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Fear of pregnancy? Ready for sex?

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Hannahcarissa95 asks:

I am almost 18. My long distance boyfriend is 22. I have decided he is the man I want to lose my virginity to. Seeing as he is 1500 miles away means that he is not going to be doing it anytime soon. However, I am going to where he lives for Thanksgiving and we are planning on doing it then. He is a very spiritual guy and has a strong feeling that I might get pregnant on the first time that we have sex. He thinks this due to the fact that I really want a baby and I always have. But I want one when I am married and able to support it and a family. I told him that the best that we can do is be safe and smart about sex and protection and if it happens it happens but I need some advice on what else to tell him. Could you help me? I also was wondering if you have any suggestions about what would be the best plan of action if I were to get pregnant? In my mind abortion is not an option for me. I asked him what we would do and he said that he would obviously support me with multiple jobs. we would get our own place. But we all know that things never go exactly how you plan them. What do I do to ease his worries and my own?

Robin Mandell replies:

Whenever there are strong fears about possible consequences of any given action, it's a good idea to ask whether everyone is ready for the act or behaviour that could lead to these consequences.

Reading your question, I'm left with a lot more questions. Have you and your boyfriend ever met before? Considering that you're not ready for pregnancy and child-bearing, what are your plans for birth control?

From what you've said here, I don't have a good sense for how your boyfriend feels about this strong belief he has that you will get pregnant the first time you have intercourse. It sounds like he's worried about it. Is your boyfriend on board with and helpful with birth control plans? Do you get the sense that he's being cautious, or overly worried? Do you think factual information is going to be helpful in allaying his fears? It very much sounds like his ideas about how pregnancy happens are not in alignment with facts: pregnancy isn't something that anyone can will to happen by wanting it, or will not to happen by not wanting it. Whether or not someone wants to become pregnant has no impact on whether or not someone will become pregnant.

When you mention losing your virginity, I think, based on these concerns about pregnancy, you're saying that you've never had intercourse before and want to do so with your boyfriend. (Virginity can mean a lot of different things to different people, and I don't like to make assumptions about what it means to any one person in particular.) In general, though, virginity is a cultural belief, rather than a physical reality, so when people say they're virgins it doesn't tell me a lot about what kind of sexual activity they've experienced before, or what kind of sexual activity they're looking to experience. Have you ever engaged in any sexual activity with anyone else? What about your boyfriend? What do you know about his sexual history? Someone telling you they're a virgin doesn't really tell you much about that history. It doesn't tell you whether the person has engaged in any sort of sexual activity with someone else that they themselves don't classify as sex.

First intercourse is a big deal for a lot of people. It's not a big deal to others. In terms of sexual "value," it doesn't have to be -- and it's not necessarily -- any more or less important or intimate than any other sexual activity, though it has a lot of cultural value and meaning and can certainly be a significant experience for many people.

What does intercourse mean to you? Does "losing your virginity" to this person feel significant because you think it's supposed to, or because it feels like something special to share this sexual activity with someone when you've never shared it with anyone before?

It's healthy and sound to plan for intercourse in case you should choose to have it, but it's also a pretty tall order for your own sexual experience to plan on that and nothing else if you and your boyfriend have never met before and haven't taken the time to develop sexual communication and see how much less risky activities go between both of you first.

Ideally, becoming intimate with your boyfriend would be about sharing sexual playfulness and intimacy with him, not losing something to him or giving him something. If the fact that not having had intercourse before is valuable to you, then I suspect you would want to get to know him sexually before deciding that this is an activity you want to share with him.

Intercourse is often presented as the ultimate in sexual activities. I prefer to think of it as one of many. Furthermore, while intercourse is often painted as some kind of sparkly, magical union between two people, the reality is that it, like most other things in life, is something that usually takes time to learn. So, engaging in other sexual activities, and keeping your expectations in check, both helps the two of you learn about each other's bodies and avoids building up a mystique in which intercourse is the ultimate sexual activity to attain. If one is looking for the greatest pleasure with a sexual partner, looking beyond intercourse as the one and only goal is smart.

You didn't mention here what your plans are for birth control, nor protection from sexually transmitted infections, both important if you do not wish to become pregnant and do not wish to take big risks with STIs. You have a variety of options with birth control, many of which you would need to get a prescription for from the doctor, so that entails planning ahead. Other considerations include whether you want something that you need to keep track of regularly (the birth control pill, patch, or vaginal ring), use each time you engage in intercourse (condom, spermicide, or diaphragm), or that is long-term (implant or IUD). Remembering to use one's chosen contraceptive method and using it properly are both crucial in how effective they'll be.

If you need a rundown of all the different options, check this out.

We often recommend doubling up on birth control methods, both because doing so increases overall contraceptive protection and because if there is any sort of failure with one method, the other one will be there to back it up. Here's more on pairing birth control methods.

One birth control method we always recommend using, especially with new partners, is condoms. They're inexpensive, easy to learn how to use correctly, have a high effectiveness rate with correct use, are something that both partners can be responsible for, and they're the only contraceptive method that offers protection against sexually transmitted infections.

When engaging in sexual activity with someone for the first time, it's always important to consider STI prevention, no matter how well we know our partner or how much we trust them. Even for those who have not engaged in sexual activity before -- and as I mentioned above, how one defines sex will often play into this -- STI testing is sound even for people who have never had any sort of sexual contact before. As I mentioned above, unpacking how we define sex is important for establishing good sexual health practices. It's also sound to ask your boyfriend to get tested before you engage in any sexual activity together and for both of you to use safer sex practices, such as using condoms for intercourse and dental dams for oral sex.

When someone gives the amount of thought you're giving to their first experience with intercourse, it's a good idea to take that level of thought one step further and think about whether, in addition to feeling ready for intercourse, one feels ready for the possibility of a pregnancy. No matter how well-researched and effective ones chosen birth control choices are -- and they can be really really effective -- when one opts to engage in sexual activity that could lead to pregnancy, one needs to be at least a little bit ready for the possibility that pregnancy could occur. And if and when a partner, you, or both of you, does not feel that terminating an unwanted pregnancy is an option, that's all the more important. Especially if that means the possibility of a pregnancy and parenting with someone you haven't even spent much, or any, time with in person. That's a very huge, life-changing thing to take such a big gamble with.

If you don't feel like you're ready for that possibility, you or your boyfriend don't feel secure enough with the birth control you've chosen to use, or if your boyfriend isn't on board with using safer sex and birth control, period, then it's advisable to take a pass on sexual activity that could lead to pregnancy. Ideally, being sexual with someone should feel good before, during, and after the sexual activity. If and when we or a partner are finding we have big worries or fears, it's more sound to slow down and step back then to rush forward.

There are many sexual activities that cannot and do not lead to pregnancy. Here is a list to get you started should you and your partner decide that pregnancy is just too much of a risk right now, or that one or both of you aren't ready or able to do what you can to reduce that risk.

Many people think they need to have intercourse with the person they love in order to cement a bond. Cementing a bond with someone can be a lot of other things, though, and it may not always be intercourse for everyone. But there's nothing about intercourse that cements that bond besides whatever significance people have given to it.

You asked about options should you end up getting pregnant.

The three options with a pregnancy are: parenting, adoption, or termination of the pregnancy. You've already said that termination is not an option for you, so you're left with either parenting or adoption. If you were to decide to parent, you'd want to have a few different plans set up to make sure you were in a good position to do so. As you have said, things rarely go exactly as we expect them to. Some starter questions you might ask yourself if you were coming up with parenting plans would be:

  • If my boyfriend can't or won't support me financially, how will I pay for my medical care while pregnant and support myself and my child financially?
  • Where will I live? If I can't or don't want to live with my boyfriend, do I have someone else to live with?
  • Who will help me take care of my child? If I want to or need to go to work or school after the child is born, do I have friends or family who can take care of the child, or will I have enough money coming in to pay for childcare?
  • What about the plans that I have for my life? Am I willing and emotionally able to spend the next 18 or more years of my life caring for a child and balancing my life goals with that responsibility?
  • If adoption was what I decided I wanted to do, would this person give legal permission for me to do that, as that would be required?

It's really hard to talk about what your options are when this is a situation that you're not in, and when it is a situation that you are, from what you've said, wanting to prevent. In other words, your life circumstances at the time you became pregnant could be very different from what they are right now, so any potential scenarios we might come up with for right now might not apply then. This article is a good place to start to look at the considerations for different parenting options. But ultimately, I think putting more of your energy into prevention -- including rethinking if taking any risk of pregnancy anytime soon with this person is even sound, particularly if you haven't even met them yet or spent a lot of face-time together -- than thinking about these kinds of what-ifs that don't even have to be what-ifs before you're really ready for them is a better approach.

What can you say to your boyfriend to reassure him?

To begin with, again, if you haven't had a good talk about birth control, I would suggest that you make some time to have a serious conversation about it, not only about what you'll be using, but how it works and what its effectiveness is. The two of you could read the information I linked you to above together, so you're both on the same page and discuss what you think are the best options for the two of you, and how secure you both feel with those options.

I'd also suggest asking him how he feels about having intercourse with you. Sometimes when people are worried about one thing in particular, it's actually an expression of a more generalized fear or worry. One thing that might be troubling him is the age difference between the two of you. Yes, I know it's only about four years, but the difference, for most people, between late teens and early twenties, is pretty substantial. That may not be it at all, but is an example of something that isn't necessarily sex related that can impact people's emotions around sex.

I would also suggest putting out the question to him of whether intercourse is the right sexual activity for the two of you right now. You might find going through this checklist a useful exercise in figuring out what you both want from sexual activity with each other. You could go through it together, or fill it out separately then talk about your answers together, agreeing ahead of time that there will be no judgment of each other's answers.

I know there's a lot of information here. To wrap it all up, I just want to reiterate that intercourse is not your only sexual option for connecting with your partner in a very special, intimate way. In fact, if you go right to that without taking time to develop a sexual relationship more gradually, it might turn out feeling pretty darn unspecial.

It's important to listen to our fears or anxieties when they're reasonable. While it's not reasonable to be afraid of clowns killing us in our sleep, it is reasonable to worry about pregnancy resulting from intercourse, especially if reliable methods of contraception are not used properly. Reasonable fears and worries are often cues that are trying to tell us we're not ready or adequately prepared for something. So, if your boyfriend continues to be anxious, or you do, I think the most caring, loving thing you can do for each other is to set the idea of intercourse aside and find other ways to physically and emotionally connect.

I'm leaving you with several links to more information you may find helpful; perhaps you and your boyfriend could even read them together.

written 23 Sep 2012 . updated 27 Jan 2014

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