Sexual Agency

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Agency, in its simplest form, is the ability to act in a way that accomplishes your goals. To have agency in an area of your life is to have the capacity to act in a way that can produce the results you want.

When discussing agency in the area of sexual health, what is actually being described is a complex group of skills, rights and abilities. Sexual agency includes:

  • The ability to define yourself sexually - whether that means along the heterosexuality/homosexuality spectrum, along the spectrum that runs from asexual to highly interested in sex, or both.
  • The ability to choose whether or not you want to experience sexual activity - both in general and with a specific person at a specific time in a specific way.
  • The ability to choose how you want to engage in sexual activity - including whether you want to practice safer sex
  • The ability to stop engaging in a sexual act that is no longer wanted or to refuse an act that was never desired

In other words, if you have sexual agency, you know what you want sexually and what you don't want. You are capable of making and enforcing decisions about your sex life. You can say "yes" or "no" and make your voice heard with your partner. You are not in a situation where threats, harassment, worries about survival or other concerns remove your ability to make free choices about whether or not to engage in various forms of sexual expression. Your sexuality is defined by the choices you make yourself, not by the perceptions of others.

You can not only consent, you can do so enthusiastically.

Agency is not entirely the same thing as self-efficacy, although there is a large degree of overlap. Specifically, having self-efficacy around certain skills of sexual negotiation can contribute heavily to feelings of sexual agency, but there are situations where self-efficacy alone does not provide agency.

There are many reasons why individuals may lack sexual agency. These include:

  • An inability to go against cultural stereotypes about how someone like them is supposed to behave sexually. For example, assumptions that women are not supposed to be interested in sex may make it difficult for a woman who is interested in sex to express that interest in a healthy way.
  • Internal conflicts about sexual desires -- possibly arising from sexual desires or a sexual self definition -- that are stigmatized by society at large
  • Generally lacking the power or agency to make decisions within one's sexual and social relationships

Although much of the discussion around sexual agency focuses on whether American stereotypes of men as sexual aggressors and women as sexual gatekeepers deny women their sexual agency, there is less talk about how these stereotypes can also remove sexual agency from men. The fact that men are expected to always want sex and always be interested in sex can make it as difficult for them to say "no" to the sex they don't want as it often is for women to say "yes" to the sex that they do want.

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