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Safer Sex...for Your Heart

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We talk a lot about sexual safety and safer sex here at Scarleteen in terms of your physical health. But what about checking in to see if sex is safe for you and yours emotionally? Taking care of your emotions, looking out for risk factors in advance -- not just when they become an existing crisis -- and safeguarding yourself, your partners and those around you from needless hurt and harm is just as important as doing what you can to prevent STIs or unwanted pregnancies.

Sexuality and sexual partnership is more than just physical, even when it's casual -- it involves our feelings and thoughts as well, and those of our sexual partner.

It seems that a lot of what we hear in terms of safeguarding our emotions -- if we hear anything at all -- in regard to sex (and remember that here at Scarleteen, when we say "sex" we mean any number of sexual activities, not just sexual intercourse) is that either sex is okay, or it isn't, and we just shouldn't engage in it if we don't want to be hurt or hurt others. Or, that only sex within marriage is safe emotionally, but that simply isn't so: people are no less likely to become hurt by sex within marriage than they are outside it, especially if high divorce rates and spousal sexual and other abuse rates are any indication. To boot, marriage is neither an option nor a goal for everyone.

Only seeing general, binary options -- to either have sex or not to -- doesn't help us an awful lot, or give us food for thought to determine what may be risky sexual behavior for any of us when it comes to our hearts, minds and the quality of our relationships and sexual life. Sex is not something that need be hurtful, or that we have to avoid so as not to get hurt or hurt anyone else. When entered into with a solid basis of self-awareness, empathy, care, good judgment and an arsenal of accurate information, sex has no more the capacity to hurt than anything else in life, and has the capacity to be something wonderful, empowering and beneficial.

Just like using condoms, gloves and dams, and having regular sexual health care is preventative medicine to do your best to stay physically safe and healthy; being on the lookout for high emotional risks, hurtful or unrealistic situations, or potential sexual and emotional trouble is preventative medicine to stay emotionally healthy, and help those you're involved with do the same. It'd be silly and shortsighted to only give information on a sexually transmitted disease after one already has it, or to avoid looking at what we could do to lessen the likelihood of getting one in the first place. So, think of the following pages as preventative medicine for sexually transmitted infections of the emotional variety. If you get informed, keep a watchful eye and protect yourself and those you care for from the very start, you're much more likely to remain healthy and happy and sexually well, above, as well as below, the waist.

Lies in Black and White: Dishonesty and Secrecy

While on some level, sex being taboo or shameful goes way, way back in our culture, and for some makes it seem more exciting, it's really not all that healthy, personally or globally, to house our sexuality or sexual relationships in an environment of shame or lies. Sex surrounded by lies, dishonesty or secrecy tends, especially long-term, to be disastrous and debilitating.

Emotionally, it can cause us to feel shame and regret; it can destroy our sexual relationship as well as our relationships with friends and family. In addition, when sex is performed under great secrecy, most people end up taking risks they usually wouldn't were it more honest, like not setting emotional limits and boundaries, taking chances by not using birth control or safer sex measures, by rushing things we otherwise wouldn't rush, by putting close friendships or other people's feelings at risk, or dismissing real compassion and care for others altogether.

Some dishonesty and secrecy scenarios:

  • Lying to parents, friends or family about sexual activities, experience or feelings, or hiding sexual relationships.
  • Engaging in sexual relationships "no one can know about," such as because one or both partners already has another partner, or because one or both partners may be disapproved of by family or friends, or in GLBT relationships when one or both partners are not yet out.
  • Lying to a partner about sexual history, such as saying one is a virgin when one is not, saying one had been STD/STI tested when one has not, or stating one has had more or less past partners than one has actually had.
  • Faking or pretending orgasm, arousal or sexual interest.
  • Being dishonest about what one is seeking in the relationship, such as stating a relationship or hookup is casual or "only friends" when you want or feel far more, or stating a relationship is seriously romantic and intended to be long-term when you do not have those feelings.

Dishonesty when it comes to sex and sexual relationships only tends to breed more dishonesty. When you or your partner are dishonest with others, it's very hard to establish trust between you or know that you are able to be honest with each other. Lovers who lie tend to be left with the lingering thought, "If he/she can lie to her, how do I know he/she isn't lying to me?" And the thing is, you don't know, especially when it's been made clear a person can live lies readily. What it all comes down to is that dishonesty stands in the way of real communication, and communication is one of the most important things good, healthy sex and relationships require, with yourself and with others.

Everyone has a different threshold for what level of honesty or dishonesty they're comfortable with. In some scenarios, it may seem that a little dishonesty for a while may hurt people less than honesty, for instance, if you and your best friend's sister start to date, you may both be waiting a bit before you tell her, until you can find the best way to do it. You may be having sexual relationships without yet telling your parents, because you are figuring out how to divulge without hurting them. You may even find that in order to protect yourself and a partner, you need to involve secrecy, such as in an interracial relationship in a town where such has before had violent results. Only you can really determine what is most appropriate and what you're okay with, but honesty really is almost always the best policy.

Mismatched Pairs: Unsuitable relationship models or unsuitable partners

There are lots of relationship models out there and possible, far more than just the standard monogamous two-person romantic relationship. Even the model of standard monogamy can have a lot of variations. Finding what model is best for a given relationship comes not from assuming one is a given model, but by talking to your partner to figure out what works best for the both of you in your unique and individual relationship.

But you both may not want the same things, or you may assume a model instead of agreeing on one, and either of those scenarios can land one or both of you in a model that isn't good for you. For instance, agreeing to monogamy when that really isn't what you want -- or pushing it on a partner with ultimatums when you know, or they've told you, that that isn't good for them isn't a healthy situation, as it also wouldn't be to agree for a partner to date others while seeing you when you really aren't okay with that.

Too, some partners are just unsuitable for us. Given, oftentimes two people have things in common, and things which are divergent, and that's pretty normal and workable. But you may find yourself with or attracted to someone who is already in a monogamous relationship, for instance. Or, who isn't emotionally available for what you need yourself. Or, who has very different needs than you do.

A lot of what we see in literature and the movies when it comes to relationships tend to have massive crisis points like these, where two people have something that threatens to keep them apart, or makes one person miserable or the like. But the thing is, in literature and movies, that often happens because it is a device employed to create tension and a plot for entertainment. It may look great and intense and romantic up there on the screen, but in real life, Romeo and Juliet still wouldn't work out every well, it would still be likely to end badly, and it wouldn't be half as pretty or romantic.

Again, sometimes, situations like this may be something we feel is beneficial enough that we take these risks for or deal with a period of great discomfort over. But some situations are just basically guaranteed to hurt one or both of you and other involved people. Situations like those below are good examples of dead-end or likely hurtful sexual relationships:

  • Taking up with someone who already has a girlfriend/boyfriend or spouse.
  • Becoming involved with someone when it is clear that at the present time, they are not what you want or need, are not emotionally stable or available, or simply do not "mesh" with you and your life as is.
  • Planning meetings with partners whose background you do not know, or whose identity you have not or cannot verify (such as people met over the 'Net).
  • Dating a friend's ex or crush without talking to that friend first.
  • Agreeing to relationship models or relationship "rules" that you know you can't live with, or choosing partners whom you know have important things in great conflict with you (like a sexual orientation which does not include you, a religion which debases your own, a desire or lack thereof for children when you want the opposite, etc.).
  • Taking up a with a partner with whom you cannot assert yourself with or say no to readily.

Certainly what falls under this last umbrella are abusive relationships; those which are physically, emotionally or sexually abusive, in any way at all. Those often have only two ways to go: you get out of them as soon as the very first incidence of abuse occurs, OR you get trapped in them and the abuse will escalate, and leaving will become harder and harder to do. And in nearly ALL cases, it will, no matter what you'd like to happen, no matter how sorry anyone is, no matter if you're told it will never happen again. It is nearly guaranteed that abuse, once it happens even once, will not only continue, it will escalate, and an abusive relationship is both physically and emotionally highly unsafe. So, the only safe option is to get out immediately, as hard as that may be to hear or do. If you find yourself there and need help getting out, get help.

As well, if a potential partner has a history of abusive behavior with others, it is best not to get involved with that person. They may appear to have gotten past it, or may have gotten help or treatment. If that is the case, and you wish to pursue a relationship, it is advisable to take thing very slowly, and stay aware and grounded.

Eyes (and mouths and ears) Wide Shut: Unwanted sexual activities and/or a lack of communication

When sexual activity is new to a person, it all can feel a bit risky, even if you're ready. And learning to talk about sex can be hard, and take a long time to master (heck, some people in their 50's are still learning; we're all always still learning). But.

A partner might suggest a sexual activity, for instance, that you just feel a strong aversion, or even a mild anxiety, to trying. Or it may be the other way around, with you wanting something that your partner is reticent to try. Sexual activity should never involve pushing, or one person doing something they don't truly want to. Ever. You can certainly have a discussion about a given activity you want to try, or if a partner is reticent, point them to more information, but mainly, when anyone is reticent, taking "no" at face value is the best policy. They or you may change minds over time, or as they or you find out more information on something. Or may not. But entering into an activity you don't really want to do or are afraid of, or pushing someone else to, is a recipe for hurt feelings, a lack of trust, and sexual and emotional trauma.

And not communicating clearly about sex, or communicating at all, can have the exact same results. Sexual trauma and anxiety can also have serious physical results on top of the emotional ones as well, creating conditions like vaginismus, which can result in long-term painful sex.

If you find that:

  • You're doing things you really don't want to do and feel you have to, or pressing your partner to do so.
  • You're engaging in high-risk sexual activities unsafely because you're afraid or reticent to insist on safe practices.
  • You or your partner either do not or cannot talk about sexual activities (beyond talking about what you find sexy or arousing) and feelings in any environment.
  • You cannot talk about sex with some measure of objectivity, calm and honesty.
  • Either you or your partner cannot discuss, make and keep sexual limits and boundaries you each set, or that either of you doesn't feel able to set boundaries at all.
  • You're making excuses for doing things you either don't want to do or don't want to take responsibility for, or hold a partner responsible for, like saying oral sex "just happened" or that you "can't help but cheat" on a partner, or that sex you didn't want and didn't consent to that your partner continued with anyway wasn't "real" rape.

... Then the chances are, you're presently in, or walking into, an emotionally (and also physically) unsafe sexual scenario, and it's time to either leave it outright, or develop solid sexual communication, and sexual and emotional boundaries and limits with your partner, pronto.

The Maturity Myth: Lack of emotional readiness

All too often, being "ready for sex" emotionally is seen as a sign of maturity or a cornerstone of being "adult." And being thought of or said to be "mature" is a Really Big Deal when you're young, so it's a loaded issue. That is unfortunate, because it can keep us from really being able to realistically assess our own readiness is sexual situations and relationships, because the pervasive message is that if a person isn't "ready" they are immature. And that just isn't true.

Emotional readiness for sex isn't necessarily cumulative. In other words, I might be fully ready for one sexual scenario or relationship at when I'm 16, but NOT for a different one when I'm 42. Because all sexual situations and relationships are not the same, our readiness isn't something we develop once and always have -- it depends on the given situation we're in at any given time. Not being emotionally ready for something doesn't mean a person is immature. In fact, being able to acknowledge one's own lack of readiness is a pretty big sign of a mature and responsible person who knows how to care for themselves and others.

We talk about aspects of emotional readiness in our Sex Readiness Checklist. Some of the issues brought up there are potential conflicts such as:

  • Strong religious, cultural or family beliefs or convictions that sex for me, right now, is wrong.
  • An inability to take full responsibility for my own emotions, expectations and actions.
  • An inability to handle feelings of disappointment, confusion or upset.
  • Lacking an emotional support system outside one's sexual partner.
  • Being or feeling unable to separate sex from love, understanding that sex cannot create love, but only express it (or not).
  • Being unable to keep from using sex to manipulate one self, a partner, or anyone else.
  • The inability to handle unwanted consequences of sex, or changes and complications it may bring about in a relationship.
  • Being unable to emotionally withstand and manage a possible pregnancy, disease or infection, or rejection from a partner.
  • Being codependent or hyperdependent on a sexual partner for constant reassurance, attention or self-worth.

A lack of emotional readiness for sex in general, or for particular sexual activities, situations or relationships is often easier to handle than it may seem, and doesn't have to be something that necessitates a breakup with your partner. Solutions to not feeling emotionally ready can be as simple as just waiting to see if you become ready, changing factors in a situation to fit what you CAN handle and are ready for, or working on those things that stand in the way of your readiness with your partner, over time. It may also be good to consider a period of celibacy during times like these, or time away from a partner to sort out your own head. In addition, managing times like these means developing communication tools and practices so that you can learn to feel comfortable telling your partners freely, "Hey, I'm just not ready for this right now." It also involves choosing partners who are themselves ready for that level of emotional maturity -- which includes accepting that everyone has times when they aren't ready for sex -- to be flexible and patient and willing to communicate in kind.

Long-term partners learn over time to get used to the ebb and flow of a sexual relationship and nurture their partner's feelings. It's totally normal in every relationship that at certain times, one partner or the other may not feel emotionally "up to" sex or certain aspects of sex. That doesn't mean it's always easy, but if we choose to enter into relationships with people, it's something we all just learn to get used to and manage.

Partnership Potholes: Relationship Rough Spots

Every relationship has it's rough spots and periods of conflict, whether we're talking about long-term committed romantic and/or sexual relationships or even more casual scenarios, such as more casual sex, or being "friends with benefits."

During rough times, sex can sometimes feel like a real comfort. Lots of people find that "kissing and making up" -- sex after fighting or an argument -- can be very satisfying. But it's a good idea to be wary. When your relationships are having serious rough patches, sometimes staying sexually involved regularly can keep us from really being able to look at the problems. Sex can also be -- intentionally or not -- employed as a tool to try and get a partner to stay when they are thinking about leaving. Sex can also give us the feeling, momentarily or long-term, that everything is okay when it is not.

That isn't to say that sexual activity during relationship rough spots or hard times in necessarily emotionally dangerous or traumatic, because it need not be. But to avoid creating even more problems, entering into denial, or manipulating our partner intentionally or unintentionally, when we have rough patches, it's best to talk with our partners about our sex life together and discuss how both of you feel about it to come to an agreement on what might be best for a given situation.

Get Real: Unrealistic expectations and scenarios

Sex can often have a lot to offer us, both with ourselves and with partners. But there are some things sex really can't give us, or that we shouldn't look to it to repair, fix or supply.

  • Sex cannot, by itself, give us self-worth, self-esteem or long-term positive body image.
  • Partnered sex cannot substitute for our own exploration or understanding of our own bodies.
  • Engaging in sex cannot give us reliable sex or sexual health information.
  • Sex in and of itself cannot provide love or emotional affection, friendship or emotional support or relationship commitment or security.
  • Sex cannot substitute for good communication.
  • Sex cannot magically turn anyone into an adult or a mature person.

Expecting sex to be like we see it in the movies or popular culture is silly, and thinking it has magical capabilities is an error. In real life, it's a good deal different.

Rarely in the movies, for instance, do we see a couple taking care of their sexual health with regular exams and testing, which a sexually active person NEEDS to do to keep themselves and their partners physically and emotionally well. Rarely in the movies do we see "quiet" orgasms, or sex that isn't awful, but isn't mind-numbing or heart-racing either, which sometimes, sex can be...just nice, but nothing to write home about. Rarely in the movies or in popular literature so we see the full spectrum of a couple or a person's sex life, and all the many, many issues that means dealing with. Rarely do we see unhappy endings to sexual conflicts. Rarely do we see couples taking a long time to wade through issues; instead, we usually see colossal fights, huge dramas, or stormy, wailing breakups. Rarely in pornography do we see normal-looking people with normal-looking bodies who have emotional needs and communicate realistically about sex. So, if we base our expectations on things like movies, books, porn or friend's accounts of their relationships (which can often be exaggerated), we're pretty much bound to end up feeling confused, lost or disappointed and will likely not be able to stay grounded in our very real relationships and sexuality and deal with them appropriately.

Finding out what is and isn't realistic usually means basing our expectations on what we see in real life, and taking our sexual relationships one step at a time, day by day, and talking with our partners throughout. It means having discussions about what each person wants and needs, and what each person is and is not able to provide. It means, in short, being really patient and keeping your ideals and fantasies in check.

The biggest unrealistic sexual expectation most people, especially young people, seem to fall into is thinking that sex can create love that is not already there. It can't, no matter how many times you have it, no matter what sexual activity you engage in, no matter if your partner tells you it can. It cannot. Sex can be one way of expressing love and care, and it can be part of love, but it can't pull a love rabbit out of a hat. Even if you can only get to there -- to understanding that sex can't make love, that one thing -- you'll have a really good handle on looking at sex realistically.

Sex For All the Wrong Reasons

It's hard to arbitrarily say what the "right" and "wrong" reasons for sex, sexual activity and sexual relationships are, because that differs a lot from person to person and relationship to relationship. We all have our own sets of needs, priorities, desires, goals and aims, and unique relationships.

But there are reasons for having sex that simply are a recipe for disaster, for emotional upset on all sides, for disappointment, hurt or which just aren't reasonable or fair to you or to a partner. Some of those are:

  • Being sexually active primarily because others around you are sexually active, and thus, you want to fit in, or because someone is pressuring you.
  • To try and fill a void as far as self-wroth, esteem or confidence with sex.
  • To try and "trick" or manipulate a partner into giving you something you want (such as a relationship commitment) with sex or the promise of sex.
  • To avoid being alone or to feel less lonely by having a sex partner or partners
  • To get attention from parents, friends or others, to make another person jealous or envious, or to force a reaction from someone by being sexually active.
  • To "prove" one is an adult to someone by showing one can have sex.
  • To create conflict or upset via sexual choices, activities or relationships.
  • To take a sex partner when one simply wants sexual release for themselves akin to masturbation.
  • To become pregnant without consulting a partner in an effort to try and keep that partner.
  • To find out, in action, if you're ready for sex or not.
  • To "just get sex over with."
  • To "prove" love or care to a partner, or to try and impress someone.

It's not always easy if we are sexually active for the wrong reasons to see what we're doing, and that we ARE doing it for the wrong reasons. More often, we figure that out in hindsight. That's why it's so important to really be as self-aware and as honest with yourself and others as you can, and when you have feelings of doubt, hesitation or anxiety, to take the time to stop and really look at them. It's also important to be kind and fair with yourself if you discover some of your reasons for being sexually active are wrong, unfair, unkind or just unrealistic -- it is a situation pretty much all of us have found ourselves in at least once (and often more than once). It happens, and it is okay, so long as we do become aware of it, and take steps to remedy our errs when we have that awareness.

And in stepping back from those mistakes or errors, we may find we or our partners get hurt in the process regardless: we may have to stop a relationship, or pull back, or spend some time alone, or set aside things that we liked doing or having a lot.

Are you already in a sexual relationship or partnership which you suspect may be emotionally unsafe or unhealthy for you or others? Give yourself a checkup:


Are you:

  • Suffering from anxiety, stress or depression, or having unusual physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, insomnia, changes in energy levels or appetite, a sudden drastic increase or decrease in sexual drive, or other physical symptoms that are not caused by an existing condition or illness?
  • Putting other important relationships or goals of yours at risk because of your sexual relationship(s)?
  • Taking risks which put you and yours in a position of sexual, physical or high emotional risk, or feeling you must make many sacrifices to have or maintain the relationship?
  • Feeling isolated from everyone BUT your partner, or having trouble thinking of others outside yourself and your partner(s)?
  • Discovering that other important parts of your life are taking a backseat to your sexual relationship(s) or suffering (your grades, your job, your family, etc.)?
  • Feeling sad or upset with sexual relationships or encounters far more than you find yourself feeling happy?
  • Feeling you must keep sexual activity, tension or issues high and escalating to maintain the relationship, using sexual activity to avoid or diffuse relationship conflicts, or, finding that you are "zoning out" during sexual activity?
  • Becoming unable to be autonomous and have a life and sense of self independent of your partner or a sexual relationship?
  • Feeling bad about yourself in general, or specifically in regard to your sexual relationship or behavior?

If you're experiencing any of these things, I'd suggest you find at least one person who is not your sex partner to talk to about the situation who you feel can be objective, maybe a friend, maybe your clergy leader or a teacher, maybe an aunt or uncle. Take some time alone, too, to really look at how you're feeling, and seek out trouble spots or conflicts. Talk to your partner as well. Making a reality check with someone else and yourself, then talking to your partner, is pretty vital and a good management tool. Things like those listed above may be a signal that your sexual relationship or behavior isn't healthy and balanced, or is doing you harm. And checking in with that possibility now and again never hurts.

It's important to remember that when we get involved sexually, we are taking risks -- physical and emotional -- no matter what. There is no such thing as a no-risk sexual scenario, no matter your age or situation. We take the risk of having our hearts broken, of being disappointed, of STD/STI transmission or pregnancy, of conflict over our sexual choices with friends or family, of finding out things about ourselves or our partners which may change our feelings or lives, amongst other things. Sexuality involves very deep intimacy and feelings and when we explore those feelings, we take risks.

That isn't to say that all risks are bad to take, and on some level, in order to also discover things that ARE healthy for us, that are beneficial and bring us joy, we do have to take risks and chances. That's the case whether we're talking about a sexual relationship or scenario, or trying out for the school basketball team, applying to colleges, or getting your first apartment. But taking risks which we know or suspect are foolhardy, which are more likely than not to harm us or others, or are grossly negative, is risking too much for too little, and sometimes for all the wrong reasons. Again, sex need not be harmful or hurtful, and can be a very positive and wonderful thing -- and when it is not, it may be because we are creating or continuing the situations and environments which make it negative for us and others. We all need to learn to avoid doing that, to be mindful of it, if we want our sexual lives and relationships to be healthy, happy and of real quality.

And isn't that what we all want? So, go on and take a big risk -- the risk of handling sexual relationships with care, love and patience, and with your whole health and well-being -- physical and emotional; personal and communal -- at heart.

written 23 Sep 2002 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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