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1.9: Sexual Behaviors (and Safer Sex)

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    Chapter 9: Sexual Behaviors (and Safer Sex)

    Learning Outcomes

    • Demonstrate an understanding of the range of options for sexual expression
    • Analyze relationship boundaries in order to express wants, desires, limits, and consent
    • Summarize how people might appraise (make sense of) sexual behaviors differently (i.e. some may perceive negative associations whereas others may experience positive associations)
    • Explore the benefits of sexual behaviors physically, emotionally and socially as well as understand how sexual behavior influences identity development

    Introduction to Sexual Behavior

    When we first discussed research and human sexuality, you may remember reading about the National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior (NSSHB), which is the largest nationally representative survey focused on understanding sex in the United States. With more than 20,000 respondents, ranging in age from 14 to 102, the NSSHB yields incredible data regarding American sexual behaviors. In one of the initial data collections (data has been collected in 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2018), Americans reported 41 different combinations of sex acts during their most recent sexual encounter (Herbernick, et al., 2010). That’s a fair amount of sexual behavior happening!

    While we have a lot of unique types of sexual behavior happening, actually defining sex is a bit daunting. When researchers asked college students what constituted as sex, their replies were varied (Lehmiller, 2016).

    A subsequent follow-up study asked medical students what constituted sex and the findings were similar (though, thankfully, both penile-vagina penetration AND anal sex were considered sex; Talley, Cho, Strassberg, & Rullo, 2016, as cited in Lehmiller, 2021). Perhaps the biggest take-away from both of these studies is that definitions of what is sex vary. Additionally, sexual variation is very much a part of the human, sexual experience.

    Just as we may wonder what characterizes particular gender or sexual orientations as “normal,” we might have similar questions about sexual behaviors. What is considered sexually “normal” likely depends on culture. Some cultures are sexually-restrictive—such as one extreme example off the coast of Ireland, studied in the mid-20th century, known as the island of Inis Beag. The inhabitants of Inis Beag detested nudity and viewed sex as a necessary evil for the sole purpose of reproduction. They wore clothes when they bathed and even while having sex. Further, sex education was nonexistent, as was breast feeding (Messenger, 1989). By contrast, Mangaians, of the South Pacific island of A’ua’u, are an example of a highly sexually-permissive culture. Young Mangaian boys are encouraged to masturbate. By age 13, they’re instructed by older males on how to sexually perform and maximize orgasms for themselves and their partners. When the boys are a bit older, this formal instruction is replaced with hands-on coaching by older females. Young girls are also expected to explore their sexuality and develop a breadth of sexual knowledge before marriage (Marshall & Suggs, 1971). These cultures make clear that what are considered sexually normal behaviors depends on time and place.

    With cultural context in mind, how do you think American culture impacts your own definition of sexual behavior?

    Sexual Scripts

    A script is what actors read or study and what guides their behavior in a certain role. A script is a blueprint for what we “should do” in our roles. Sexual scripts are blueprints and guidelines for what we define as our role in sexual expression, sexual orientation, sexual behaviors, sexual desires, and the sexual component of our self-definition. All of us are sexual beings, yet none of us is exactly identical to another in our sexual definitions and script expectations. Having said that, keep in mind that we are not just born with sexual scripts in place; they are learned. Sexual socialization is the process by which we learn how, when, where, with whom, why, and with which motivations we are sexual beings.

    We are all born with drives, which are biological needs that demand our attention and behavioral responses to them. The most powerful drives are circulation, breathing, voiding our urine and other waste, eating, drinking, sleeping, and sexual involvement. Sexual drives are biological urges to participate in sexual activity and in certain sexual roles. Sexual scripts, once learned, will shape how that drive is answered. Sexuality is learned via culture and socialization. There are as many unique sexual scripts as there are people, yet some of these scripts have common themes and can be viewed as a collective pattern or trend in the larger social level.

    Many of us learn our sexual scripts in a passive way. In other words, we don’t learn from experience, but from a synthesis of concepts, images, ideals, and sometimes misconceptions. For example, the commonly held belief that men and women are two different creatures, perhaps even from different planets, was a very successful fad in recent years that led an entire generation to believe that men might be from “Mars” while women might be from “Venus.”

    Today more and more people living in the U.S. have less religious values and more diverse experiences with sexuality. Further, much of the younger generations’ focus on sex is on the orgasm. An orgasm is the sexual climax that accompanies sexual intercourse and includes muscle tightening in the genital area, electrical sensations radiating from the genitals, and a surge of a variety of pleasure-producing hormones throughout the body. Many cultures have records of sexual expression and some even have records of sexual pleasure maximization.

    Some traditional sexual scripts that have been studied include a number of problematic assumptions. Some of these assumptions include but are not limited to: the man must be in charge, the woman must not enjoy (or let on that she enjoys) the sexual experience, the man is a performer whose skills are proven effective upon arrival of his partner’s orgasm, men are sexual while women are not, women can’t talk about it and turn to men for sexual interests and direction, and finally sex always leads to a female orgasm (her orgasm being proof of his sexual capacity). Numerous studies have shown that most of these traditional scripts are not realistic, healthy, conducive to open communication, nor negotiation of sexual needs and desires for couples. In sum, rather, these traditional notions can be an undermining influence in a couple’s intimacy. Scripts that are more contemporary include these simple ideas:

    1. Both partners need to learn to take ownership of the couple’s sexual experiences.
    2. Both partners need to learn to communicate openly and honestly about their feelings.
    3. Both partners need to learn to meet one another’s desires, needs, and wishes while making sure that their own needs are being met.

    Solitary Activities


    Sexual behaviors are linked to, but distinct from, fantasies. And, while this category is classified as a “solitary” activity (something you may do or use alone), it’s also typical for people’s fantasies to join them when they’re engaged with partnered sexual contact. Still, ultimately, you are the arbiter of your sexual fantasies and get to choose to keep them private or share them.

    Leitenberg and Henning (1995) define sexual fantasies as “any mental imagery that is sexually arousing.” One of the more common fantasies is the replacement fantasy—fantasizing about someone other than one’s current partner (Hicks & Leitenberg, 2001). In addition, more than 50% of people have forced-sex fantasies (Critelli & Bivona, 2008). However, this does not mean most of us want to be cheating on our partners or be involved in sexual assault. Sexual fantasies are not equal to sexual behaviors.

    It’s important to note that sexual fantasies can also be different from sexual desire. Sex researcher Justin Lehmiller surveyed over 4,000 Americans about their sex fantasies and collected detailed information on their personalities, sexual histories, and demographics for his book, Tell Me What You Want (2018). Lehmiller describes sexual fantasy as a sexually arousing thought or mental picture that we have while awake (i.e., it’s not a dream). Fantasies can be spontaneous, or you can deliberately call a fantasy to mind for various purposes, such as becoming or staying aroused, dealing with boredom, or relaxing. On the other hand, sexual desire is something that you actually want to do. It’s a future plan or goal for your sex life—something that you’d like to try at some point.

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    The distinction between sexual fantasy and sexual desire is important. Let’s consider a top sexual fantasy for many people- the idea of group sex or, more distinctively, gangbangs. While someone may have a fantasy about engaging in group sex (with desire and intent to match), their fantasy about being in a gangbang may remain simply that: a fantasy. While it may be exciting to consider, the actual act could, in fact, be deeply disturbing and not something someone wants to try. Indeed, there’s many types of sexual fantasies that remain distinctively in that category.

    Sometimes our sexual fantasies are therapeutic. They don’t just help us to experience sexual pleasure, but also to cope with the psychological needs that we have at a given moment. And because our psychological needs change over the course of our lives, our fantasies, it seems, often adjust to correspond with those needs—and that may help to explain why the things that turn you on now may be very different from the things that turned you on in the past (Lehmiller, 2018).

    Lehmiller (2021) writes that in some cases, fantasy and desire can prompt sexual behavior—some people make the decision to act things out. He discovered that about 1 in 5 people have acted on their favorite fantasy before. Note that this means that most people tend to have unrealized fantasies and desires. In some cases, sexual behavior can can occur and you didn’t even know it was something you liked or desired. For instance, your partner may suggest trying something completely new that you agree to, despite the fact that you’ve never thought about it or wanted to try it before. And, if you enjoyed engaging in that behavior, it could potentially become a future fantasy and/or desire (Lehmiller, 2021).

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    It’s helpful to understand that fantasy, desire, and behavior are all separate, but overlapping concepts. This is especially useful when talking about fantasies with your partner(s). Importantly, when sharing fantasies, it’s usually a good idea to clarify whether these are fantasies that you have vs. desires that you’d like to try. If people automatically assume that all fantasies their partner shares are things they actually want to try, this can cause confusion or lead to avoidable conflict. So when sharing fantasies, it’s worth getting on the same page about what this is and isn’t. Are you sharing fantasies to enhance intimacy, learn about each other, and/or turn each other on? Or are you sharing ideas for things you want to try together (Lehmiller, 2021)? For a useful tool that may help sharing preferences of sexual activities with a partner(s), check out this guide from HERE or Sexapalooza


    Sexual fantasies are often a context for the sexual behavior of masturbation—tactile (physical) stimulation of the body for sexual pleasure. Historically, masturbation has earned a bad reputation; it’s been described as “self-abuse,” and falsely associated with causing adverse side effects, such as hairy palms, acne, blindness, insanity, and even death (Kellogg, 1888). Cultural values may still influence the way that masturbation is perceived. For instance, can you think of any common sayings you have heard shaming masturbation? One phrase might be: “You’ll grow hair on your palms” indicating that others will know you have masturbated and it will be viewed as shameful by others. It is important to reflect on your own perspective on this topic.

    The device shown is used to restrict someone with a penis and testicles from gaining an erection. The device has two straps and a hard cover that fits tightly over the penis and scrotum.
    Figure: A United States patent drawing of an early 20th century anti-masturbation chastity belt. [Image: unknown,, Public Domain]

    Sex research pioneer, Alfred Kinsey (1894-1956), was among the first to ask questions about Americans’ sexual behavior, including masturbation. In sum, Kinsey surveyed approximately 18,000 participants. Among the results of Kinsey’s research were the findings that women are as interested and experienced in sex as their male counterparts, and that both males and females masturbate without adverse health consequences (Bancroft, 2004). These findings were not well-received but certainly launched further inquiry into the advantages of masturbatory behaviors.

    Some people view masturbation as beneficial, and it is linked with lower stress levels, reduced risky sexual behaviors, and greater levels of knowledge about one’s own body functioning, which some view as empowering and reclaiming their sexuality. It’s not uncommon for clinical providers to recommend masturbation as a tool in physical and sensual exploration, as well as challenges with sexual functioning (Coleman, 2003). Indeed, empirical evidence links masturbation to increased levels of sexual and marital satisfaction, and physical and psychological health (Hurlburt & Whitaker, 1991; Levin, 2007). There is even evidence that masturbation significantly decreases the risk of developing prostate cancer among males over the age of 50 (Dimitropoulou et al., 2009).

    Masturbation is common among males and females in the United States. Robbins et al. (2011) found that 74% of males and 48% of females reported masturbating. However, frequency of masturbation is affected by culture. An Australian study found that only 65% of males and 35% of females reported masturbating. And in the UK, 86%of men and 57% of women ages 16–44 reported masturbating within the past year (Regenerus, Price, & Gordon, 2017). Further, rates of reported masturbation by males and females in India are even lower, at 46% and 13%, respectively (Ramadugu et al., 2011). For many people masturbation is shrouded with shame and guilt. Again, characteristics of culture, family upbringing, and faith can factor into one’s experience of solitary sexual behavior. Importantly, however, Kinsey was onto something – there are little to no adverse consequences for masturbating (except in cases where one feels guilt and shame).

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    For helpful information, check out local feminist and queer friendly resource, SheBop’s Blog Entry, How to Become Comfortable With Masturbation.

    Solitary & Partnered Considerations

    Erogenous Zones

    People often think of sexual behaviors as the act of sex itself usually focusing on what is happening with the genitals; however, the whole body can be implicated in the process of being sexual. Some common erogenous zones are the neck, inner thighs, lower back, and lips. Each person is different and additional areas on the body may also be utilized to enhance sexual arousal and pleasure. Exploring areas of your body that seem to have enhanced sensitivity in a pleasurable way and exploring these areas with partners can be beneficial. Also, asking partners about the areas of their body that they like touched can be beneficial to their sexual experience as well.

    Sex Toys

    Sex toys are material objects selected, created, and used to generate or enhance sexual arousal and pleasure in both individual and partnered sex acts (Döring, 2021). When it comes to the history of sex toys, archaeological have found phallus-shaped artifacts seemingly used for sexual stimulation that date back 30,000 years. Prehistoric dildo-shaped objects made of jade, stone, copper, leather, or bones are now exhibited in museums all over the world. Drawings, paintings, and novels from early recorded times, the Middle Ages to the modern era document the existence and use of sexual aids in many different cultures (Döring, 2021).

    Various sex aids, including dildos, artificial vulva, penis supports etc. Colour woodcut, ca. 1830.

    Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Various sex aids, including dildos, artificial vulva, penis supports etc. Colour woodcut, ca. 1830. Published: [ca. 1830]

    Toys can be used to enhance sexual experiences. Some examples are:

    • Strap-ons–special underwear or straps designed to hold a dildo in place for penetrative sex.
    • Dildos–mimic the shape of a penis but range in terms of realism; some are flesh-colored and look like an actual penis whereas some are bright pink, rainbow, etc.
    • vibrators–these toys vibrate and are used because the human hand can only do so much before getting tired and some people benefit from direct, consistent stimulation. For a lovely history of the vibrator, check out Jen Bell’s Brief History of the Vibrator.
    • Anal play items–anal beads, butt plugs, anal stimulators similar to a vibrator and small dildo combined, or dildos can also be used (please remember that the rectum can act like a vacuum and suck objects inside so be sure to use something with a flared bottom, pull cord or ring to prevent anal toys from getting lost inside you).
    • Penis extenders–fit over a penis; looks like a dildo with a hole inside the base.
    • Penis sleeve or “fleshlight”–mimics penetrative sex and is used during masturbation.
    • and so many more!
    • Important considerations…
      • Safe sex using all these items involves thoroughly cleaning them with hot water or soap after and before using and between use on another person.
      • Some dildos can be boiled in hot water or placed on the top rack of the dishwasher, but read the cleaning instructions upon purchase to avoid melting them.
      • Also, some lubricants (commonly referred to as lube) are oil-based which are not compatible with toys made from silicone; water-based lubes are better for most toys to prevent them from becoming sticky overtime.
      • SheBop in Portland has sex-positive experts as staff, so they can provide assistance for any of your questions
    • Sex dolls, which can be defined as material representations of the human body for sexual use have been used by approximately 2% of women and 9% of men (Döring & Pöschl, 2018).
    • Sex robots coming soon–Sex robots can be defined as humanoid robots that are designed for sexual use (Levy, 2007; as cited in Döring & Pöschl, 2018). They look like sex dolls but are equipped with artificial intelligence (AI).

    Viceland’s Slutever: Meet Harmony the Sex Robot:

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    Technology affords some exciting opportunities in terms of sexual expression. However, with all innovation there are some complex considerations to be made. Of import- how does technology enhance someone’s sexual experiences? Does technology like sex robots have the potential to enhance or subdue human connection? There are no clear answers to these questions but the emergence of these technologies do require further conversations regarding these issues.

    Partnered Activities

    Coital sex is the term for vaginal-penile intercourse, which occurs for about 3 to 13 minutes on average—though its duration and frequency decrease with age (Corty & Guardiani, 2008; Smith et al., 2012). Traditionally, people are known as “virgins” before they engage in coital sex, and have “lost” their virginity afterwards. Durex (2005) found the average age of first coital experiences across 41 different countries to be 17 years, with a low of 16 (Iceland), and a high of 20 (India). There is tremendous variation regarding frequency of coital sex. For example, the average number of times per year a person in Greece (138) or France (120) engages in coital sex is between 1.6 and 3 times greater than in India (75) or Japan (45; Durex, 2005).

    Oral sex includes cunnilingus—oral stimulation of the female’s external sex organs, and fellatio—oral stimulation of the male’s external sex organs. Sixty-nining – mutual oral sex at the same time. The prevalence of oral sex widely differs between cultures—with Western cultures, such as the U.S., Canada, and Austria, reporting higher rates (greater than 75%); and Eastern and African cultures, such as Japan and Nigeria, reporting lower rates (less than 10%; Copen, Chandra, & Febo-Vazquez, 2016; Malacad & Hess, 2010; Wylie, 2009).

    Not only are there differences between cultures regarding how many people engage in oral sex, there are differences in its very definition. For example, most college students in the U.S. do not believe cunnilingus or fellatio are sexual behaviors—and more than a third of college students believe oral sex is a form of abstinence (Barnett et al., 2017; Horan, Phillips, & Hagan, 1998; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999).

    Anal sex refers to penetration of the anus by an object. Anal sex is not exclusively a “homosexual behavior.” The anus has extensive sensory-nerve innervation and is often experienced as an erogenous zone, no matter where a person is on the Heterosexual-Homosexual Rating Scale (Cordeau et al., 2014). When heterosexual people are asked about their sexual behaviors, more than a third (about 40%) of both males and females report having had anal sex at some time during their life (Chandra, Mosher, & Copen, 2011; Copen, Chandra, & Febo-Vazquez, 2016). Comparatively, when homosexual men are asked about their most recent sexual behaviors, more than a third (37%) report having had anal sex (Rosenberger et al., 2011).

    Like straight-identifying people, gay-identifying people engage in a variety of sexual behaviors, the most frequent being masturbation, romantic kissing, and oral sex (Rosenberger et al., 2011). The prevalence of anal sex widely differs between cultures. For example, people in Greece and Italy report high rates of anal sex (greater than 50%), whereas people in China and India report low rates of anal sex (less than 15%; Durex, 2005).

    In contrast to “more common” sexual behaviors, there is a vast array of alternative sexual behaviors. Some of these behaviors, such as voyeurism, exhibitionism, and pedophilia are classified in the DSM as paraphilic disorders—behaviors that victimize and cause harm to others or one’s self (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Sadism—inflicting pain upon another person to experience pleasure for one’s self—and masochism—receiving pain from another person to experience pleasure for one’s self—are also classified in the DSM as paraphilic disorders. However, if an individual consensually engages in these behaviors, the term “disorder” is replaced with the term “interest.” Janus and Janus (1993) found that 14% of males and 11% of females have engaged in some form of sadism and/or masochism.

    Kink is defined by clinicians Yates and Neuer-Colburn (2019) as “a culture or lifestyle outside of the social norm centered around consensual non-egalitarian relationship practices, concepts of monogamy, sexual interactions, sexual activities and/or fantasies as a means for heightened intimacy between partners” (p. 15). They go on to define BDSM as “the overlapping acronym for bondage and discipline (BD – the use of physical or psychological restraints), dominance and submission (DS or D/s – active participation in the consensual and negotiated exchange or handing over of power or authority to another), sadism and masochism or sadomasochism (SM or S&M – engaging in activities that involve intense or strong sensation and/or stimuli”; Yates & Neuer-Colburn, 2019, p. 15). Members of the Kink community engage in a variety of behaviors. In some cases, there’s an understanding that BDSM is a large part of identifying as Kink for the majority of members, and so the terms Kink and BDSM can be interchangeable as well as exclusive terms in community terminology.

    Sexual Behavior, Consent, & Safer Sex Practices

    Clearly, people engage in a multitude of behaviors whose variety is limited only by our own imaginations. Further, our standards for what’s normal differs substantially from culture to culture. However, there is one aspect of sexual behavior that is universally acceptable—indeed, fundamental and necessary. At the heart of what qualifies as sexually “normal” is the concept of consent. Sexual consent refers to the voluntary, conscious, and empathic participation in a sexual act, which can be withdrawn at any time (Jozkowski & Peterson, 2013). Sexual consent is the baseline for what are considered normal—acceptable and healthy—behaviors; whereas, nonconsensual sex—i.e., forced, pressured or unconscious participation—is unacceptable and unhealthy. When engaging in sexual behaviors with a partner, a clear and explicit understanding of your boundaries, as well as your partner’s boundaries, is essential. We recommend safer-sex practices, such as condoms, honesty, and communication, whenever you engage in a sexual act. Discussing likes, dislikes, and limits prior to sexual exploration reduces the likelihood of miscommunication and misjudging nonverbal cues. In the heat of the moment, things are not always what they seem. For example, Kristen Jozkowski and her colleagues (2014) found that females tend to use verbal strategies of consent, whereas males tend to rely on nonverbal indications of consent. Awareness of this basic mismatch between heterosexual couples’ exchanges of consent may proactively reduce miscommunication and unwanted sexual advances.

    The universal principles of pleasure, sexual behaviors, and consent are intertwined. Consent is the foundation on which sexual activity needs to be built. Understanding and practicing empathic consent requires sexual literacy and an ability to effectively communicate desires and limits, as well as to respect others’ parameters.

    Sexual Positions and Safer Sex Recommendations


    Penis-in-vagina; can be: face-to-face, from behind, man on top, woman on top, side-to-side; condom used for safer sex


    Oral sex to stimulate the vulva, especially the clitoris; dental dam for safer sex or a condom cut with clean scissors to act as a dental dam


    Oral sex to stimulate the penis; condom for safer sex


    Mutual oral sex at the same time; condom/dental dam for safer sex

    Anal intercourse

    Penis-to-anus; condom for safer sex


    Oral stimulation of the anus; dental dam for safer sex

    Hand stimulation

    Mutual (at the same time) or turn-taking (one partner is touched first then the other is touched next)

    Mutual masturbation

    Partners pleasuring themselves in front of each other at the same time

    Interfemoral intercourse

    Thrusting of the penis between the thighs of a partner


    Lesbian sex in which one partner humps the other causing stimulation in both partners

    Concerns with These Terms

    • Please note how some of these terms leave out language to be more inclusive of transgender and intersex bodies and are heteronormative
    • The word “tribadism” has origins from a Greek word that implies a woman is trying to behave like a male in a lesbian dynamic; this is problematic because this sex is between two women and not one who is trying to be a man
    • What about other practices that people commonly engage in that aren’t on this list?

    One Last Note on Safer Sex

    Having sex with people who can ejaculate directly into the body of another person is the riskiest of sex practices because viruses and bacteria have a greater chance of surviving. As they come into contact with air, they cannot survive. Precum (small amounts of ejaculate that comes out throughout the process of being aroused) is also a factor to consider in safer sex. This is the reason the “pull-out method” is ineffective for preventing pregnancy and the spread of illnesses.

    Additional Readings:

    Diversify Your Sex Practices

    If you are feeling unsatisfied with the sex you are having, say something and explore your desires to see what feels good. Explore your body and that of others in a safe place to try new positions and toys and remember you can revoke consent at any time if it turns out you or your partners don’t like something. Check egos throughout as well because adding toys does not mean you are lacking and aren’t good at sex. Sex toys have been around for a long time (archaeological digs of ancient societies can attest to this) and serve the purpose of increasing pleasure for many individuals. For some, adding sex toys has been a game-changer in the quality of sex they experience.


    There are many variations in human sexual behavior. Many of the solitary sexual behaviors people have are linked to enhanced pleasure, greater personal awareness, and increased sexual functioning. In terms of partnered sexual behavior, consent is key. Experiences matter, personality, age, and other elements. Finally, culture and socialization are important factors when considering norms and attitudes about diverse sexual activities.

    One or more interactive elements has been excluded from this version of the text. You can view them online here:

    An example of how social/cultural paradigms, such as a pandemic, can shift sexual behaviors.

    Licenses and Attributions

    Lucas, D. & Fox, J. (2021). The psychology of human sexuality. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    Adaptations: Reformatted. Modified content for language, application to subject and cohesion.

    The following videos have this license: All Rights Reserved. License Terms: Standard YouTube license.

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    The next video uses a Creative Commons License, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives (or the CC BY – NC – ND 4.0 International).

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    Introduction to Human Sexuality by Ericka Goerling & Emerson Wolfe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

    This page titled 1.9: Sexual Behaviors (and Safer Sex) is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Erika Goerling & Emerson Wolfe (OpenOregon) .

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