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Am I right to feel like a slag?

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BellBrand asks:

Heya: so I have always had really strong principles when it comes to sex and relationships. I always envisioned myself with a nice, steady boyfriend before I would do any more than just kissing. About a month ago I was at a party and out of pure curiosity (not drunkeness) I made the decision to let a boy finger me, but I didn't really know him very well. At Christmas I let another boy finger me who I didn't know (again this was a conscious decision I wasn't drunk). But now I just feel sooo slaggy because it is against what I believe in and I feel so awful in myself. Am I right to feel like this, where should I go from here?

Heather Corinna replies:

Once, in a sleepless night of Netflix marathoning, someone said something on a show that stuck with me, despite the rest of the night being an unmemorable haze of insomnia. That was, "What's so wonderful about being young is that there are no mistakes, only research."

As someone who works with young people as my job and life's work and as someone well-versed and schooled in human development and learning, that's an approach to adolescence and the early 20s I can get behind, one I find is usually sound, realistic and very healthy.

It's also a way of thinking about all of this that I think might not only help you feel better, but might keep you from having what you've done and discovered be only something that makes you feel crappy and stuck, rather than having it be something you value as experiences that help you move forward, using to better identify what it is you want for yourself and what you don't.

Having bad dates, sex so boring it puts us to sleep, or relationships that don't turn out to be what we want are some of the things in this department that suck as experiences at the time, but which can be mighty useful in figuring out who we do really like and connect with, what kind of sex isn't boring for us, and what we do want and need in relationships, and how we and others in them participate in them. We might not always need those kinds of unwanted experiences to figure things like that out, but sometimes we do, and they're almost always helpful when it comes to getting to the good stuff. Figuring our whole lives out, and what choices we should make, in the abstract isn't easy, and more times than not, just isn't doable. A whole lot of learning in life, whether we're talking about our sexual lives or talking about learning how to do long division, involves doing, not just reading, listening, thinking or feeling.

It's okay to be curious, at any age. That's part of being truly alive. If and when we stop being curious -- whether we act on our curiosities or not -- we're either literally dead or are living like we've got one foot in the grave already. And it's also usually okay to try things out when we want to, whether it turns out that we like what we tried, or that we don't. Additionally, it's okay to envision our selves or lives one way, but choose experiences that are different than those images or ideas sometimes or period. And it's okay to do any of that and wind up finding out that we want different things than we thought or are different people than we thought, and also okay to instead find out that how we originally thought or imagined ourselves and what we want was right on the money, demonstrated clearly by how not-so-awesome we feel about trying something different.

I'd say it's not a sound expectation to have of young people, or yourself as a young person, that you'll somehow make all your own right or best choices right at the gate, or even have a very clear sense of what those even are without actual life experiences. That process is a huge part of what adolescence is: a very big let's-find-out-to-figure-out phase of life. I mean, all of life is like that in some respect, especially since, if we keep living, we keep growing no matter how old we are. But when things are new to us and outside our experience, we really can only know so much of how we're going to feel about them when they're more than just in our heads.

I'd like to talk a little about ideas about you or other people being "slutty" or "slaggy." As you probably know, there is a LOT of judgment in our world around sex, and a lot of judgment of people about sexual choices. There also is a whole of of pressure for all people to only have one set of values or another, even though our personal values are just that: personal, not universal.

Ideally, when we're talking about any kind of sex where everyone involved is seeking and giving mutually informed consent, our world and the people in it would do a better job of recognizing and respecting that there is no one right set of values or wants and all others are wrong, or less moral or noble. In a world where we people really knew and accepted the amazing diversity of human sexuality and relationships - heck, of people in general -- it'd be way more of a given that, for example, the assumptions or assignments that someone who only has sex within monogamous, long-term romantic relationships is automatically upstanding or right and that someone who chooses a different kind of sex life is "slutty" or wrong are really problematic. For instance, someone can do the former but treat their partners horribly, like dismissing consent or being neglectful, while someone can do the latter and be excellent to everyone. It can obviously go the other way around too, but that's the point. When it comes to healthy sexual interactions and choices, it's often much less about the what and much more about the how. Anyone can choose a wide range of ways we can sexually interact and go about any of those relationships or interactions ethically or unethically: what form they take when we're talking about sexual or relationship models isn't really what makes something ethical or not, healthy or not, of good value or not.

Some people find they and others involved with them enjoy the kind of sexual experiences you describe here, and that experiences like those are a good fit for them, in alignment with what they want. That doesn't mean, in and of itself, they're not strongly principled people, just that they have different values than someone whose values look more like yours. Other people don't find these kinds of experiences are experiences they enjoy, want or feel good about. There should be -- and can be -- room for both of you in the world, with neither of you being made to feel like you're not good people, and with neither of you being made to feel like whatever choices are your own best fit are anything less than best. I find that words like 'slag" and "slut" not only don't support all of those healthy, accepting attitudes that really leave room for all of us to not be the same person, but that they really undermine that.

Let's set aside the more judgy, mean-spritied implications or common uses of all those sl- words (slut, slag, slattern, slapper, etc.) and see if we can't get to the heart of what you might mean when you use one of those words to talk about how you feel right now. When people say they're feeling like one of those things, usually what they're trying to express is that they feel like they have been judged by others as a less valuable person because of their sexual choices; that their sexual choices have left them feeling less valuable or valued, by themselves or others.

If you feel like that, that can be a useful feeling to identify to help you make choices you feel better about in the future, but it's going to be less useful if you come at it from a judgy, self-loathing place, rather than approaching it with the given that you, like everyone else, are just as valuable a person after any sexual experiences as you were before them.

I really don't see any evidence, historically or currently, to show that people feeling like crap about themselves helps them make their own best choices and lead their happiest, healthiest lives, whether that's about sex or anything else. In fact, when it comes to sex and history, we know that people feeling ashamed and guilty has only tended to make matters worse, and made it harder for people to envision, create and live happy, healthy sex lives that suit them best. By all means, we can be, and sometimes need to be, critical of ourselves and our choices. But we can do that without hating on ourselves or anyone else.

I think it's important when evaluating all of this for yourself, and continuing to do so, to do it with a strong understanding and acceptance of whoever it is you uniquely are, and what you feel is probably best for you, rather than focusing on bigger, more universal ideas of what "strong principles" are or aren't. Sometimes when people get caught up in the idea that one set of sexual values is morally better or worse than another, not for them, but for everyone, it can make it tougher to figure out what's right for them as unique people. Sorting through this stuff isn't about figuring out what set of values is better or worse, but about what your own values are and how to create a sexual life that works with them.

I can't know if you're feeling yucky about this just because of social or cultural attitudes about sexual choices and behaviour, or if those feelings are about this kind of sexual interaction just not being right for you, specifically, and being counter to your unique personal ethics and values. I'd hazard a guess that it's both.

But without knowing if it's both or one of those things, I think we can know that, at least for the time being, pursuing sexual interactions like these two don't feel right for you. Whatever the reason or cause for that, I think that's a clear signal to you that making different choices is going to work out a whole lot better for you, choices that are probably more aligned with how you tended to initially visualize the kind of relationship context you saw yourself being sexual in.

So, I'd say that where you go from here is using what you know and have learned up to this point to try and decide what you think you'll feel best about moving forward with sexual choices; what kind of sexual choices are mostly likely to feel right for you, to leave you feeling good about yourself, not crappy.

It seems clear to me that, for you, it's probably most sound to next explore any sex you want to within the kind of framework you first thought would work best for you: within an ongoing romantic relationship you've been in for some time before it gets physical. That's something you've voiced you first imagined as better for you, and it also sounds like it's something you haven't tried yet to see how you feel about it.

My advice would be that something more like that goes next on your try-it-and-see list. Obviously, the opportunity for that kind of framework can be tougher to come by than the opportunity to hook up briefly at a party, but it sounds like it'd be very much worth it for you to put your energy and time into seeking something like that out, and, for now (because who knows how you'll feel at another time), stay away from what you know hasn't felt like your thing.

One thing you might want to do if and when those opportunities arise and you want to pursue them is just to make clear, pretty early on, to anyone you're sating or starting to date that that's what you want, and what you know you're not looking for now is more casual sexual relationships or interactions. And if you find you're often in situations like these where you're being approached for a kind of sex you know isn't right for you, it might also help to come up with and practice some ways of declining those offers, too. Even when we know something isn't right for us sexually, sometimes it can be tough to hold our lines in the moment, especially if the other person is being aggressive, or we feel like what we really want isn't something they'll respect. So, as dopey as it might sound, it would probably be useful to literally practice saying something like, "Not interested, just not where I'm at," or "That's just not the kind of thing I'm looking for right now." Heck, if you really want out of a situation like that and can't drum up the assertiveness to decline correctly, you can always tell them to go wash their freaking hands first and ditch the party while they're in the bathroom. It's not like it hurts anyone to wash their hands.

Sometimes it's also tough to go for what you really want, and nix what you don't, if you find there are a lot of people in your social circle who seem really different from you sexually, per what they want and you do. If that feels like the case for you, it might also help to expand that social circle so it includes more people on your own wavelength. Remember: just like someone who really wants and enjoys the kind of sexual exchange you didn't isn't a slut or a slag, someone like you also isn't a prude or a tease. If you don't feel supported in what you want by the people around you, even your own best choices might not feel so great, so you might need to mix it up a little when it comes to who you hang out with.

While we're on wise things people have said about this time of life and experiences like these, someone far more sage than a writer for a TV show, Marcel Proust, said a few things about life when we're young that I think sums all of this up well.

One lives among monsters and gods, a stranger to peace of mind. There is scarcely a single one of our acts from that time which we would not prefer to abolish later on. But all we should lament is the loss of the spontaneity that urged them upon us. In later life, we see things with a more practical eye, one we share with the rest of society; but adolescence was the only time when we ever learned anything.

See? It's all good, I promise. You tried something: it wasn't what you liked or felt right. That's really, truly, okay. You're probably also going to try things that do feel good for you, physically and emotionally, but again, you'll probably need to try to really find out.

And if you're lucky, you'll remember all of this, even if right now, you kind of wish you don't. What's tragic, I think, is when that actually happens and we do forget it, which happens a whole lot as you get older, especially if you're too hard on yourself and get stuck in a bunch of shame. Experiences like these have value, even if the only value they seem to have is in showing you what wasn't your own right way, which I think we can agree is pretty darn valuable. But besides that, there's always an extra import with things like this, which is having the openness -- at least every now and then -- to follow your curiosity, when it's safe to, and just see what it shows you. Learning things? Learning things kind of rocks, even when we learn the hard way, the ugh-how-embarrassing or the I-feel-totally-stupid way.

I'm going to leave you with my best wishes and some links that I think will help you some more. I think that, particularly, looking at the interpersonal preferences part of the Yes, No, Maybe So list will be of good use, as will looking at the readiness checklist. The piece on slowing things down when they're moving too fast might come in handy as you move forward, especially if you should find yourself in the position again where you feel curious about something happening fast (and it might even feel good, physically, while it's happening), but know that's not what you really want or personally feel right about.

written 09 Feb 2012 . updated 13 Jan 2014

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