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I think he'll dump me if I don't have sex with him. So, should I?

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i.ate.the.cookie. asks:

I'm 13 and my boyfriend is 16. I'm a virgin but he isn't and I feel like if I don't have sex with him he is going to break up with me. Should we just have oral? Also, how can you tell if someone has already had sex?

Heather Corinna replies:

The only sound way we can tell if someone has or hasn't already had any kind of sex is by asking them and accepting their answer.

Obviously, sometimes some kinds of sex can result in certain outcomes, like pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, which can also tell us if someone has engaged in some kind of sex. But really, even then, the only sound way of knowing is by asking someone and taking their word on it. People won't always be honest about that, but the idea some people have that how someone's body parts look or feel can give us that information is just plain wrong. Bodies can't tell us who has or hasn't engaged in sex: only people can. I'm more concerned with your first questions than that one, though.

What do you want and feel ready for right now when it comes to an intimate, sexual relationship, if you even want one? Does this situation look like that? I'm guessing it doesn't, since it's pretty safe to say that no one really wants a sexual relationship where sex is happening only because they feel scared if it isn't, they'll get dumped.

Intimate and/or sexual relationships involve being vulnerable, emotionally and physically: that's not really a choice, it's part of the deal. How vulnerable we are depends on a lot of things, but we're always even more vulnerable when we have less agency: when by virtue of the way the world is or our relationships are we've got less power or ability to do things than someone else, due to our sex or gender, age, color, how much money we have, how our bodies are, our sexual orientation, and so on. As a 13-year-old girl or very young woman in the world, one with a male partner older than she is, and who it sounds like feels she gets to call less of the shots in her relationship than her partner, I'd say you're very vulnerable here, and that's something really important to know and accept.

Because of being vulnerable like that, and especially if you don't want to take big risks in either of those departments or be more likely to deal with rough outcomes, healthy sexual relationships usually require trust, feeling and being respected, safe and secure, including emotionally, with ourselves and any partners, and having the ability, either on our own or with help, to take care of our physical and emotional health around sex. Those relationships being healthy and beneficial also includes everyone in them feeling as free, as able to say no, maybe, or not now to sex as they do to say yes, being supported in that, and not feeling like sex is something they have to give or exchange for something else, like a commitment or someone liking you only because you did what they wanted sexually. Healthy personal interactions of any kind also require that everyone in them feel valued and respected, like a person, not an object or just as a means to something one person wants. All those things are also usually what everyone in them really wants.

Do you want to be with someone, anyone, who would only stay with you because you're having the sex they want to have? Really?

I'm not you, so we might feel differently. But for myself, I know that unless the only thing I want from my relationships is sex, that is not usually the kind of person I want to be with. Heck, even in relationships that are only or mostly about sex, I tend to find that kind of setup is a recipe for crappy experiences since sex that isn't masturbation, but something more than one person is sharing and a part of, needs to be about what both people want, and leave a lot of room for everyone involved not wanting the same things, or the same things at the same time. Even in sex-only relationships the kind of situation you think you've got here usually spells BLECK. If what you want is commitment, then what you offer is commitment. If the other person wants it too, they'll offer it back. If they don't, trying to give them something else to get that commitment usually doesn't work and also tends to leave a person feeling pretty gross and create relationships that are quite lousy.

I can't tell you what kind of sex to have with this person or not, especially without having any idea at all what kind of sex you want, on your own terms, if any. The only thing I know you want from your post is that you don't want your boyfriend to break up with you. So, it doesn't sound to me like sex of any kind is even something you want: when it is, someone usually will say something about that.

If you don't really -- for yourself -- want a sexual relationship right now, in general or with this person, what kind of relationship do you want? Whatever that is, that's what you want to aim for, and make choices that are in alignment with that. But if you don't really want a sexual relationship with someone, or this guy, right now, and are only thinking about doing it to keep him around, know that that choice isn't likely to get you what you want.

Sexual choices are very personal, and when we're going to start making them, while we can get some advice, ultimately we need to figure out what we really want and don't, what we do and don't feel ready for, what we are or are not up to dealing with (or what we do or don't want to deal with), and more, and then all of that for anyone else involved, too. Even being ready for that constant, and often complex, decision-making process takes us some time, let alone making those choices.

Should you choose to be sexual with anyone and want it to be most likely to be something you feel good about before, during and afterwards, which supports healthy relationships most likely to make you happy and support your self-esteem, having any kind of sex to try and keep someone around does not make that likely. In fact, it makes the opposite very likely: that you won't feel good about it at all, and that it probably won't be something good for you in the short or long term.

What's more, you should know that one thing we know from statistics and people's personal anecdotes is that it also doesn't usually work in the first place. In other words, even if you do have sex with this person to keep them around, or keep them only having sex with you, chances are good that they'll ditch you in short order anyway if the only reason they were sticking around was for sex.

Now, I don't know if you're getting the idea he'll leave based on his words or actions or if this is more about your own head. If it's coming from him, then we can know this isn't a healthy situation: in healthy relationships, people don't threaten to leave unless someone has sex with them. For sure, sometimes one person wants things the other doesn't or isn't ready for, but when that's the case, there aren't threats or ultimatums or pressure. In healthy interactions, when people are really different in that way, and the person who wants something feels they can't deal without it, they don't seek out relationships with people who aren't feeling similar, or who they suspect aren't there yet with sex.

While we're on the age difference, when someone older -- even by just a few years, especially in our teens or childhood where a few years is a bigger difference then it will be later on -- is in a relationship with someone younger, one thing they need to be able to do is keep in mind that the younger person is likely to be in a different place than they're at. If what they want is "past" where the younger person really is, they need to be able to stick with the younger person's pace, not try and push, pressure or nudge them up to theirs. That's just basic courtesy, but it's also the biggest thing that supports a romantic or sexual relationship where there's an age or development difference (or any big difference in agency) healthy instead of unhealthy. That also tends to take a good deal of maturity, self-awareness and patience. The fact that a lot of people in their teens and twenties are still just developing those things in a big way is why same-age teen sexual relationships tend to be healthier than those where there's an age difference of a few years or more: when someone is already pretty much at your same place, they or you don't have to have so much of those things yet.

But these worries might not be coming from him or anything he's said or done. Sometimes worries like this can come from your own head, or messages you might get from friends, TV or magazines. If we get the message or the idea that sex is either the only thing of value we have to offer, or the thing of the most value, it can be pretty easy to think it's something we have to do to keep people around who might be interested in sex with us. But the thing is, that's just not true. Not with people who see our value as more than just that, anyway.

No one who sees and appreciates you as a whole person is going to see your value as only sexual (including you!). If and when that's what someone wants, they get to choose that, but that is very rarely what anyone really wants in an ongoing relationship, especially love relationships. And if you want a boyfriend or anyone else to see you as more than that, you have to do your part, too, which includes being more than just that, and refusing to be only that.

Either way -- or maybe the pressure is even coming from both him AND yourself -- I'd say that so long as you're feeling like you are, like sex is something you need to do to so he doesn't break up with you, you're not in a space where choosing to have any kind of sex is probably a sound choice. Only if and when you aren't feeling that way, and sex is something you really feel ready for and want on your own, too, and when you're in a relationship or situation where you feel like you can say no and the world will not end, will you be in the right spot to even consider sex as a good choice, and will it be at all likely to be something you feel good about, which is really the point. Sex is supposed to be about feeling good, remember, not just physically, but emotionally, too.

Still on the fence? If so, I can toss some more things out for you to think about and also talk about, with your boyfriend, but also, hopefully, with other supportive people in your life, too.

I think the best approach to figuring this out for yourself might be to ask yourself some questions and ask your boyfriend some questions, too. I think if you can come to clear answers to these, you can probably figure out your own best choices here, choices that support what you really want, that don't involve you doing anything you don't really want to do and feel ready for, and that also help keep you from exchanging sex for commitment.

Questions for yourself:

  • What do you really want from an intimate relationship with someone right now? If it was only up to you, would you want it to be sexual? If so, what kind or kinds of sex do you really feel ready to engage in and handle? What kind or kinds of sex, if any, do you actually feel comfortable with and truly excited to explore right now?
  • Do you feel pressured to have any kind of sex? If so, where is that pressure coming from -- from where or who -- and what is that pressure about? What could you do to ditch or shut down that pressure so any sexual choice you make is one made without feeling pressure to make any one choice?
  • How ready do you feel to manage sex with someone else, including the more complicated parts, like saying what doesn't feel good, not just what does, talking about your body parts intimately, having someone even see your body, talking with partner and others -- like a doctor or parent -- about your physical safety (safer sex, contraception, etc.) and your emotional safety (consent and some of the scary or tough feelings sex can bring up)? Right now, with this person, does all of that feel pretty comfortable, and like things you expect will go well and leave you feeling cared for? Is this someone you think can handle these kinds of things himself? How about you? Like what if he said what you were doing didn't feel good or wasn't what he liked, or he told you he had an STI: could you deal with that right now?
  • Compare two possible ways what you are worried that will happen does: where first, you don't have the sex this person wants and they ditch you, and then where you do have the sex this person wants and they still ditch you. While that outcome may not happen in either case, if it did happen, is there one of those scenarios you think you'd feel better or worse with?
  • How ready does he seem to you for sex with someone else? One thing we can easily miss or make not-so-smart assumptions about when a partner or potential partner is older is that since they're older, have had sex before, or they put sex on the table, they must be ready. But age or previous sexual experience doesn't mean, for example, that someone has learned to be a good sexual partner, that they're taking care of their sexual health, know how and when to use safer sex (and have been responsible in that way before), can communicate about sex, or can handle it if one or both of you winds up having problems with sex, from the big stuff like an unplanned pregnancy or infection to things like one or both of you just finding you don't feel good or aren't satisfied?

In terms of that last one, for yourself, and both of you, I'd start by taking a look at this:Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist.

I'd then look at this: Sorting Maybe from Can't-Be: Reality Checking Partnered Sex Wants & Ideals.

Take some real time going through those and thinking about them: days, at least, not just minutes or hours. How do you feel about those realities and issues? What do you think about him, specifically, and all of that? This is also something to talk about together. When we've heard back from people who took the time to go over this checklist with their partners, they've always reported back that they think doing that helped them to make their best sexual choices, and, when that choice has been to have any kind of sex, they've expressed that having that checklist pretty well covered, for real, is something they think had a lot to do with sexual experiences they felt great about.

Questions to ask your boyfriend and talk about together:

  • What kind of relationship is he looking for with you? Something mostly sexual, or something bigger than that? Does what he wants really fit with what you do? Does what you want really fit with what he does?
  • Does he understand that sex isn't something to "get," but something to share, and for it to be the right thing for both of you, you need to be as ready for it as he might feel? Is he able to recognize that if you really, truly do not want to have any kind of sex yet, aren't ready, or only would to keep him around, that having sex with you would be seriously not okay?
  • Is he committed to making sure you don't feel any pressure at all from him to do anything sexual you don't want to do for yourself, not just do only or mostly to keep him around?
  • What does he see sex as doing for your relationship and for him and you, separately? How about you? Does what each of you expect and want out of sex seem to fit together or not?
  • Is he just as concerned about you not sticking with him? Is your relationship continuing as deeply important to him as it sounds like it is to you? If not, why? Why does he think he feels more secure in this relationship, or less attached to it, than you do?

I know those are big questions and conversations that might make you feel uncomfortable having with him, but this is big stuff you're considering, after all. And if you don't feel able to talk about all of this this candidly, or even bring this stuff up with him, I'd say you have your answer right there. If we can't talk about what we're thinking about doing and all it entails, then usually, making the choice to do whatever that is isn't our best choice. When sex feels like something we're really ready for, that's right in a given relationship or interaction, even when talking about it is awkward, it'll be something we can do and know the other person would want us to do. If talking about it and issues around it feel terrifying, we can know that doing it is probably a pretty bad idea.

And all of what I've said here might also feel really overwhelming. Making sexual choices is complicated, and it can feel like a lot to think about for anyone, at any age, especially outside an ongoing sexual relationship we've been in for a long time. But when sex is the right thing for us, even if all we need to consider or discuss is still a little dizzying, it still feels manageable. When it's not the right thing for us, all we have to think about usually freaks us out, big time.

One more thing to know is that our earliest romantic relationships are most often going to be brief, not go on for a lifetime, years or even months. When we are really into them, they don't tend to feel that way: they instead can feel like the way we feel right now is so giant, it'll last forever. But how we feel is how we feel, and what usually tends to happen doesn't often follow those feelings in the ways we think it will. And that's okay: our earliest relationships, however uncomfortable it is to think about, are supposed to be how we start to learn about what we want and don't, about how to have those kinds of relationships, not how we finish. Whether you have sex with this person or not, the chances that this relationship will go on for even more than a few months, a couple years at a max, is very, very unlikely. I'm saying all of that not to be a jerk, but because I want to make sure that you know that no matter what you choose when it comes to sex with this person, they or you are probably going to move on from one another sooner rather than later no matter what.

Last, it can be really hard to make sound sexual choices without good support and perspective, especially when we're new to making those choices. I'm really glad that you came here to ask me these questions, but I'd also encourage you to find another trusted adult in your life, someone who knows you very well, who you know cares for you and respects you, to talk about this with. Someone who can tell you how awesome you are, how much more you have to offer someone than a blow job, how lucky anyone is to date you at all, whether you have sex with them or not, and how much you're already giving someone else by sticking with them, and you'll know they're not just saying all that because they really know you and have already cared for you for a very long time, without you having to do anything big for them that wasn't also right for you and just as valuable to you.

In case all of that still has you hungry for some more to think about, here are a few last links you might find helpful. I hope all of this helps you to make whatever choice you strongly feel is best for you and feel really, really good about.

written 21 Feb 2012 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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