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I grew up told sex like I just had was absolutely off-limits: what now?

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smf asks:

Hey! I'm 19, and from a very conservative background-Republic, Christian, the whole shebang. I'm a freshman at a pretty liberal college now, and I admit that I've gone the tiniest bit nuts with my newfound freedom. Before coming to college, I'd only made out with three guys - all of whom were Christian, all of whom I was dating at the time. But last weekend, I went home with a guy I didn't know, and I gave him a blow job and he fingered me. I was very adamant about NOT having sex, because I know I want that to be with someone I love.

I'm feeling pretty guilty now, though. Everyone would be so disappointed back home, because it was made clear to me that EVERYTHING is off limits till marriage. It felt great at the time, but do you think it's bad because I didn't know him at all?

Heather Corinna replies:

I'm most interested in how you feel now about this, and separate from how you think everyone else would feel. Hopefully, if you haven't identified your own feelings yet, my answer can give you some help doing that.

So, values. Here's the thing about values: they aren't universal. They also aren't just what someone else, or even a bunch of someone elses, tells us they are.

They're diverse and they're personal. We aren't born with them, and even if we're raised with them, what values and beliefs turn out to be our own are just that, our own. And ours are not more right or wrong than someone's else's, and someone else's are not more right or wrong than ours, even if they say so. Our values also need to be our own, because they need to work for us and our lives, which are both unique to us, and ideally, others need to let our values be our own, whether it turns out that ours are similar to theirs or different.

Our own ethics, beliefs and values also tend to change, evolve and shift over time, based on the unique life we live, what we experience and observe in it, what we want our lives to be, and on what the person we're always in the constant process of becoming is like, and who we want that person to be.

You're asking me if I think what you did was bad.

From my own set of values? I don't think sex that we and someone else want, sex we both feel ready to handle, sex we both give and share active consent with, is bad just because we aren't in a certain kind of relationship with them or don't know them well, or even outside the sex we engaged in with them. I also don't think sex of any kind is somehow automatically good just because it only happens within the context of one kind of relationship. In order to think either of those things, I'd have to ignore or deny that I know people engage in sex that doesn't feel good, that hurts or does harm and sex that feels good, physically and emotionally, and does no harm in all kinds of situations and contexts.

"Good" sex or what's emotionally and physically healthy, sexually and otherwise, can and does happen inside and outside of marriage, with someone who shares a religion with you and with someone who doesn't, just like "bad" sex or unhealthy things can and do happen inside or outside of marriage, and with people who share a religion and people who don't. And sex has context, a context hugely bigger than just if people are married or not, or both Christian or not, like the things I took into account: real consent, what the people involved wanted, readiness, what the emotional dynamics of a given interaction or relationship are like, and more.

But not only is what I think not all that relevant because it may or may not be what you think -- which is what's most important -- but good/bad doesn't really tell us much about if it's something you felt then and feel now was or is right for you, is or is not what you wanted or want, and do or don't feel good about. Those things, combined with making sure we're not doing any harm to anyone else for as much as we can control that, are really what we need to lead our sexual choices with to make them as best we can. And those things are both about whatever your own values (and the values of the other person) are, as well as about a whole host of other things, things that tend to be very situational, where one very strict rule about sex isn't going to be of much, if any, real use.

Value systems that are one-and-only-true-way deals are problematic in the first place, and not just when they state, express or dictate that one person or group's idea of their one-and-only-true-way is right for everyone. They get even more problematic if and when they're based on revisionist history or history people don't know was history in the first place: whether we're talking about personal history, like someone saying no sex of any kind until marriage to others when they didn't do it that way themselves, as very few people have who didn't get married when they were 13 did, or world history, like people not knowing or recognizing that in Biblical times, marriage not only wasn't a legal contract, and sex is really what actually created a marriage then in the first place (as in, two people had sex, so, basically, that made them married), marriages which usually wouldn't last more than 20 years since people didn't live even half as long as they do now. Ditto for when value systems that present themselves as orthodox are in truth highly selective, like when people say the Bible says sex outside marriage is bad, so don't do it or you're going to hell, but neglect to mention it also says slavery, rape and genocide are often acceptable and that football on Saturday or wearing cotton/polyester blends are a big no-no's, too. Like the dude in the meme that went around the internet last week who tattooed a passage from Leviticus on his arm he felt clearly forbade homosexuality though he clearly hadn't ever read Leviticus to know that it -- and very clearly -- forbids tattooing.

But the other thing that kind of framework can contribute to, as you may have experienced yourself here, is that a big, unyielding, absolute no on something doesn't prepare us very well for learning to make the kinds of nuanced choices real life presents us with, and also makes falling from grace about as easy as tripping over a rock on the sidewalk. And you know, no matter what someone's beliefs are, I think even very diverse people generally agree that when it comes to big choices in life about big things, nothing should be set up so that we don't have room to make those choices thoughtfully and intentionally.

What I suggest you try and do with this experience now is figure out how you really feel about it yourself. How you felt before, how you felt throughout -- and not just physically, but emotionally, too -- and how you feel after. And since you're obviously feeling conflicted about it, I'd give yourself some real time and space to do that -- let's say at least a few weeks -- without hooking up with anyone again soon, so that you can think about this without putting any more guilt and confusion on top of the guilt and confusion you're already juggling.

If you're having a hard time figuring your own feelings out with the potential feelings and reactions of everyone else monopolizing your head and heart, try flipping the script. Imagine everyone around you was totally neutral about this, just basically "whatever," or of the frame of mind that it's not up to them what's right or wrong for you, that's for you to figure out. Imagine that whatever conclusions you come to, you'd be supported in them. With the sense that everyone would be disappointed in you put away, what do you think? What do you feel?

You might also find that like I was talking about with context, how you feel about this particular sexual experience may not be the same about how you think you feel about every possible sexual situation remotely like it. In other words, you might feel okay about this, but not feel okay about doing what you did with that guy, at that time, in that situation with just anyone at all. (Especially since that's how most people are going to feel: someone okay with say, intercourse with a casual friend will rarely say they would be okay with intercourse with any and every casual friend in any given situation.) Don't have the idea that to figure out how you think and feel about this one experience, you have to make some kind of choice about how you feel about every other possible situation like it, or sex as a whole. You don't, and it couldn't inform that well in the first place.

Then I'd see if you can't take a little time to try and figure out, for right now, what your own sexual ethics and values might be, and how they're the same or different from what you grew up with. If you need some help doing that, this checklist and this one might come in handy. You not only really only have to do this for now, you really can only do this for now and the very near future: you don't have a crystal ball, after all. Maybe for now see if you can't write up, say, a ten point sexual manifesto for yourself: just ten basic things around sex that cover the basics of your own sexual values system as you know it so far.

It might help to know that some of why we evolve these things over time is that we really do need to have some life experiences to do them, life experiences that include experience with the things we're trying to develop or clarify ethics and values around. For example, I can certainly read a lot about friendship. I can watch movies or television shows to watch some constructed friendship dynamics, and I can observe other people's friendships in my own life to see those dynamics more directly. Other people can tel me what they think are the right or wrong ways to be friends and to construct and manage friendships. All of that input can totally tell me a lot about friendship. But really, until I start having and experiencing friendships myself, in my own life, for real, all of that is only going to get me so far. The same goes with sex and sexuality. We don't have to engage in sex of any kind to have some idea of how we feel and think about it, or even what we want about it, but we also can't totally do it in the abstract or just based on what other people say about it and how they present it.

But in order to make your own best sexual choices from here on out, you'll need to have some handle on what your own values are, and what you think is okay or isn't, not what other people do. And, like any other big part of life, how you feel now may not be -- and probably won't be -- how you always feel, so you don't have to try and figure out your values for the whole of your lifetime, since you really can't. You just need to know where you're at right now and for the near future.

By the way, it sounds like you've done some evaluation of your values already. For instance, you say you know you want to share sex with someone you love -- and I'm assuming you mean intercourse or some kind of sex besides the kinds you had with this guy. That sounds to me like you identifying, knowing and stating your own feelings and values, and that sounds like that's coming from you, not worry about what others would think. Obviously that's not "nothing until marriage," so seems like a departure from the messages you were raised with. Identifying thoughts and feelings like that one that clearly feel like yours, and clearly feel like they're only about you, can be a good route to get to figuring this other stuff out.

I do want to make sure that you know about managing your sexual health. So often, when people's upbringing about sex consists mostly or entirely of one word -- no -- their sex ed is seriously lacking. It's a big reason why we tend to see higher rates of sexually transmitted illness, unintended pregnancy, nonconsent and other unhealthy sexual issues and dynamics among people raised very conservatively.

For future reference, unprotected oral sex can present risks of sexually transmitted infections. So can manual sex without the use of gloves or handwashing, though the risks of STIs from that are smaller than those from oral sex, and the STI risks from oral sex are smaller than those presented by vaginal or anal intercourse.

If and when you're going to be engaging in those kinds of sex with new partners, if you do that unprotected, you're taking substantial risks of STIs, especially with the oral sex. So, if there's a next time, do be sure to use a barrier -- like a condom -- for oral sex. And if you don't have a partner who suggests that, or someone you're about to be sexual with refuses when you insist, do yourself and your health a favor and walk away. If you didn't use a condom this time around, then in the next few months, I'd suggest scheduling an oral STI screening, especially if you have any issues with a sore throat or aren't feeling good physically. But since most STIs, including those contracted orally, most often don't present symptoms, just getting in the habit of regular once-a-year testing based on your needs per what kinds of sex you have engaged in, is the best plan to help you protect your health, combined with safer sex. An extra bonus is that a sexual health clinic is another great place to ask any questions you have about sex or sexual health if you didn't get any or a good sexual education.

If information like that is news to you, it may also be that before you can really evaluate what choices you want to make with sex from here on out, and what you feel okay about, you might need to get some more sex education. I'll give you some links at the end of this page to get started with some of the basics here, but since you're at college, you may also have some sex ed resources for students you can use, too, like student health services, peer-based sexuality education or support and even more formal classes or lectures to give students sex education. I'd suggest you take advantage of any of that while you've got it: it's all great stuff to have within easy, free reach.

You might also be able to connect yourself with help dealing with feelings of guilt, and also even in evaluating and getting support with your own values and figuring them out. Colleges often offer counseling, and some student groups might make great support groups for you, too. Don't forget that you can be sure you are not the only student finding yourself in this spot. Transitioning from childhood to adulthood -- something that tends to happen fairly suddenly for some folks, rather than more gradually -- involves taking what you learned growing up, where you were, and as a child, and engaging in a process of figuring out what of that you want to keep, what you want to adapt, and what you want to ditch. It can be a confusing, challenging process, and most people in college are going through it. There might be student groups you can lean on, formed more formally or more informally, to help with the specific issues you're having, like coming from a conservative environment and finding yourself in a liberal one.

I want to posit a general sexual ethos that is fairly universal, and can be applied to near any larger set of values. That's this (good/bad isn't a framework I'm a fan of, but I'm using those terms since they seem to be what you want): "bad" around sexual actions can be when we or anyone else does something they either know or suspect will be hurtful to them or someone else, or where they haven't even thought about themselves or anyone else to consider is a given choice or action could do someone hurt or harm. "Bad" can also be sexual actions we do with malice or disregard for ourselves or others. "Good" can be those sexual actions or choices we know or strongly suspect will be beneficial for us and any other involved, and where we have given thought and care to if a given sexual choice or action will be a healthy, happy thing for us and anyone else involved or not. "Good" can be sexual actions we do with care and kindness and high regard for ourselves and others.

You don't have to be on board with those things I laid out up there that can be good or bad when it comes to sex, any more than you do with whatever messages you were raised with. I put that out there to give you some food for thought, some basic places to start that are pretty easy for a lot of people to get on board with. I do, however, think that for any of us trying to identify our own sexual values, viewing sexual choices and actions through a really basic lens of kindness, care, health and real regard for ourselves and others we may be sexual with -- and something fun and that feels physically good can absolutely involve all of those things -- is a good starting point.

I also think a good starting point is your gut feeling about how you felt choosing to do this and while doing this. If you felt great about making that choice, and great while exploring that choice, it may very well be that the only feeling-bad part of this experience was how someone else would feel about it who wasn't one of the people involved in this. And it's those people's feelings -- your feelings, the guy your were with, his feelings -- that should really be put first here.

Lastly, I want to put in a vote that in the event you come to the conclusion that this kind of sexual scenario is not actually what you want moving forward, and isn't something you yourself actually feel good about that you do NOT lob extra guilt on yourself. Like I said earlier, we can't learn or figure everything out in our lives in the abstract: we learn a lot about ourselves and about life by living it. That can include either making mistakes, or doing things that were right for us at the time, but which in hindsight, we don't feel so okay about, or which don't feel right again. You choosing to engage in the kind of sexual interaction you did doesn't mean you're spoiled, sullied or that you have to keep having that kind of sex if it isn't what you turn out to really want because you don't have the option to turn back time and undo that experience. You, like everyone else -- including most, if not all, of the folks you think would be so disappointed in you -- get to learn as you go, get to feel things out to find out, get to change your mind and your choices any time you want.

Here are those links I said I'd leave you with, and I hope they and what I've said here gives you a start with what's obviously a whole lot to start sorting out. I wish you the very, very best, and I hope you can come up with a framework for your sexuality and sexual life you can feel good about and make some peace with all of this.

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