In this technological age, when personal information is traded without its owner’s consent, an individual’s right to privacy has become an increasingly common topic of conversation. One useful definition of privacy is from Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis, who called it the “right to be let alone.” It is a respect for individual autonomy, encompassing everything from the right to protect your physical boundaries to the right to control the use of your identity. In legal jargon, one’s right to privacy must be weighed against the state’s compelling interest. In other words, you should be left alone unless you are disrupting society.
Sexuality is one area that most would consider to belong to the private sphere. A common adage is that what an individual or two consenting adults do in the privacy of their bedroom is no one’s business but their own. From that perspective, discussions about what sexual behaviors are acceptable would be intrusive.
Related to the concept of privacy is that of secrecy. Whereas privacy is viewed as a right, secrecy carries the negative connotations of shame—often, when a secret comes to light, it is to the shame of the parties concerned.
Clearly, privacy and secrecy are not the same thing. But it is clear how they may be conflated since both involve controlling access. In the conversation about sexuality, the difference between the two becomes tantamount. And this difference revolves mainly around intent.
To decipher the difference, one must ask: Is the access being withheld pertinent to the relationship or not? For instance (and this would be very rare situation), one may not need to disclose their hermaphroditism to the shopping clerk at the supermarket, but to withhold that information from their affianced would be unconscionable. If the information is not pertinent to the relationship, then it is a matter of privacy. But if the information is pertinent, then it is a matter of secrecy.
To figure out whether you’re being private or secretive, ask yourself, if you were in the other person’s shoes, would you have a vested interest in the information? When a married individual does not share with a friend outside of their marriage the nature of their sexual relations, it is likely a matter of privacy. On the other hand, when a married person does not share with their spouse some sexual relations that they have engaged in, it is a matter of secrecy. And secrecy is fraught with shame. This may be why sexuality as a whole may be viewed as shameful—because it is a private affair. The question is, where does privacy end and secrecy begin in relation to sexuality?