Privacy vs. Secrecy

A black and white photo of the lower half of a person's face with a their index finger pressed against their lips
Published on
December 12, 2023

In the realm of sex therapy and intimate relationships, understanding the distinction between privacy and secrecy is pivotal. People will often use these two words interchangeably in spite of the fact that they have distinctly different implications for relationship dynamics and individual psychological health. Understanding the distinction can better support your relationship not only sexually, but as a whole.

Privacy: A Healthy Boundary

Privacy in relationships refers to the right to maintain personal boundaries and keep certain aspects of one's life, thoughts, or feelings to oneself. This is a healthy, normal part of individual autonomy. In the context of sexual relationships, privacy should be respected as it is a crucial element of self-care and self-respect. It allows individuals to feel safe and secure in their inner world, fostering a sense of trust and openness in the relationship. Privacy can be applied to past sexual experiences, sexual experiences with other partners, sexual trauma, sexual fantasies, masturbation, and more.

Secrecy: A Potential Barrier

Conversely, secrecy in sexual relationships often implies the intentional concealment of information, thoughts, or actions that, if disclosed, could impact the relationship. Secrecy can stem from fear, shame, or a desire to deceive. In sex therapy, secrecy is seen as a potential barrier to intimacy and trust. It can lead to feelings of isolation, mistrust, and emotional distance between partners.

The Role in Sexual Relationships

In sexual relationships, both privacy and secrecy play significant roles. Privacy allows individuals to maintain a sense of individuality and personal space, which is essential for a healthy sexual relationship. It’s about having the space to process personal thoughts and feelings about sexuality and intimacy without the pressure of disclosure.

Your partner deciding to keep an aspect of their sexual self private does not necessarily mean that they do not trust you or consider you unworthy of this information. The lack of disclosure often stems from a place of feeling judged (which probably occurred in their past) or from their personal upbringing in which the idea of talking about sex with others was labeled as “taboo” or “wrong.” It’s okay for us to have certain things that are just for us without it taking away from or diminishing the relationship.

Secrecy, on the other hand, can be detrimental in sexual relationships. Intentionally concealing desires, preferences, or concerns about one’s sexual relationship can lead to misunderstandings, resentment, and a breakdown in communication. It’s important for individuals in a sexual relationship to feel safe in expressing their needs and concerns without fear of judgment or rejection.

As a caveat, keeping something secret could involve keeping yourself safe (emotionally or physically) and that is okay. We are not referencing instances where abuse is actively occurring, in which case, secrecy could be very appropriate. Rather, in a healthy relationship, intentional secrecy can have a negative impact.

Whether something is private or a secret all depends on the agreements that a couple has for their relationship. For example, if a person is using an online chat room with other people as a means of experiencing arousal for masturbation purposes, some relationships would consider this an infidelity, particularly if it wasn’t previously discussed. If the person is actively trying to conceal this behavior and is afraid of the impact of their relationship if their partner knew, this would be a secret.

On the other hand, if the couple has agreed that this is something is okay in their relationship and the person is not telling the other partner when it is happening for the sake of privacy, this would be more about privacy. Having mutual agreement about certain acts/behaviors can delineate between something being a secret and something being kept private.

Please note that you cannot dictate what your partner fantasizes about internally. Fantasizing is a healthy way to express and explore our own sexual desires while maintaining fidelity in relationships. Trying to control what someone pictures in their own head is simply unrealistic.

Navigating Privacy and Secrecy in Therapy

In sex therapy, when the issue of secrecy and privacy come up, a key goal is to help individuals and couples navigate these aspects. Therapists encourage open communication and honesty while respecting each person's need for privacy. The therapeutic space is a safe zone for exploring and discussing sensitive topics related to sexuality, including desires, fantasies, fears, and past experiences.

It’s also a space to define agreements within a relationship and explore what boundaries may need to be implemented to prevent secrets.

Building Trust and Intimacy

The balance between privacy and secrecy is crucial for building trust and intimacy in sexual relationships. Partners are encouraged to share their feelings and experiences to the extent that they are comfortable, without feeling compelled to reveal every thought or feeling. This balance fosters a deeper, more genuine connection, allowing for a healthy sexual relationship.


In conclusion, privacy and secrecy are two sides of the same coin in the context of sex therapy and sexual relationships. Understanding and respecting the difference between them is key to fostering healthy, fulfilling relationships. Privacy is about respecting individual boundaries, while secrecy can be a barrier to intimacy and trust. Navigating this balance is essential for a healthy sexual relationship and personal well-being.

(Photo credit: Kristina Flour on Unsplash)

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