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I don't feel ready for sex at all: should I?

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Anonymous asks:

I feel like at my age (16), it is so young to have sex. If I were to be dating someone right now, so many things would scare me, that I would choose not to have sex. The chance of an STI, pregnancy, not being good enough for my partner, having my parents find out, and so many more things. I'm scared that during sex, that I wont know what to do and I'm just not comfortable with my body. Most of my friends are having sex and they say they like it, but the fact is, that I'm terrified. Everything about sex scares me. I'm worried about my body, what my partner will tell his friends, the rumors that will get around school, being inexperienced, and I'm scared it will hurt for the first time. I don't want to be seen as up tight for not wanting to have sex, and I know I don't mind having sex before marriage, but I was just wondering about moving past my fears and letting go. So, if you have any ideas, I would love to hear back from you.

Heather Corinna replies:

For some people, in some situations, sixteen is young to have sex. For some, it is too young. For others, it feels like an appropriate age, and others still, it's felt okay to engage in sex at a younger age.

Age-in-years, all by itself, doesn't tend to be a good marker of when someone is or is not ready for sex, or when sex will or will not be positive or negative for someone.

You bring up a whole lot of facets of sexuality which absolutely are heavy things to risk or shoulder, and which not everyone wants or is ready for all of the time, whether they're 16 or 36. Readiness for sexual partnership tends to be something a lot of people (especially younger people) think about as something that happens just once: once we're ready the first time, we're ready ever-after. But that isn't accurate or realistic. Any time that we're going to enter into any kind of sexual partnership we're going to determine our readiness at that time, and we won't always be ready to -- or want to -- manage all we need to with sex, even if we have been ready and willing at other times. And whether or not we want to be sexually active and are ready to be is just far more complex than how old we are or what bad things can happen. Sometimes the possible benefits of sex are going to outweigh the risks: other times the risks may be greater than what benefits sex may offer us.

While I don't think you need to feel like it's not okay for you to feel now isn't the right time for you to have sex, nor do I think you not wanting to be sexually active now (or at any time) means you are uptight -- I'll say more on this in a bit -- I also see no need for you to feel so afraid. Ideally, I feel the best choices anyone makes around sex aren't going to be based in fear. Whether we're talking about sex or about where we choose to live, how we choose to love, what job we choose to take, we know that when people make choices out of fear, they don't usually tend to be the best choices.

Let's start by addressing some of the things you're afraid of so that whatever choices you make are choices made from a place of knowledge, comfort and confidence instead.

The risks of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy from partnered sexual activity are absolutely a very big deal. Sometimes we are just not going to want to take any of those risks at all. Other times, we might feel comfortable taking those risks, especially when we do things to minimize them, and when the positives sex has or may have to offer us make the risks worth it. I hope you know that at whatever point you do feel you want to be sexually active, you do have sound ways to manage those risks. With pregnancy, you can choose, if you like, only to engage in sexual activities which don't pose a risk of pregnancy at all, or, if you want to do things like intercourse with a male partner, you can elect to minimize that risk by using reliable methods of birth control. Some methods, when used perfectly or in combination with one another, are over 99% effective, which is a lot of protection and makes that risk exceptionally small.

When it comes to sexually transmitted infections, again, you always have the option of avoiding sex which poses those risks -- namely, that would be about not having oral, vaginal or anal sex. Or, you and a partner can choose to protect yourself with sound safer sex practices. When couples follow safer sex practices to the letter, the risk of most STIs is very small: why STIs are so widespread is primarily because so many people don't use those practices, use them consistently, or use all of them, rather than only some. For instance, someone may use condoms, but not for all activity, or ditch them too early in a relationship. Someone may get tested, but not use condoms, and not require partners to be tested. Age can influence both contraception and safer sex practice when it comes to what access a person has to them: for some younger people, access to sexual health services and birth control is something limited by their age, or the resources they do or don't have available at their age. For others age isn't a barrier.

You voice some fears about potential partners. Sexual partnership differs a lot depending on who we are, who we're with, and where we are at with ourselves at a given time. For instance, a fear of not being good enough for a partner, or worries about a partner telling others private things about us may be a huge fear or one that's totally nonexistent depending on our own esteem at a given time as well as what things are like with the partner at hand. You're right in that concern: some potential sexual partners can't be trusted to keep private things private, and also may not be people with whom you feel comfortable in your body or comfortable being sexual with. As with contraception and sexual health, some of that can be about age, because age does tend to have something to do with our maturity. Not every potential partner is going to have the maturity needed for a healthy sexual relationship you feel safe in, and not every peer group is going to have the maturity to deal well with members of that group being sexually active. In both of those things, it can be more likely to be an issue with younger people than older ones, but not always. There are plenty of 40-year-olds out there, alas, who still don't have that maturity. But some partners and peer groups do, be it at 17 or 47, and you're only going to get a sense of who does and does not by getting to know them over time and through talking about, and making agreements around, these issues with them.

Know that sex doesn't tend to be something a given person is or isn't good at, in part because sex isn't something we do the same way with every partner, on every day, and during every time in our lives. We learn how to be "good" at sex through time we spend with our own sexuality, in our own bodies, and with a given partner. Over time, the sex we have will tend to have a lot of uniqueness based on all of that. We learn what to do by experimenting with each other and communicating with each other. And a whole lot of what makes a good partner aren't the kinds of things you might think. Being good at sex isn't about being able to do this thing or that with your tongue or being a contortionist. Good, open communication and listening skills, creativity and imagination, the sheer desire to really connect sexually and a willingness to make an arse of oneself often tend to be what we'll tend to find in our lives our best lovers have had.

Too, something one partner loves may leave another flat, and something that feels great to you at one time or with one partner may feel totally different with someone else or at another time. In so many ways, any time any of us has a new partner, it's kind of like the first time all over again, just because we're all so different in what we like and don't like, do and don't want to do, and what does and doesn't feel right or authentic in a given partnership. With a brand new partner, we are ALL inexperienced. A lot of people do worry about their sexual skills and performance, but when we recognize it isn't performance at all, nor is it about any one-way we can get right or wrong, but something we create and build with someone or for ourselves -- and when we have sexual experiences that make it obvious -- that worry gets relatively easy to let go of. And if that doesn't work, at some point in your life you're likely to have completely amazing sex based on something someone did on accident or which initially seemed totally silly or clumsy and that should nip that in the bud.

You say you have concerns about pain. I'm assuming you're talking about intercourse, but know that whether we're talking about that or other kinds of sex, sex doesn't have to be painful and often isn't. It's usually pleasurable, which is a big reason why most people do it. Certainly, some women (or men) do experience pain sometimes with sex, but that's usually due to injury, and like any other kind of injury, sexual injury is something we can often prevent. With first intercourse, some big reasons for pain are things like nervousness or fear, lack of enough arousal on the woman's part first, lack of enough lubrication, or sexual partners who are too hasty, rough or unattentive. Those things are mostly within your control, and one way of controlling them is holding off on intercourse until you spend time doing things like getting to know your own body and sexuality by yourself through masturbation and evaluating your feelings, having things you need like lubricants, and only choosing to do that with a partner you have found out -- through other sexual activities, through talking, through experiencing in other aspects of your relationship -- is likely to be the kind of partner who very much wants to help you to avoid pain and pursue shared, mutual pleasure.

Per the worries about parents finding out, I'm a fan of ideally choosing not to have sex until we are in a situation where the world would not come crashing down if our sexual activity was discovered by parents or anyone else. For some people, that can mean honesty with parents, communication with them, negotiations with them, to get to a place where they do have parental support in having a sex life. Obviously, that's not an option for everyone: not everyone's parents are going to be supportive about sex, whether that's about age, marital status, sexual orientation or something else. If and when a person feels like or knows that parental discovery about sex would present dangers to them or others, or a level of conflict they just don't want, my advice is to hold off on sex until that person has a level of autonomy from their parents -- such as no longer living with them and being financially dependent on them -- that doesn't make parental discovery or disapproval earth-shattering.

Hopefully, all of that information and address made you feel at least a little bit better and a lot less scared.

It sounds to me like you're feeling that because most of your friends report enjoying sex (which may or may not be accurate: self-reporting about sex tends to be very inaccurate, something sex researchers struggle with a lot in their work) and feeling ready like something is wrong with you not feeling that same way. But it's not. I also don't think you have to see your worries and fears right now as a problem you have to solve: it is totally okay not to feel ready or to want to open yourself up to certain risks, especially when it's so abstract and you aren't in a relationship -- with another person, as well as with yourself -- where you are seeing more cons than pros.

I'm concerned that you're feeling like the place that you're at means you, as compared to your friends, are immature. Having sex or being willing to have sex doesn't tell us anything about someone's maturity. By all means, how someone conducts their sex life and their sexual relationships can, but just having sex? Nah.

I used to have a pet rabbit, and he'd hump anything that moved. I loved that bunny like nobody's business, but he was not the sharpest tack in the box, and his sexual urge and desire to enact that urge did not make him Mr. Mature. It just made him a critter with a strong urge and no understanding of why he shouldn't pursue that urge (of course, there was no reason he shouldn't especially since my shoe was not going to wind up pregnant). As was the case for rabbits like Moe, so it is with people: the urge for sex and enacting that urge alone tells us squat about maturity.

In my mind, a better mark of maturity when it comes to sex is when the choices about sex a person makes are based on what that person evaluates mindfully, compassionately and strongly feels are best for them and whomever else those choices involve or may impact.

When I set your fears aside, what I hear from you is a thoughtful evaluation of how you feel and what you do and don't want right now. I hear that you know for yourself that right now is too young for you to have sex or to feel comfortable exploring your sexuality with someone else. You're choosing not to have sex right now because you know it's not in alignment with your wants and needs and not likely to feel safe for you at this time. That's maturity to me. If your friends have put the same thought into their own self-evaluations about sex and come to the conclusion that sex with a partner IS right for them, and are conducting their sex lives in a way that's in alignment with their wants and needs, and is safe for them, that's maturity, too. You and they may be making different choices, but it's not the choice you make that tells us about your or their maturity, but the way it is made and enacted.

None of us are likely to feel totally comfortable with the idea of sex in the abstract. I like having sex a lot, am clearly very comfortable with the subject of sex, and feel I'm very capable of managing it well. But I'm not going to feel that way about it with just any random person or in any random situation: I have to know that person, know that situation, and consider my readiness through that very specific lens, every single time I consider having sex.

You're not dating someone right now, so you do not have to think about any of this if you don't want to, nor feel any need to somehow get and feel ready right now. You certainly can spend more time educating yourself about the benefits and the risks, how a person can manage both, and if you do feel very uncomfortable in your own skin, do some work on your own self-esteem and body image, which is likely to benefit you whether you're sexually active or not. You can obviously also give some thought -- though it sounds like you already have -- to what kinds of things you feel like you, independently, do and don't want to deal with right now. Then, if and when you do meet someone you have feelings for, and who you do get to know, start to date, and get to a point in the relationship where one or both of you is interested in pursuing sexual activity, at that time considering all of this is bound to feel a lot better and also be something you'll probably have a lot more clarity about. You can bring any of these feelings and concerns to the table with that person at whatever point you feel is best and construct relationships which best fit what you do and do not want or feel ready for. If that means you want to date but want to choose not to have sex, you get to do that.

I want you to be able to walk away from this knowing that you aren't a problem that needs fixing, and aren't somehow unliberated because of your concerns or because sex isn't right for you right now. That's a big bunch of hooey. Anyone who might think where you are at right now means you are uptight is either a dope, projecting their own insecurities unto you, or someone who probably wants something from you that's totally about them, and not at all about you. There isn't a thing wrong with you for being in the place you're at now.

I know I've given you a lot of information already, but if you're still hungry for more, I have a few more links I think might leave you in a better place than you were at the start. I very much hope that all of this has helped you feel a lot better, both in terms of your fears, but also when it comes to your own ability to feel good about, and confident in, making sexual choices based not on friends or worries about how you will be perceived by others, but in what you think and know is best for you and in the most alignment with your own very unique -- as all of ours are -- wants, needs and goals.

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