (b) parental re/marriage and cohabiting well enough;

a child's age, gender, and comfort with his or her own sexuality;

a child or stepparent has sexual interest in each other;

a child feels safe to express her or his feelings and opinions openly to their co-parents;

siblings, other relatives, and/or key friends have major reactions ("Don't you feel weird seeing your Mom kissing some strange guy?"); and whether...

the child's parents' previous attitudes (dis/approval) and behaviors about couples' publicly expressing affection or desire for each other;

the co-parents are empathically responsive to a child's reactions to public displays of physical affection to each other;

      More key factors: whether...

either adult is ambivalent about public displays, for a child will sense that discomfort without understanding it, which may raise their own anxiety; and...

how long the stepfamily has existed (psychologically, not legally), and...

how comfortable each child is with their other bioparent's reaction to the new couple and stepparent. If a child senses their other parent and/or key relative/s are significantly upset about either of these, the child witnessing public affection between new partners can trigger significant loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. This is specially likely if the child is awakening to their own sexuality, and has normal excitement and confusion about it.

      True-Self leadership and awareness (empathy) are key to showing kids how loving partners express their feelings to each other in public. Options:

if you're unsure about displaying physical affection to your mate in front of a child, (a) notice your own comfort level, and (b) ask the child how s/he feels - and then listen! S/He may or may not tell you the truth...

all your co-parents discuss your values and comfort levels with public displays of affection in any setting. Consider making this the subject of a family meeting. Each child will have a unique reaction...


Q17)  What can we do if an ex mate uses porn and/or shows our kids X-rated media?

Read this perspective on typical ex-mate relations.

Ensure that your true Selves are guiding your personalities. Then dig down carefully to identify the primary needs of each adult and child affected by the ex mate's behavior;

Check to see that each of you mates genuinely accepts (a) your stepfamily identity and (b) the ex mate as a full stepfamily member. If not, lower your expectations of finding an effective solution to this complex "pornography problem."

Invest time in reading and discussing these stepfamily basics and common myths. Then you mates review these common relationship barriers to see if "porn usage" is secondary to some deeper family-relationship problems.

Check to see if you mates have effective strategies to combat values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles. Because "sex" is an explosive subject, this "ex mate problem" will probably trigger these common stressors in and between your co-parenting homes.

Beware of demanding the ex mate to want to change her/his values, attitudes, and behavior. That's a self-defeating Be spontaneous! paradox which will often make things worse

Clarify what a sexual addiction is, as you evaluate (a) what the ex mate's behavior may mean, and (b) your best responses to it;

Review these communication options to see if any may relate to your situation. If you're considering legal force, see this.

If you choose to confront the ex on his or her behavior, use a thoughtful I-message and handle expected resistances with respectful empathic listening.


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