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How can I talk about sex without pressuring her?

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DaltonTopiary asks:

I'm 17. I love my girlfriend. Really. Real love. Love as in "I want to marry you. I want to respect you. I want to commit my life to you." We brought up the topic of sex a few months ago, but it didn't go any farther than "How do you feel about it?" From that little talk we concluded that it was something we both wanted to do.

That was nearly three months ago and I want to talk about it. Nothing dirty or anything, I just want to know how important (or how un-important) it is to her. I want to know that she wants to have sex with me because she loves me, not because she feels she has to. The problem is...I don't know what to say or what to do to bring it up to her. I fear she might think that I'm trying to tell her that I am waiting and begging for sex, which I am not. I'll wait for her forever. Any advice?

Heather Corinna replies:

From what I tend to observe, when someone like you is worried about what you'll say exerting sexual pressure, but is coming from the wonderful, thoughtful kind of place that you are, these worries are often displaced. In other words, I'd say it's highly likely that with how you feel about this person, and given your awareness that the way any of us talks about sex can exert pressure and your strong intention NOT to exert pressure, you'll wind up doing exactly what you want to here and your partner will not feel pressured.

While I'm not comfortable saying everyone who exerts sexual pressure intends to do that, I am comfortable saying that very few people who do exert sexual pressure don't intend not to and are not trying not to do that. It seems to me that most of the people who exert sexual pressure on others tend to be thinking mostly or only about their own wants and needs and are not being as thoughtful as you are, nor as equally invested in their partners wants and needs as you clearly are.

I hear how much you care about your partner. I also hear that you know how to care for yourself and your partner in a relationship. That's all super fantastic, and is such a great foundation for a mutually healthy, wanted and enjoyable sexual life and a healthy relationship. I'm completely confident that even if you didn't get my advice on this, however you led with your head and your heart from the place that they're in, this would work out just fine. Really. I think you already have more of what you need to do this well than you're giving yourself credit for.

All the same, I'm so glad you asked, and I can certainly give you some tips and tools to help you be as sure as you can that the way you approach and talk about this is in alignment with your great intentions.

We have a big, comprehensive guide on how to communicate well about sex here that should answer a lot of your questions, so I'd suggest taking a look at that when you're done reading this. You might also find that this tool helps you to clarify more of what you want (and don't) and feel ready for yourself, and depending on how the talks go around this with your girlfriend,it might be helpful for her as well. With initial talks, sharing lists like that might be a bit overwhelming, so it may not be something to share right away, but each of you going through it just for yourselves could inform these talks nicely, even if you're not at the point yet where you'd pass each of your own lists over to each other full-stop.

I also think that everything you told me here is what you want to share with your partner.

In other words, reaffirm how you feel about her. Affirm that you have a strong, solid investment in only having any kind of sexual life with her that is about what you both want and feel best about, even if your pacing may be different and even if that means one of you waits for the other to get to the same or a similar place. Make clear to her that you want to be able to talk about all of this, and that it's really important to you that your wanting to communicate and check in not be interpreted as any kind of pressuring or even as the desire to be sexual in any way yet unless it's something both of you mutually wants and feels ready for in your own lives and in your relationship.

Make clear to her that the kind of sex life that you want is one where the desire for any kind of sex you two might have is very much mutual, and that the idea of anything less is not at all appealing to you and doesn't look like what you want at all. You can follow that up by letting her know that the only right answers on her part in these kinds of talks are the answers that are true for her and that are about what she wants: an answer that comes from a place that's about trying to give you what you want when it's not what she does wouldn't be the right answer at all.

You can also let her know that a big reason why you want to talk about this isn't about pushing or begging for sex, but about quite the opposite. It's about wanting your communication around this to be good so that you can jointly make any sexual choices -- including choices that are about not being sexual together -- based as much as possible on what both of you want without assumptions, because what you want is a sexual life that's as true an expression as possible of what both of your wants look like when they're put together.

Something I think you might appreciate, which you could also communicate to her, is that this kind of talking, all by itself, is very real, whole-unto-itself, sexual intimacy.

For sure, having kinds of physical sex can be and often are about intimacy, too, but investing time and energy in deep, open and honest communication about sex and sexuality like this is incredibly intimate. Doing this -- which may be some of why it feels so daunting -- can be more challenging than having any kind of sex, and can sometimes also be more emotionally intense and get people closer than just the physical acts of sex can.

A big part of what you're looking to do here is to create a space where the two of you can feel free and to be honest with each other about a part of yourselves that's very complex and vulnerable; where you can each openly voice your authentic feelings and desires feeling confident that whatever they are, they're okay and will be accepted and respected. This is a part of sexual intimacy that so many people are missing out on and don't have as part of their sex lives. That's a real pity, because it's so important for sexual relationships of quality and a sex life that everyone involved in it is most likely to enjoy and feel enriched by.

Working in sexuality with people of all ages, when people talk about feeling dissatisfied with their sex lives and relationships, when I or other sex educators or therapists break it down with them and ask about communication, this is most often what's missing, not someone not engaging someone else's clitoris enough, someone reaching orgasm enough, or someone having sex as often as they'd like to.

So many people are so afraid of having the kind of communication you're talking about here, and some don't even know talking really is a big part of sex. Many people outright avoid it because they're either afraid of their own answers or desires, afraid a partner won't accept or like their answers or just feel too ashamed about or scared of sex to have these talks in the first place. If and when people do break that silence and build this kind of communication, they always see improvements in how they feel about their sexuality, in the quality of their sexual lives and in the quality of their relationships. When people build this kind of communication into their sexual lives and relationships right from the start, they're much more often folks who feel good about their sexuality, who have sexual relationships that are good for everyone, and tend to avoid a lot of the most common problems and pitfalls with sex.

In other words, you are a bit of a savant here, already head of where lots of other folks are, including people way older than you, before you even are getting started in enacting a sex life with someone. This is an incredibly good thing and is one of the ways in which I think you are -- and hope you also know you are -- awesome.

Another tip I'd toss your way is to make sure you're thinking about, presenting, and talking about sex in a way that is holistic, not about sex only as intercourse. Intercourse is one kind of sex, for sure, and it's one that poses a risk other kinds of sex do not (pregnancy), but it isn't the only kind of sex. It also isn't the only kind of sex that is or feels real for people or that people experience as important or watershed.

The most simple way we like to explain what sex is here at Scarleteen is that if we say someone is having sex, or doing something sexual, we mean they are acting from their own sexuality, looking to express it in action and/or to try and actively experience or explore a feeling of general or specific sexual desire, curiosity and/or satisfaction. When we say "sex," what we mean is any number of different things people freely choose to do to tangibly and actively express or enact their sexuality and their sexual feelings.

When you come to these kinds of talks and your sex life with a framework like that, that leaves a lot of room for both of you to have and express a whole range of desires, to find more places where you probably meet in the middle and where you do want similar things at similar times, and it can also take a lot of pressure off.

When sex is understood as a wide range of things with a general motivation in common, not this One Big Thing with a capital S that happens this one physical way, then it's a lot easier for it not to feel like there's either sex or no sex at all, like you're either "doing it," "getting it" or "giving it" or you're not. It's also a lot more reflective of people's diverse sexual lives and desires in reality, and allows what activities and sexual experiences are important to people be based on what really turns out to be important very uniquely, than making people feel like they need to try and conform to someone else's idea of what's important and a big deal and what someone else idealizes or presents as sex, which is often very arbitrary, even when it seems universal.

Why can that matter so much? Because then for her (or you), there isn't this one and only Big It that one person wants while the other does not, or that can make either of you feel scarcity: feel like you're either getting all of something or nothing at all, when no matter what choices you both make, neither of those extremes will likely be what's going on and what's for real. It also helps nurture that kind of space you want, where you each can voice what you want in a real way, rather than feeling like either of you have to answer to or resemble what someone else wants or expects. It lets sex be more about each of you, uniquely, and less about assumptions, expectations or ideals that aren't reflective of each of you as individuals or of your unique relationship.

Lastly, I'd make sure that you're leaving room for the likely possibility that she may share the desire for some kinds of sex that you do, all on her own, whether or not she wants to put any or all of her desires into into action right now. You may already know this, but your girlfriend being a girl doesn't mean she doesn't also have sexual desires of her own that are not just an answer to your desires or those of someone else. Those desires, too, perhaps like yours, may well have a lot to do with love and wanting to be close and caring, but they may well also have to do with sexual feelings separate from those, too. People tend to take these things as a given with men, but fewer people recognize or remember that the same can be true for everyone else.

Just because any of us feels a desire for something doesn't mean we want to enact that desire, feel ready to do so, or that the timing is right. For instance, I've long had this desire to create a business/space that's half vegan restaurant, half soup kitchen. Lately, I keep seeing this building I think would be perfect for it. However, as much as I have a desire to do this, and have for a while, there are things I need to do it right I don't have: time, money, being in the right space in my life, a whole bunch of things. I want to do this a lot, but I just don't have everything I need yet to do it right. Similarly, she may currently have some or all of the desires for sex you do, but may not want to enact, or feel right yet about enacting, all or some of them just yet.

I think you already get that in the context of the sex you want just based on you voicing here that you have desires of your own, but you know that that doesn't mean it's right to try and enact those desires just because you have and feel them: you want to make sure it's also what a partner feels and wants and is the right thing in your relationship at a given time. Probably you also know there are other things involved in the timing being right. The same may be true for her. For sure, having the desire to have whatever kinds of sex you also want is key, but that also isn't all there is to it, so even if she doesn't feel like she's ready to be sexual with you right now, or like the timing isn't quite right yet, that doesn't mean she doesn't share your feelings and desires or have some of her own. It can be really helpful in talks like this to voice that you know just because someone has a desire doesn't mean they want to do anything about it yet or at any given time. You can make clear that if she's worried that if she says she feels or wants something you'll assume her wanting it means she's ready for it to happen and wants to make it happen that she doesn't need to worry about that: that you know the difference between wanting something and doing something, which is part of why you want to talk the way that you do.

I'm going to leave you with a few more links I think you'll find helpful in rounding all of this out, as well as my very best wishes and a big vote of confidence. I truly have no doubt you'll do just fine in this and that you and your girlfriend will feel great about the talks you have together.

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