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How (and why) to Root for Team Awkward

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JanFirst2011 asks:

I am 15 years old and I have only made out once. I do not know the person I made out with, and I don't exactly remember what it was like. I want to make out with more people, but I am afraid I will not be good at it, I also don't want to embarrass myself with the person I do make out with. Another thing is, what if the person I do make out with tries to do more with me than I am ready? What should I do and how do you recommend getting over these fears of mine? Thank you!

Heather Corinna replies:

Intimacy is often awkward. And that isn't a bad thing.

In some ways, I'd even say it's always awkward, in the sense that it's never really something that's exactly easy, especially when we're just starting to get intimate with someone, rather than when we have been for a long time. Getting and being close to each other physically and emotionally always has its challenges and ways where we make ourselves vulnerable: if it didn't offer those things, few people would be very interested in sex or other kinds of intimacy in the first place. Getting and being close to each other is a constant process of learning -- about the other person and about ourselves -- and growth, and learning and growing, especially around things or places that are deep and personal? Awkward. When we learn to walk, we fall over a lot, we're shaky in our legs, we're uncertain in our balance. Same goes for learning to be intimate.

The places we usually truly and deeply connect with other people are also most often our more imperfect places, or in our awkward moments. This is why you might hear professional performers say they have this amazing, intimate relationship with their fans, but if you ask them who their most intimate relationships are with, they're not going to say it's with their fans. They're going to tell you it's with the people who also know them when every step is not rehearsed, the spotlights and makeup are not on, they don't have staff managing their every move and word, and they're not having to put so much thought into what they do, but can instead just get comfortable and be who they are, even if they say dumb things out loud sometimes or fall on their faces walking across a room.

One of the benefits of intimacy when it's right for us is that it can afford us the very fantastic opportunity to be awkward -- to be human -- and have that be totally okay. Making out with someone isn't the same thing as say, giving a public speech on television or interviewing for a job: the stakes are a LOT less high and the environment should be a lot more forgiving. I know sometimes it can feel like the stakes are just as high, especially when we're new to it, when we imagine worst-case scenarios, or when we really, really, really want someone to like us who we like, but the stakes with this stuff really shouldn't be or feel that high. And in real-deal life, when we're being intimate with people who care about us, not the super-scary stuff we imagine where our whole world ends from one clumsy kiss, the stakes really aren't that high. We can fumble and it really will not be a huge deal unless we make it one.

My pitch around worries about sex and intimacy being awkward is for people to try and make peace with awkwardness, rather than trying to avoid it. I suggest that for a couple different reasons. For one, it is largely unavoidable, and I like to avoid getting people invested in fruitless efforts. But experiencing, getting through, accepting and, even more, embracing awkwardness can offer us some potentially positive things. For instance, we can learn to be a little less fearless and afraid of life and living as a whole: we can be more open to taking positive risks that get us and others the good stuff. It can help us get closer with people we want to be close to and have the people who know us know the real us, which is much more valuable to us and them than having them know a persona or only know us when we are trying to be perfect.

When you're in a time of life like adolescence where it can feel like awkward and unsure is pretty much your EVERY moment, I get that all might seem a bit too rosy. This can be something a lot easier to recognize in hindsight then when you're in it, and embrace when you feel a little more sure of yourself. At the same time, I still think it's within reach for you now.

Think about some of the biggest laughs you ever had with friends or family. Or about how you felt with a best friend when they were willing to share something with you they felt embarrassed about they didn't with anyone else in the world. Or, if it's happened, when someone told you one of the things they found most beautiful about you was something you actually feel insecure about. Awkward, but awesome, right? That's the good stuff. That's the stuff that's most unique about us and all the millions of moments that make up our lives. So, I don't know about you, but I'm always cheering for Team Awkward. (And I say this to you as someone who HAS had very awkward and embarrassing moments even when doing things like large-scale public speaking, so if it makes you feel any better, know even that is something most of us can get through and eventually feel okay about.)

I also think that one of the ways we can know that someone we're choosing to get intimate with -- whether we're talking about making out or way more than making out -- is a good choice for us is when we feel pretty okay about potentially fumbling, or things being awkward or embarrassing. In other words, even if and when we still feel a little uncomfortable, we feel safe, we feel like we can trust the other person not to humiliate us or be a jerk, we feel like we're vulnerable, but that's something we're open to and think the other person is likely to handle well. If we don't feel like that, chances are good that a big part of why is that we know in our heads, hearts or guts, that that person isn't or might not be someone to be intimate with. These feelings of discomfort or fear when they happen can be great helpers in choosing who to get close to and who to keep your distance from.

Do I expect you to be excited at the prospect of things feeling awkward or you maybe feeling embarrassed or uncertain sometimes? Nope. But my hope is you can get to a point where you feel pretty okay about it happening now and then, because it's going to. Sometimes we're going to try something when being intimate with someone where it seems like it'd feel good, but it just feels weird or silly to them or to us. Sometimes someone is going to fart in the middle of things: sometimes really, really loudly. We're going to open our mouths when we want to say something really important and have the words that come out not be what we wanted at all. We're going to have to pee at times that feel like the worst times ever. Something might hurt that we and another person really, really wanted to feel good.

These are things that happen simply because none of us has complete control over our bodies and nobody is a sexual or interpersonal psychic. We cannot always know what will feel good or work for us or others, not even when we know ourselves or others very well, because none of us stays exactly the same all the time. We can learn, and that's part of this deal, but even then, things will change up on us or someone else and we'll have to learn new things or do things differently than we did before.

Sometimes, or with some people, the idea of things like that happening might feel really, really scary. Again, when that's the case, it's probably because some part of you has the feeling that that other person isn't emotionally safe for you -- like, they might make fun of you because they're just not nice people or lack maturity or you might not know them well enough to have any sense of if they're safe for you or not -- or because you, yourself, just don't feel ready for being exposed in that way or up for it for whatever reason. Not everyone we feel attracted to or like (or who is attracted to and likes us) is going to be a good choice in an intimate partner for us at a given time. No matter how old we are, or what level of experience we do or don't have, we also don't always feel emotionally up to being as vulnerable as any of us are when we're physically intimate with someone. Intimacy with someone can be awesome, but sometimes it's not our own right thing.

Of course, sometime people want to be physical with people without being at all intimate. That's a pretty tough thing to manage, especially on all sides. But if that's what you or someone else wants, then yes: it's going to feel WAY more scary for anything to go a way that could create vulnerability and a door to intimacy. The only way to get around that is truly to treat making out like a performance. I can't give you clues or helps for that route, because my job is teaching people about sexuality, not theater. But, putting my bias on the table, I'd also say that you're probably going to have a much better, and far more interesting time of things if you don't go for that flavor yourself or pick folks who want that.

Let's talk a little about your concerns about someone you're making out with trying to do more with you than you want or are ready for.

Ideally, any time we're getting down with someone else in any way that's physical or sexual, including kissing or making out, we're communicating with each other using our words, not just non-verbal communication like the way we might look at one another or physically react to a touch. What does that mean? It means that rather than just trying to feel out what someone wants with our lips or other body parts, we're asking each other -- not just them asking you, but you also asking them -- if we can do things before and as we do things and if things are feeling good, saying when they don't, and expressing what we do and don't want as we go.

For instance, let's say you are making out with someone, and that's started with kissing, and now hands are coming into the picture, and that's cool, but more than that isn't where you're at right now. Active communication with that could go something like this:

You: This feels really good.
Them: It sure as skippy does.
You: Is it okay if I put my hands under your shirt?
Them: Yes, please. Can I do the same to you?
You: Yes. But for today, I want to keep it at that. I'm comfortable with that, but not with hands in my pants or anything, okay?
Them: Sure, just let me know if this doesn't feel okay.
You: You let me know, too.

Now, an exchange like that might sound a little different with a bunch of kisses happening at the same time. It might involve less words, for instance (or words interrupted by lipsmacking or "Mmmmms"). Might that be awkward at first, or with someone new? Yep. Is that okay? It sure is. It's also certainly less awkward than anyone really overstepping someone's boundaries, not to mention way more likely to result in you and someone else only doing what feels good and feels right for you both. A little awkwardness is such a tiny price to pay for something so potentially great.

This kind of exchange-in-words also might not be something you'll always need to have if you don't want to. If you and someone else stick together for a while, as time goes on, you'll get to know and recognize each others non-verbal ways of communication much more easily so that sometimes you can use words, and sometimes you can also just use things like looks or reactions to touches. But that's not something we can usually read well with someone we are just getting to know: that takes time, for everyone. Even someone who has made out with several other people before you can't know that from their previous experiences because they don't know you.

You can also check in about this before you make out with someone. For instance, you can always tell someone there are things you're comfortable doing or trying -- with the given that if you try something and it doesn't feel good, it can always stop -- and things you're not long before you get there. Or, if you've just been doing some kissing and know you want to do more or sense the other person does, you can start a conversation about this with something like, "Hey, now that we're getting all smoochy, can we just check in to make sure we're on the same page about what's okay right now, what's not, and how we want to make sure each of us is only doing things the other one wants?" That also lays the groundwork for a relationship where everyone can know how important communication is and start getting good at it sooner, rather than later, or only after learning poor communication can really mess things up.

I know, I know: if we look at TV or movies, there is not a lot of talking with making out or any kind of sex. We'll also often see scenes where one person tells the other to just shhh when sex starts. But I'm going to assume you're a smart cookie who knows that just like what happens with, say, cartoon characters and falling pianos isn't how it goes in real life, the same goes with what we see on the screen and sex. In real life, people talk, including during and around physical intimacy. In real life, consent -- on all sides -- matters a lot. In real life, there is nothing unsexy about asking someone if they want to do something they really want to do, and if someone doesn't want to do something, it's all the more important they're given the opportunity to say no, not right now, or not that way, but this way would be good, which is what asking provides.

This is another area where we are also figuring out who is a good fit for us to get physical with or not. If someone doesn't think and act like it's a given that NO ONE will keep doing anything when someone doesn't like it or otherwise wants to stop, then we can know that's a fish to throw back. If you or someone else don't feel comfortable or comfortable yet communicating that openly and honestly about sexy stuff, that can be a good signal that something isn't right, and this might not be a good choice or good time to get intimate just yet. Maybe you or they need to get to know each other a little better before you feel comfortable enough to do that. Maybe you or they need to get more comfortable with yourselves when it comes to things like talking about body parts or sex out loud, or being okay with people saying no to something or pulling back: not everyone is secure enough in themselves to deal with that. Once more with feeling: your instincts are so valuable, and so is just being honest with yourself about where you're really at. If and when something feels too scary, you don't have to do it.

The good stuff with anything sexual will still be there for you when you're good and ready for it, and if you're not really ready for it, or at least awfully close, it probably won't be very good stuff at all.

I do want to make sure that you're not self-imposing any kind of deadlines here. It's totally okay to be 15 and to only have made out once. It's totally okay to go as slow as anyone might need to so that when they choose to get intimate with someone they feel pretty comfortable instead of feeling terrified. We all get to have whatever our own best pace is and honor that, and when we do that is when we're most likely to have intimate experiences we do remember, we do feel good about, during and after, and that might feel a little awkward or uncertain, but only to the degree that we can and want to handle.

I'm going to leave you with a few links that I think will be helpful to you. Some of them may seem more about sex past making out, but they're just as applicable. Also? I'm lending you my pom-poms so you, too, can root for Team Awkward. I require you try and do a cartwheel while holding them. You will probably fall flat on your butt, and can then practice shaking them with dust on your knees and a grin on your face, fine practice for how much of life and everything in it tends to go.

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