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Are we really too young for unprotected sex?

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maliburocker asks:

Me and my boyfriend have been dating for 3 months and everyone tells me that we should not be having sex! Especially unprotected! Am I really too young to be having sex and unprotected at that? (I'm 16 years old.)

Heather Corinna replies:

The first thing I'd ask you is if you -- and your boyfriend -- feel too young to possibly be someone's parent.

I ask that, because one huge risk with unprotected sex is pregnancy. Statistically, in less than one year, 80-90% of people (and remember, too, teens are often far more fertile than us older folks) who have intercourse without using a method of birth control will become pregnant in just one year. Even if you know you're not ready to be a parent, and figure you can either terminate a pregnancy or stay pregnant and give a child up for adoption, that is a LOT to handle. Abortion isn't cheap, and it's not often emotionally easy (and in some states, for a minor to get an abortion, you'll need a parent's permission). Same goes for remaining pregnant and having another family adopt your child. Being pregnant is seriously tough, and all the more tough when you're a young person without the kinds of resources and supports older people who become pregnant can have. Becoming pregnant, no matter what you do, can impact whether or not you're able to do well in or finish school 9and make both harder to do), it can impact all of your relationships, it impacts your physical and mental health.

We've had a lot of users at Scarleteen who have felt like they're ready for sex, but then when a pregnancy or pregnancy scare occurs, feel like they're nothing close to ready to even deal with that situation, no matter what choice they're making. But the thing is, if you're going to be having any kind of sex which presents a risk of pregnancy, then being ready to deal with that possible consequence is part of being ready for sex. That doesn't have to mean being ready to parent, full-stop, but it does mean being ready to deal with that real possibility or to manage an accidental pregnancy, practically and emotionally.

Too, you also have risks of sexually transmitted infections to deal with, especially with unprotected sex. Are you and your boyfriend both getting regular sexual healthcare? Do you both have the ability to get that healthcare and get treated if and when you do get an infection? Most infections won't kill you (though a couple can), but if and when you do get one it's important to be treated right away so that you don't jeapordize your reproductive and general health.

If you don't want or aren't ready to handle any or all of these consequences, and are still having sex unprotected, then someone clearly isn't ready. Maybe it's your boyfriend, if you're asking him to use protection and he's refusing, especially if he figures he's not the one who would wind up pregnant or be at risk of serious reproductive problems because of an infection, so it's not his problem (that speaks volumes about a serious lack of emotional maturity). Maybe it's you, if you either can't be assertive and set these boundaries, or if you are living in denial that you're somehow not at the same risks everyone else is. Maybe it's both of you, especially if the two of you aren't even talking about this stuff and working out if now is a right time for you both to be sexually active, and if so, making sure that you have sex responsibly. When we see people who say they're ready, but who clearly are choosing to have sex in a way that isn't very responsible or sound -- often because they're not even ready enough to know what they're getting into, or because they're lacking a sense of reality in understanding that no one is immune to these risks -- their actions kind of fly in the face of their words.

Whether or not a person is too young for sex really isn't often about what age they are, since all people are not the same at the same age, and because our unique situations and relationships differ a lot between people of the same age. For some people who are 16, it might not be too young, while for others, it is. Maybe the people around you are saying what they are just because they have the idea that there is one right age for sex, and you're not at that age. But if these are open-minded people who know you well, maybe they are saying what they are because they feel that you two, in particular, aren't ready. And again, if you're having sex without also using safer sex and birth control to reduce your risks, that's probably some of why they feel that way. Obviously, there are other risks as well that aren't about pregnancy or illness: you may or may not feel ready to deal with sexual rejection, for instance, or you may or may not feel ready to really assert yourself and have boundaries with a partner.

By all means, there are positive risks with sex as well as negative or unwanted ones. But if we can't look at, accept, discuss and manage the unwanted and negative ones, then we're not ready for sex with someone else. If we're ready to do that, but our partner isn't, then that person isn't ready and we either need to wait until they are for sex, or choose to have sex only with another partner who really is ready.

Maybe you two are ready, and just needed a wakeup call: maybe you can bring this information to the table, talk about it together, and start making some better choices. (Obviously, if you both are feeling ready to become parents and have interest in parenting, then you are making choices in line with that, though 3 months isn't long enough to go without barriers when it comes to infections.) Or maybe you aren't, or are ready for some kinds of sex but not others: not all kinds of sex present risks of pregnancy, and some kinds also either don't present infection risks, or those risks are minimized by something as simple as handwashing.

I'm going to give you a handful of links to look over, starting with out Sex Readiness Checklist which millions of users have found very useful. I'd suggest you look over it -- and the other information I'm linking you to -- share it with your boyfriend, and talk about all of this together very honestly. Remember that sex isn't a box that once we open, we're obligated to keep open. There are plenty of times in any of our lives -- no matter our age -- when sex is or is not the right thing, depending on our relationships, our own desires, our plans for our lives, our resources and just all we're up to dealing with at a given time. So, if you do some to the conclusion that actually, you are feeling too young, or just not ready for all of this, it's totally okay to tell your partner you two need to take a few steps back for a while. In fact, if you're having sex to be close, having these kinds of honest conversations and working to be in a place that's really best for you both is likely to make you closer than sex you're not really ready for could.

One last thing? I know that it can feel like a big insult to be told that you're not ready for something when you feel like you are ready or should be. It can also be easy, when you're feeling that way, to feel like doing that thing is a way to show people who say that that they're wrong. But don't forget that your sex life should be about you and your partner, not about other people or what they think. If you're having sex, for it to be healthy and right for you, it's really important that it's absolutely about what you want and are ready to deal with, not about proving something to anyone else. One benchmark of real emotional maturity is our ability to determine what is right for us and act accordingly whether others who are only observers agree or not, whether that means acting against what they're saying, or acting in alignment with what they're saying, even if it makes us feel crummy for them to be right.

When you make the choices that are most right for you, you win no matter what.

written 29 Mar 2008 . updated 31 Mar 2008

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