Five Action Steps to Good Sexual Health

1 Value Who You Are and Decide What's Right for You

It starts with believing that each and every one of us is valuable. And, that we all have the right to be treated with respect, and to express who we really are. When we feel good about ourselves, we usually make better decisions. And, there can be big benefits — feeling happier, and having better relationships and sexual health.

Loving everything about yourself — who you are on the inside, what you look like, and your sexual identity — can be challenging. But, you can get more comfortable in your own skin. Learn how to embrace your unique and special qualities. Stand up for yourself, and live the life you want.

Five Good Reasons to Take This Step

  1. Feel more comfortable with who you are. This can be tough in our culture. We are often pressured to have the perfect body, and to act a certain way. But, it's possible to resist these pressures and embrace our true selves.
  2. Get respect. Don't settle for less than you deserve. It starts with setting high standards for how others should treat you. If you don't, you are more likely to stay with a partner who mistreats you, and to take risks with your sexual health.
  3. Be more confident in your relationships. You can learn how to advocate for yourself, and express your needs and desires. No one should control you or walk all over you. Whether it's a short-or long-term relationship, there should always be a level playing field between two people.
  4. Improve your sex life. Self-confidence can also boost your sex life. If you feel good about yourself, you are more likely to freely express yourself and explore new options for intimacy.
  5. Enjoy life more. Instead of worrying if your looks measure up, shift your focus to your inner self, to doing things you really enjoy, and to being with people who make you feel good about you.

Making it Happen: Tips and Advice

Improve your self-esteem: love yourself on the inside.

Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves; it's our sense of self-worth. We all deserve to feel good about who we are. And, good self-esteem is key to our health and well-being.

It's ok and totally normal to have insecurities, and to feel bad about ourselves from time-to-time. It's part of being human. But, if you often feel this way, it can really affect your daily life. So, it's important to size up your own self-esteem, and see where you stand.

First, understand what shapes your self-esteem.

Your life experiences — both good and bad — shape how you feel about yourself. As a child, were you loved and supported, or criticized and abused? How do others — at home, school or work — treat you now?

If you've been abused by a partner, or been a victim of sexual violence, this can lower your self-esteem. A negative body image can also make you feel insecure. And, discrimination — in many different forms — can take a toll. But, there's hope. You can take steps to improve your self-esteem.

Do I have high or low self-esteem?

If you have high self-esteem, you usually feel good about yourself. You are proud of what you can do and are confident. You believe that you have the same rights and value as other people. And, you are more likely to take care of your mind and body, and protect your health.

On the other hand, if you have low self-esteem, you often put yourself down, feel like you're not good enough, and often seek approval from others. You might also feel unlovable, put other people's needs ahead of your own, and easily give in to others.

Poor self-esteem can keep you from trying new things, doing what you want, and enjoying life. And, when it's really low, it can lead to depression, anxiety, eating and exercise disorders, and risky behaviors, such as unsafe sex. (See the Resource List at the end of this step for organizations that can help.)

Some of us have low self-esteem and others have high self-esteem. But, many of us fall somewhere in the middle, with a mix of positive and negative feelings. However, sometimes a little self-criticism can be a good thing, and help us become better people.

How you see yourself can also change over time. And, it can be shaped by new situations or life events, in both positive and negative ways.

How can I improve my self-esteem?

Start by believing that you matter. And, that you are a valuable and unique person. Self-esteem can be increased, even if you had an unhappy childhood, or other bad experiences. Building your self-esteem can take time, but even small steps can make you feel better. Here are some tips to help you do so:

  • Make a list of your positive qualities, successes, and talents. We all have them. What do you like and admire about yourself? What are your strengths? What makes you special and unique? If you have trouble making a list, ask your supportive friends or family members to help out.
  • Replace negative thinking with positive thinking. Try to recognize, manage, and control your inner critic. This will take time and effort, but you can replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts about yourself.

    First, be aware of your thoughts and emotions. Are they mainly negative or positive? When they're negative, slow down, think, and try to switch gears to something positive. And ask yourself, "Is the situation really so bad? Can I see it differently? Is there something positive that I can find? What else happened today that made me happy?" For most of us, this will be a lifelong process. (See the Resource List at the end of this step.)

  • Spend time with people who make you feel good. Try to avoid people, places, or situations that make you feel bad or insecure. This can be tough if you are living with people who don't treat you well. If that's the case, try to find others who do support you, inside or outside of your home.

  • Take care of your mind and body. This can include eating well, exercising, and getting health care. It also means making time for yourself, and doing things that you enjoy.

  • Set your own goals and take on new challenges. This can boost your confidence, and put you on a positive path in life. But, try to set realistic expectations, and accept what you can and can't change about yourself. Remember, no one is perfect. So, forgive yourself when you make mistakes and don't achieve everything on your list.

  • Remember, you don't have to do this all on your own. Additional support is available. If you don't know how to start, or your self-esteem isn't getting better, you can seek advice and support from a mental health professional, such as a counselor or therapist.

    Counselors can help you become more self-aware, confident, and assertive. You can find counselors at schools and local mental health clinics, and in private practice. Sometimes low self-esteem can be a symptom of other mental health conditions. If you think you might be experiencing depression, anxiety, eating or exercise disorders, or other conditions, it's important to seek professional help. (See the Resource List at the end of this step.)

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Your body image: love yourself on the outside.

What we look like is just one small part of who we are. Yet, many of us struggle with body image. In our culture, this is no surprise. But nearly everyone can have a better body image.

What is body image?

It's how you see and feel about your body, and how you think others see you. This means all of your body parts, your size, and your shape. Just like your self-esteem, your body image might not be all positive or all negative — it could be a mix. That's the case for most of us.

Understand what shapes our body image. 

We live in a society that puts a high premium on looks, starting from a young age. We hear positive and negative messages from the media, social media, advertisers, our families, and friends throughout our lives.

We are also surrounded by traditional stereotypes – often in popular media and advertising – about what it means to be "attractive." Females are often portrayed as young and thin, with long, straight hair and curves in the right places. Males are often depicted as tall and muscular, with ripped abs, and thick hair on their head. Yet, there is no such thing as "the" perfect body.

Improving the looks of Americans is also a big business. We are constantly told that we're flawed, and that we need fixing, whether it's through cosmetics, diets, plastic surgery, steroids, or body-building.

But, we can learn to think critically about these pressures. We can keep them in check, and avoid spending too much time or money trying to achieve the "perfect look." We can love our bodies as they are, and celebrate our diversity.

What is a healthy body image?

You believe that your looks don't equal your self-worth. You believe that what's on the inside is more important than what's on the outside. Most of the time, you accept the way you look, and feel good about your body. And, you value what your body allows you to do physically.

What is a negative body image?

Being obsessed with your looks, and feeling like you don't meet the standards of society, friends, partners, and/or family. You might feel awkward or self-conscious, so you avoid activities that reveal your body (for example, going to the swimming pool or to your doctor's office). Or, you might feel grateful that you're in a relationship, in spite of your body. And, if you have a very negative body image, you could develop eating or exercise disorders that are risky to your health.

How can I improve my body image?

First, we need to put our looks in proper perspective — they aren't everything. Then, we should shift our focus from looking great to feeling and being great. And, keep in mind that good partners will like us for who we are, not just for what we look like.  

But, we also need to be realistic.

We are all works-in-progress. So, even if we don't fully accept or love ourselves, we still deserve respectful, healthy and loving relationships. Here are some practical tips to help you feel good about your body:

  • Believe that our bodies are amazing. Most advertisers want us to believe that all bodies need improving. But, we need to turn this idea on its head. Our bodies make it possible for us to live and enjoy life.
  • Find things to like about your body. What do you like about yourself? What is unique about your body? Did you inherit some features that make you proud? Take a look and make a list.
  • Remember to think from the inside out. Besides your looks, what else makes you attractive? On the inside, what are your special traits and qualities? Are you smart, funny, kind, patient, musical, a true friend?
  • Ignore your critics. If people in your life criticize the way you look, it's time to stand up and tell them to stop. Or, at least to ignore them. And if they still put you down, try to surround yourself with others who value all of you.
  • Fight back. Be a media critic and reject narrow ideas of what it means to be attractive. Find and embrace diverse images – people of different shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and abilities.
  • Set reasonable expectations — what is your own best body? It can be very normal — and healthy — to try to improve your body. But, you should set realistic goals about what you can and can't change. And, hopefully focus more on your health, than on your appearance.
  • Treat your body like a treasure. You only have one body, and it's up to you to treat it with care and kindness. This means getting enough sleep, eating well, and exercising. It also means seeking health care and taking steps to protect your sexual health.

What if I want to change my appearance?

It's normal to want to look good, and to put your best foot forward. For example, you might exercise regularly, change your hairstyle, buy some new clothes, and eat healthy foods.

But, if you want to change your looks through plastic surgery or other cosmetic procedures, first be sure to learn about the potential health risks and consequences. And, ask yourself, "Am I feeling pressured to do this by others? Or, am I doing it for myself, and believe it will boost my self-esteem?" If you're doing it mainly to please others, you might want to reconsider.

Focus on living and enjoying your life.

While it's normal to care about how you look, it's not healthy to be obsessed about it. If you spend lots of time and money on your appearance, you might miss out on other fun parts of life. So, think about what you really like to do, and what makes you happy. Going for a bike ride, playing soccer, spending time with friends, reading a book, or cooking? And, make sure that fun activities are part of your routine.

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Embrace your sexual orientation and gender identity.

We are all sexual beings, and this can be a powerful part of who we are. But how we express our sexuality can vary widely. This variety is both natural and normal. And, sometimes we don't neatly fit into a box. So, it's important to discover, accept, and feel proud of our true selves.

We all have the right to express our sexual orientation (who we are attracted to romantically and physically) and our gender identity (whether we identify as female, male, both, or neither).

But, it's up to you to decide how open you will be with others about your sexual orientation and gender identity. Although there has been much progress, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) can still encounter negative reactions, including discrimination and violence.

What is the language of gender identity?

Here are some common terms:

  • Sex assigned at birth. This describes your sexual anatomy at birth, which is usually identified as male or female. Sometimes a baby is born without clear male or female genitals, and this is called intersex. In this case, the baby is usually still assigned a sex at birth.
  • Gender identity. Do you identify as a male, female, both, or neither? One's gender identity can be the same as — or different than — the sex assigned at birth. Usually our feelings about our gender match up with our sexual anatomy. This is called cisgender.
  • Transgender. Some people don't identify with their biological sex at birth. For example, a person could be born with male genitals, but feels like and identifies as a female. This is called transgender.
  • Gender-nonconforming. This can take different forms. Some people feel they are both male and female, or a totally different gender. Others reject the concept of gender (called "agender"), and simply identify as a person.

What is the language of sexual orientation?

Here are some common terms:

  • Gay or lesbian (homosexual) when you are attracted to someone of the same sex as you. (Men attracted to men or women attracted to women). Some people don't like these labels, and prefer other names, such as same-gender-loving.
  • Straight (heterosexual) when you are attracted to someone of the opposite sex than you (male attracted to female or female attracted to male).
  • Bisexual is when you are attracted to both males and females.
  • Pansexual is when you can be attracted to a variety of sexual orientations and gender identities, such as male, female, transgender, gender-nonconforming, and others.
  • Asexual is when you are not sexually attracted to other people. Or, you might not be attracted to others at certain times in your life. But, you may experience other forms of attraction, such as emotional or intellectual attraction.

How do I figure it out?

Our sexual orientation and gender identity are usually set early in life. However, our sexuality can be fluid. This means we can discover, and act on different feelings and attractions over time. Understanding and accepting yourself for who you really are is usually a big relief, and it helps you have a fuller, happier, and more open life.

Thinking about all of this can sometimes be confusing and scary, particularly for teens. But you're not alone. Many people are trying to figure out their sexual orientation and gender identity. It can take time. And for some, it can be a long-term process. Being honest about your feelings and attractions is the best place to start. Key questions to consider:

  • Sexual orientation: Who am I sexually and romantically attracted to? Men, women, both, none, or not sure? How do I feel about that?
  • Gender identity: How do I feel about my gender? Do I identify as male, female, both, or neither? Does this match my sex assigned at birth?
  • Don't have all of the answers? You might not have all of the answers right away. But over time, your attractions or gender identity will probably become clear. If you're struggling, you can seek advice from trusted friends and family, or a mental health professional. There are many organizations, websites, and hotlines available. (See the Resource List at the end of this step.)

Coming out: sharing your sexual orientation and gender identity

The first step in the process is coming out to yourself. This means understanding, accepting, and feeling good about who you are.

From there, it's totally up to you to decide who you tell, and how much you will share. This is a personal decision. It can be very liberating to come out and be your true self. But, it could be easy or hard to do, depending on your personal situation. You should only take this step when you feel ready and safe.

Tips: When and How to Come Out
Ask yourself: "Will I be safe if I tell others?" Think about all of the possible reactions, both negative and positive. For example, if you live with your parents, are they likely to support you or will they kick you out? If you disclose at school, do you think you'll be supported or bullied? If you disclose at work, could you be discriminated against or do you think it will be a non-issue?
Ask yourself: "Am I prepared to handle positive and negative reactions?" Some people might accept you right away. But others may not, or it might take them some time. But, you don't need to go this alone. Line up support before you start coming out, and have a plan in case you have to deal with negative responses.
Remember, you don't need to come out to everyone you know. You can be choosy, and come out only to people who are likely to accept and support you. How do I know if people will be supportive? Try casually talking with them about LGBT issues, and see how they react. Are they supportive or not? This should provide valuable insight into how they might react to you.
Be prepared if someone "outs" you without your permission. This means someone reveals your gender identity or sexual orientation without your consent. Unfortunately, this can happen, and it's best to be prepared in case it does. For example, you might confide in a good friend about your sexual orientation, but your friend betrays your trust and tells others.
Find resources to help you come out. Be sure to check them out, particularly the Human Rights Campaign's Guide to Coming Out.

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Stand up for yourself: make your life your own.

Advocating is not easy for many of us, and we often struggle with doing so. But, we can get better at asking for what we want. And, at saying no to others without feeling guilty. This will probably take time and a lot of practice. But, these skills can benefit all of your relationships, and come in handy at home, school, and work.

The starting point? Believing that your voice deserves to be heard, and that what you want matters. Being confident means expressing your own thoughts, feelings, and needs to others. It means NOT letting other people control you, or walk all over you.

How do I know if I'm NOT being a good advocate for myself?

In general, people who aren't confident are afraid to express their thoughts, ideas, and needs. They often put others first, and easily give in to people's demands.

For example, you are afraid that your partner will reject you if you speak up honestly. So, you remain silent, and go along with whatever they want. Or, if you're with a group, you might just try to fit in, and behave like everyone else, even though you don't like what they're doing.

If this sounds like you, you probably are not getting what you truly want and need. Here are a few other examples of NOT standing up for yourself:

  • After just a few weeks, your new partner pressures you to have sex without a condom. But, you have always used condoms, and believe they are key to protecting your health. Since you are worried that this very attractive partner will dump you, you give in and have sex without a condom.
  • You are at school, and you hear one kid bullying another. Even though you know she was wrong, you stay silent. You're afraid that if you speak up other kids will make fun of you, and choose you as their next target.
  • You ask your doctor to test you for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Your doctor says, "You don't need all of those tests. You're not at risk." But, you've done your homework, and know what tests are recommended. Even so, you decide not to challenge the doctor's "authority" and leave the office without getting the tests you need.
  • In the locker room at school, a few boys are talking about how they plan to get some girls drunk and pressure them into sex. Then, they start describing these girls' bodies in graphic detail. They ask you to join in. And rather than tell them it's not cool to pressure girls into sex without their consent, you just laugh along with them. If you don't, you worry they might question your sexuality.

What does being an advocate look like?

It means you feel free to speak your mind, and to express your true feelings, thoughts, and ideas. It starts with self-respect, and believing that your voice matters as much as anyone else's. And, that it's important to advocate for what you think is right. A few examples:

  • A girl in your friend group posts a mean tweet that makes fun of another girl's looks. You immediately respond by asking her to delete the mean tweet. If it happens again, you block the girl from your account.
  • Your partner asks you to do something sexually that doesn't appeal to you. In response, you tell your partner that you don't want to, but that you are open to trying something else that appeals to both of you.
  • Your parents insist that you study engineering at college so that you can earn lots of money. You calmly inform them that you have something else in mind for your career — teaching. You explain that your future belongs to you, and that you want to do what you love.
  • You are a woman and your male partner pressures you to have vaginal sex even though you aren't using birth control, and neither of you has a condom. He says, "It's not a big deal. It's just this once, and you probably won't get pregnant." You reply, "It only takes once, and we are not ready to be parents." Then, you insist on buying condoms, and/or waiting until you're prepared with other contraceptives before you have sex.

How can I learn to stand up for myself?

Most of us can do some work in this area. Remember that we don't usually become more assertive overnight. It can take time and practice. But, when you become a better advocate, you will probably feel better and improve your self-esteem. This is an important life skill that will come in handy whether you are young or old. Here are some tips:

  • Check in with yourself. Honestly ask yourself, "What do I like? What are my goals, beliefs and values? What do I want in life?" Be true to yourself, and ask these questions over time since our ideas and desires can change.
  • Put your needs on an equal plane with others. Believe that you are just as important as the next person.
  • Believe that you deserve to get what you want and need. You have the right to express yourself, and to have a happy, healthy life.
  • Clearly state your thoughts, needs, and desires. Don't expect others to be mind-readers. But do think before you speak, and talk in a calm, respectful way.
  • When expressing yourself, also respect others. When our partners express their thoughts and needs, we need to show them respect, and listen. And, in some cases, if you don't totally agree, you might decide to compromise to meet both of your needs.
  • Don't assume that others will be upset when you express yourself. People are often attracted to those who have the confidence to speak their minds.
  • However, if you are worried that someone might react very negatively when you do express yourself, please seek advice before you do so. This is very important if you are worried about physical, sexual or verbal violence. (See Action Step 4 for warning signs of abuse and where to get help.)
  • Being an advocate doesn't mean being aggressive. Being assertive does not give any of us permission to be a bully. Instead, it means being open and honest, while also listening to the opinions of others. With partners, we might agree to disagree, or to make compromises that we can live with.
  • How you express yourself can vary in different situations. Sometimes you might choose to be very vocal, while at other times you might be quiet. As long as you honor your true self, the choice is up to you. (For more tips on talking with partners, see Action Steps 3 and 4.)

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Final Thoughts

While it's not always easy, it's possible to be your true self. To feel more comfortable with who you are — both on the inside and on the outside. To stand up for yourself, and ask for what you really want. To have positive and satisfying relationships, in which both partners are valued and respected. And, to make compromises, in line with your personal values and needs. In short, you can learn how to live life on your own terms, and feel good about it.

Resources to Learn More


Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Resources for Teens and Young Adults

Resources for Anyone

Body Image

Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Resources for Teens and Young Adults

Resources for Anyone

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Resources for Parents and Caregivers

Resources for Teens and Young Adults

Resources for Anyone


Resources for Teens and Young Adults

Resources for Anyone