Love, Sex, and Gender: WHAT MAKES US HEALTHY?

How parents can discuss these things with teens

            When I was a teenager, and especially when I left home for college, I had trouble refraining from certain things just because I was told not to do them.  Even if I saw it in the Bible written as something not to do, in order to avoid it, I needed to know why it was harmful for me.  This was especially true when it came to matters that produced a lot of pleasure, such as anything having to do with love or sex.  Masturbating and playing genital show and tell with other boys and girls were two of those things for me.  Today exploring the Internet for pictures, videos, contacts, and information about sex and gender would require many answers to my questions of “why not?”  I made it a habit to ask God and my parents to explain to me why I should not to do such things.  And I asked them to show me what I should do with these feelings and drives of mine, what would be good for me and others in my life, and why it would work out better that way. 

In our lifetimes, we experience various desires to give and receive love, to give and receive sex, and to express and attract gender.  The issue of gender includes gender identity (who I say I am), gender expression (how masculine or feminine I act), and gender orientation (who I say I’m attracted to).  How young people define themselves on these matters makes a huge personal impact on their lives, and on the lives of their friends and family.  Young people with unusual self-definitions on these matters are hit with pressures to conform to the values and beliefs of other people in their lives, especially parents and peers.  

Sometimes values clash in love, such as fun vs. fidelity, freedom vs. connection, kindness vs. honesty, partnership vs. dependency, family vs. friends, pure vs. profane or dirty, trusting vs. ignoring God, suppressing feelings vs. expressing them.  These values and beliefs are often presented as realities, each with its own claims for how it affects the health and wellness of those who try to live by these values and beliefs.

            Especially important to us and to society are values and beliefs about health and wellness.  Health has been defined as maximizing the capacity for enjoying life, and minimizing harm to that capacity, both in self and others, both now and in the long run.   By this definition, it is not healthy to take power or self-worth from others in order to benefit oneself.  Expressions of love, sex, and gender always have an impact on power and self-worth for those involved, and therefore all such expressions affect people’s health.

            Being a social scientist, I have spent a lifetime studying research on what works to produce healthy people and relationships.  And as a therapist, I have observed many different worldviews, and many different realities that color and direct our expressions of love, sex, and gender.  I have watched how people’s expressions have turned out over the course of their lifetimes, and over the lifetimes of their family members and romantic partners, the people most affected by these very personal expressions.  All these long-range scientific studies, both of large groups and of individual cases, have brought me to the same conclusions about what works and what doesn’t work to produce healthy lives.

            Not at all sources of truth, power, and self-worth are equally healthy.  International research I have conducted, the research I have reviewed, and my case-studies of the 7000 individuals I have counseled have all convinced me there is a hierarchy of health in these worldviews.  The following is a rank-ordered hierarchy for the healthiness of various possible worldviews and sources of truth:

  1. Spiritual/biblical truth – the traditional moral values and worldviews that have historically been considered good and true for all religions in the Western world.  I personally believe Jesus’ claim to be the complete embodiment of truth, the duly constituted and authorized spokesperson for the Truth.  But all three of the major Western religions came through Abraham, and all three have similar rules for living that support family values and being kind and honest with all people.
  2. Physical/natural/scientific truth – what scientists have proven and agreed makes for healthy individuals, relationships, and societies.
  3. Socially determined truth – what professional journalists have determined to be true, what higher courts have determined to be lawful, and what elected officials have historically determined to be for the common good.
  4. One’s parents’ reality – the set of moral values and beliefs parents have given their children in hopes their offspring will grow up to choose lifestyles similar to their own.
  5. One’s own mental reality – what agrees with one’s logic in bringing him or her mental clarity and integrity, and fits one’s plans for personal fulfillment.
  6. One’s own emotional reality – what agrees with one’s gut-level instincts and intuition in bringing him or her positive emotional experiences.
  7. Gay-bashing or gay-entitlement reality – the worldviews about love, sex, and gender promoted by elements of the political left and the religious right, who say that people in the LGBTQ community (gays and people choosing other alternative sexual lifestyles) deserve special treatment, good or bad.  The political right wing believes it has been proven that sexual preference is not inherited, and the left wing believes the opposite, that sexual preference being inherited is a proven fact.  The left wing believes it’s not healthy for single people to be celibate and go very long without sexual “outlets,” and the right wing believes the same to be true for married adults.  Increasingly in our society, one is hammered for being neutral and waiting for more conclusive scientific proof for these conflicting, extreme, and polarizing views.
  8. Image-management reality – the trendy desires and profit-driven worldviews created by the advertising industry, movie industry, music industry, industry-sponsored “research”, political ads, fake news, religious cults, and special interest groups, especially as expressed in social media and dating apps.
  9. Virtual reality – custom-ordered and market-driven experiences sold to the consumer as augmented or virtual reality, such as video games, sexual robotics, and especially the porn industry.  Operating untethered and undetected through international servers using the dark web, the porn industry makes more money than the combined incomes of all professional sports in the world.  They pay the highest wages to technology’s most gifted designers, hiring them to seduce unsuspecting new users into becoming sex addicts they can exploit until they are bankrupt.

The first three truths generally are stable over the centuries of history, and they help individuals live in society.  In spite of some unhealthy pastors, churches, and believers, religious truth is ranked above the others because of its higher regard for love, respect, joy, peace, and what is good for people, families, and the planet.  The Bible itself is healthier than those who use it to judge others and not themselves, so we need to read it for ourselves. 

            The second two worldviews are more often than the first used to accomplish political or economic agendas.  When scientific experiments are constructed objectively, and when political laws and rulings are made with the best interest of society and the larger world at heart, they substantially confirm the values and beliefs of religion, just as the Bible says God called them to do.

Truth sources 2 and 3 are helpful in that unlike with religion, the “truth” that science and society discover can be objectively proved by group consensus and professional review.  These three worldviews often agree with and cross-validate each other, and taken together, they often clash violently with the self-pleasuring and self-protecting values of the last three red realities.  All this makes the first three stable and helpful sources of knowledge about what is good for all concerned in the long run

            Realities four through six are subjective, created by individuals for their own benefit.  The net effect on society of guidance from these sources tends to be small and neutral.  Unless they are lined up with larger realities such as the first three or the last three, they don’t do much good or harm.  When they align with the top three truth sources, they have great power to create healthy lifestyles, careers, marriages, and children.

            The last three realities are by nature recent, exploitive, deceptive, and untested regarding their effects on the future lives of those who adhere to them.  They are designed to add power and self-worth to some segments of society at the expense of others.  Therefore they usually leave society in a more divided and less healthy state.  They typically prey on the sentimentality of others:  they invoke creatively twisted “truths” from the first three sources.  They often exploit nostalgia by misrepresenting things which people experienced in their youth, or which society experienced decades or centuries ago.  Another key distortion is selling bondage and addiction as freedom.  All this appeals greatly to hurting people who are seeking new worldviews because their sense of heritage has become vague, lost, or harmful.

            This long philosophical introduction is given to help people evaluate the sources of their truth.  This will allow them to determine healthier values and beliefs when it comes to love, sex, and gender.  Most teens nowadays masturbate to fantasies, pictures, and movies about people they allow themselves to enjoy dreaming about.  Who they choose to dream about this way as teens affects who they will want to date, which then affects who they’ll fall in love with, which then affects who they’ll marry and grow old with. 

The more they allow themselves to be pleasured by fantasies or physical stimulation while looking at or imagining this or that gender, the more they find they want more of the same.    It works the same way for pleasuring themselves with this or that age or race, behavior or personality type.  Just like Pavlov trained his dogs, they are training themselves to be attracted to this or that type of person.  They are shaping their sexual and romantic “arousal templates” as we call them.  This process of shaping desire has been thoroughly proven in many studies, but not so the theory that we are born with our attractions preset toward this or that gender.  This theory comes from realities 6 through 9, and it contradicts the findings of truth sources 1, 2, and 3.

Teens who are naïve, proud or misled might think they can get off to the sight or thought of one type of person, and then somehow, someday, flip a switch so they will start wanting to date or marry another type of person.  It doesn’t work that way.  Before they spend more years betting they can do that, they need to know several things about changing the direction of desire: 

  • That switch is hard to flip and hold for long – it is possible for some, but difficult. 
  • The more years they wait to flip and keep it flipped, the harder it is to do.  
  • The more time and repetitions they spend shaping themselves, the harder it is to flip.
  • Once they’ve started trying to flip, each slip back into an old habit cancels out much of their hard work.
  • Pressure and lectures from parents may be unwanted, and thus may be counterproductive.
  • No therapist can accomplish this retraining – only the young people themselves.
  • Therapists can teach skills, but their clients’ futures are largely shaped by their “faith and works,” what they choose to believe and practice, consistently over time.

            Seen through this lens of what is healthy, I offer the following general observations to help people decide how they will express their love, sex, and gender to each other.  Here are some beliefs about healthy Love, Sex, and Gender (LSG) which young people don’t often believe to be true, but which most of them will realize as true when they are a generation older:

  1. Like money, anger, and nuclear energy, sexual energy/desire is not good or bad – its effect depends on what you use it for.
  2. The healthiest choices for singles save some sex acts to celebrate the achievement of relational fidelity, and to create families.
  3. Compared to promiscuity and cheating, fidelity and monogamy lead to more honest, stable, loving, healthy lives.
  4. Using sex for mutual fun and pleasure benefits only two people, and only in the short run.
  5. Using sex for power, domination, and one person’s greater pleasure is very unhealthy.
  6. Opposites attract throughout nature, adding energy, creativity, strength, and inspiration.
  7. Attraction to people similar to ourselves will fade into attraction to the new and different.
  8. In mate selection, choosing people with different gifts, interests, skills, and temperament is more difficult at first, and more beneficial as time goes on.
  9. Choosing people with similar values and beliefs enable the couple to partner better in working toward common goals.

By the definitions of health given above, it is healthy to avoid certain things:

  • Avoid seeing yourself as trapped or helpless, or as a permanent victim of anything.
  • Avoid idolizing any created person or thing as a source for your identity, security, or wellbeing.
  • Avoid believing your feelings and expecting others to do the same:  better to feel your feelings and talk them out, and to believe your beliefs and act them out.
  • Avoid seeing any aspect of yourself as unable to grow, change, or improve.
  • Avoid seeing any situation as overwhelming, and taking all your choice and self-control.
  • Avoid publicizing online anything private and sexual, because this will trivialize, endanger, and mess up your present and future lovemaking.
  • Avoid expressing your sexual orientation or tastes online before leaving home after high school, unless you have the support of your parents in doing so.
  • Avoid fully expressing yourself sexually until you have successfully left home, and found elsewhere the emotional, social, and financial support for your lifestyle choices.
  • Avoid masturbating while watching or imagining activities you’d be ashamed to admit, as this fuses sexual desire with shame, and makes it hard to feel one without the other.
  • Avoid letting your choices be guided by the letter of the law more than by its spirit.
  • Avoid trying to maximize pleasure by grabbing for it soon – you will burn it up that way.
  • Avoid running from emotional pain, denying it, or numbing it out – that just makes it feel even worse when it comes out later, and puts a ceiling now on your love, joy, and peace.
  • Avoid exposing yourself or your children to nakedness or sex before high school, or later.
  • Avoid failing to teach and encourage those who are exposed to such things that they should discuss what happened immediately with educated, trusted, healthy adults.
  • Avoid being careless or rebellious about who you let yourself get attracted to and show attraction for.  “Guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life,” said King Solomon.
  • Avoid letting yourself think you have fallen in love with a beloved who disrespects you, idealizes you, depends on you, is trying to save you, or lies to you.  This isn’t love.
  • Avoid wishing your body looks more like somebody else’s – choose friends, dates, foods, exercises, prayers, and affirmations to help you feel comfortable in your own skin.
  • Avoid believing that one must have regular sexual release or contact to be healthy.
  • And don’t forget that in the long run, we all reap what we sow. 

Here are questions to ask your son or daughter to draw them out and make them think:

  1. Read [this] paragraph slowly until you understand it.  Ask questions if you don’t….   What does this paragraph say, in your words?   . . . . .
  2. What do you read here that you do not agree with?   Why?
  3. What do you believe about this?    Why?
  4. Do you still think it’s a good idea?
  5. If you act your beliefs out someday, how do you think it will help people right away?              In the long run?  . . . .  How will it hurt people now?   
  6. What about [other people, other effects]?
  • [At the end of a session]  You mostly used these sources for truth [point out the ones most used from above], and you didn’t have much use for these higher sources [point out the ones not used much].  Why do you not trust truth that is revealed this way?
  • Maybe you haven’t learned much from those sources, because we have pushed them on you so much.  But just because we have pushed them, or because we haven’t lived by them very well in your eyes, doesn’t make them bogus.  Would you like a chance to learn more from them on your own?

      Finally, I give these ideas to young people and their parents, in hopes they will lead to relaxed and open discussions of what is healthy, what will work out best for all concerned in the long run, and why.  This will in turn allow the family to feel close to each other, but not too close, and comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable.  In short, the family will be able to grow and take in new members that are different but compatible.

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach in Louisville and Shelbyville, (502) 633-2860,

Dr. Paul Schmidt is a psychologist life coach you can reach at [email protected], (502) 633-2860.


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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt