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Heather Corinna replies:
I'm only 14 and a freshmen and I've only been dating my boyfriend for about two weeks and we have been moving pretty quickly. We have been friends for a really long time and I really like and trust him but I feel like we are moving too quickly. He has already fingered me and I've given him a handjob, and he's been talking about sex. I think I am way too young and I definitely dont feel ready but when we're doing things and I'm really turned on I sometimes actually want to have sex. I am really curious what actual sex is like, and I want to try it. But I know in the long run I will regret it. How do I stop myself from doing something solely based off of my hormones? How do I explain to my boyfriend that I dont want to have sex?
The good news is our hormones don't control us. They can't override what choices we actually want to make, including when we're in our teens.
I know, that might stand counter to a lot of what you hear about
Super-powered chemicals that aspire to, if not world domination, command of every feeling you have and every decision you might make that has anything to do with feelings or your genitals. But the truth is, that idea is a combination of wild hyperbole, oversimplified science, anti-youth bias and the media knowing what makes readers come a-runnin' to buy papers and magazines. And of course, not everyone keeps up with the -- relatively new, especially when you bear in mind the term "teenager" wasn't even invented until almost 1950! -- science of adolescent development or reads academic papers and journals to find this information instead of popular media.
The levels of what we call "sex hormones" or sex steroids -- androgens, estrogens and progestogens, chemicals everyone has in their bodies -- are increasing during adolescence; to the general level they'll be at for around the next 20 years of your adult life, so, this isn't just about teenagers. But not only are they hardly the only chemicals in your body that can have an impact on how you feel, including around sex and sexuality, they don't have superpowers. Sex hormones also have a lot more to do with what your body looks like, and how it changes as you go through your teen and early adult years, than they have to do with what you feel like emotionally; and, on the whole, they typically have little to do with decision-making. Your brain does that, and our brains can still function just fine despite the presence of sex hormones in our bodies.
Hormones can't make us do things we don't want to do, or keep us from doing what we want to do. Same goes with being aroused: when we feel sexually excited, it certainly can fog our brains a little bit, and sometimes it can feel downright overwhelming; yet, as strong as those feelings can feel, they still can't and don't take us hostage.
If you're curious, here are a few pieces that talk about hormones and adolescent development soundly, and which reference recent current science and study:
Things like wanting to be close to someone sexually, and being curious about sex or some kinds of sex aren't just about sex hormones or neurochemicals. Having trouble making choices around these things when you're in your teens usually has something to do with where you're at in your development, though that's usually more about brain development and changes than about sex hormones. And having issues making these choices, learning how to work all of this out is also something that's just about...well, making these choices, how it can be tricky at any age, and how it's always all the more tricky when we're just starting to learn how to make them. This is something new for you in your life -- same might go for your boyfriend -- and like anything we just start experiencing, processing and learning, it's always tougher before we've had any or much practice. This wouldn't be much easier for someone who was starting their dating or sexual life at 40.
Just like learning to drive a car for the first time is tough no matter how young or old we are, the same goes for learning how to make sexual choices and manage sexual relationships.
Another thing I think it helps to know is that there's either no such thing as "actual sex" at all, or all the kinds of sex we can engage in are "actual sex." In other words, something like fingering is a kind of sex, which is why we call it manual sex. Oral sex? Same deal. I suspect you're talking about sexual intercourse, when you say actual sex, which is just another kind of sex. There's nothing that makes that kind of sex more real or actual than any other, save that, in our unique experiences, we can find that one time we have any kind of sex feels more important, or that it has more meaning to us, while another time -- maybe with a different kind of sex, and sometimes even with the same kind -- it might feel less meaningful or valuable, or less like a big expression of our sexuality or sexual feelings. Our sexual experiences tend to vary more because of a whole bunch of other factors than because of what we're physically doing with our body parts.
The only real differences between various kinds of sex that aren't situational -- differences that aren't about the unique experiences we have with any of them as unique people, and the unique ways we might think of them -- are a) the health or other risks they do or don't involve, and b) the social meanings or values that may or may not be attached to them. For example, in most cultures, sex that men and women explore together is often framed as more "real" than sex people of the same sex or gender engage in together; socially, in many circles, more meaning or weight is often affixed to intercourse than other kinds of sex. While those health risks don't tend to change -- for instance, vaginal intercourse has always posed a risk of pregnancy, and oral sex and vaginal or anal intercourse have always been ways syphilis can be transmitted -- those social or cultural weights, values or meanings aren't always the same, and haven't always been in most places.
However the kinds of sex you're already exploring have been feeling, other kinds of sex will tend to just be variations on a theme, rather than something radically different. Sure, just like, say, jogging and walking can feel different, so can different ways of being sexual with our genitals, but the biggest difference between, say, intercourse and manual sex is that intercourse poses risks, some huge, that you haven't been taking yet, and intercourse is probably more emotionally and socially loaded for you if you live in the same world most of us do where it's given much more weight than other kinds of sex. Realistically, it's much more likely that having a kind of sex like intercourse now this early in your life and a relationship, will offer you more stresses and downsides than happies or benefits.
When we're making these decisions about kinds of sex we haven't experienced, it can also be really easy to think that if one kind of sex with someone isn't that interesting, or doesn't feel that satisfying, another kind will. Sometimes, that's true, but on the whole, especially with vaginal intercourse as the person with a vagina, if other kinds of sex aren't awesome for you, that kind is not at all likely to be.
If something like fingering or handjobs feels too fast now and too loaded, then a kind of sex which poses risks of pregnancy, and much bigger other health risks is probably going to feel WAY too fast and much tougher to manage emotionally and socially. If you and your boyfriend aren't even talking about all of this yet, you also probably haven't even gotten started developing the kind of sexual communication together that's a huge part of any kind of sex feeling really great, physically or emotionally, rather than feeling so-so. For someone in their early teens who's just starting to explore dating and sexuality -- who may not even have explored it very much all by themselves yet before having a partner in the mix -- many kinds of sex, especially intercourse are most often too much too soon. For someone writing a letter like you are here, feeling like you are? We know it is: you're clear it's too fast for you.
I hear you expressing a clear sense of what's right for you right now and what isn't. I hear you doing an awesome job of articulating what kind of pace you don't want, I hear a lot of emotional maturity, and I hear how what's going on right now isn't working for you and doesn't feel like something you feel ready to manage.
We have a whole big article on slowing things down when they're moving too fast that I think is just the thing for you: Whoa, There! How to Slow Down When You're Moving Too Fast. I won't write reruns of most of what's in there here, so do be sure and check that out. It includes lots of helps for doing exactly what you're saying you want and need to do.
The very first thing that piece suggests is that you speak up to whoever you're with where things are moving too fast. The very first thing I'd suggest you do is just that: that you say all of what you have said here to your boyfriend, just the way you said it here, and pronto. When things are moving too fast this early into a relationship, as it sounds like you know, they can snowball very easily and quickly. This isn't a conversation you can put off a minute longer if you want to have things start going at a pace you can handle.
One of the biggest parts of being ready for a sexual or potentially sexual relationship, and being with someone where we can have that kind of relationship in a healthy way, is being able to really talk about sex. If your boyfriend can't handle a conversation like this, or you asking to slow things down, or to have certain kinds of sex just be a total no-go right now, then it'd be clear you're not the only one here who is moving into things too fast. In order for us to be really ready to have any kind of sex with someone else, we have to be ready to handle someone saying no, slow down, or not yet. Same goes with if you feel really scared or unable to even say any of this to him: that makes clear you're nowhere close to a place where moving sex forward, or even continuing with the kinds of sex or physical affection you've been exploring so far are likely to be right for you.
As we say around here, if we can't even talk about a thing, we probably shouldn't be doing a thing. And talking about sex is often a lot more complicated and challenging than "I want a handjob," "You're so sexy," "I want you," or "Let's have sex."
One other thing a lot of us don't or didn't know as young people is that throughout life, there are going to be times we feel sexually excited and want to be sexual with someone else, but those wants and feelings alone don't mean we're at go. Not feeling ready or there yet at any given time isn't just something that's about young people, and isn't something that only people of a certain age experience and need to manage. Just because someone, for instance, is at an age where they feel okay about maybe becoming pregnant, or someone gets married doesn't mean they always say yes to sex or want to have sex at a given time because of being in those places or situations, or because they feel sexual desire that's reciprocated.
Feeling sexual desire and having the opportunity to express it with someone are only two very basic pieces of making our decisions about sex at any given time, at any time of life: they're the basement, not the top floor.
People of any age, for instance, can feel strong sexual desire and have the opportunity to express it, but also not want to take any risk of pregnancy, or want to be dating for a while before getting sexual; can want to honor agreements they have made to themselves or current partners; can feel sick, or tired, or too distracted to give sex or a partner the kind of attention they want to; may have a relationship conflict that's getting in the way they want to work through first, or feel like the timing with someone just isn't right, just to name a few things that can be other parts of our sexual choices, or be why we say no when we'd like to say yes.
In other words, you might have gotten the message that having sexual desires but nixing sex or some kinds of sex for now is only about your age. Some of your reasons now might be about your age or where you're at in life: it sounds like they are. But they also might be about things people of any age share at any time. I think knowing that can make you feel like a lot less of a heel than some folks feel when they just feel too young. If you think nixing things you don't want, or wanting to wait for things until the timing is better and you feel better about it, and anyone has given you the message that's about immaturity, know the opposite is probably true. It takes maturity to look at the big picture when making tough choices, and maturity to say no to things we really want in some ways and know someone else does too.
I say start with saying what you've written down right here. If it feels scary to speak up, and you worry about saying just the perfect thing so much it's keeping you silent, I'd just push yourself to blurt it all out, even if, at first, it comes out in a way that sounds more clumsy than you'd like.
I think that everything you've said would be great to say to him. After you share that, you can make more clear what you do and don't feel ready for right now, and what kind of pace you do want, very specifically. In other words, if you do feel okay, for now, about the manual sex, then you can say that's okay but
What your boyfriend is probably doing so far, if you haven't spoken up yet, is going with what a lot of guys are culturally taught to do with sex, especially with girls who don't speak up or who don't initiate sexual activities themselves. That's to just do sexual things with their hands and bodies, without asking first, or without asking first and only moving forward if they get a very clear "Yes! I so want to do this with you," and just see if a girl pushes them away or not when they try this stuff. Hopefully I don't have to tell you that that's a crummy setup for both of you when it comes to truly connecting well, to having a healthy relationship and engaging in physical affection or sex you both can feel very good about and comfortable with. Hopefully, you can also see that starting to have real talks about all of this doesn't just benefit you here, and isn't just about you: silence around this isn't a good thing for him, either.
You can even set a limit that until the two of you have had a few of those big talks -- and I'm talking talks that go on for hours, not minutes -- that ANY kind of sex needs to be off the table, and not asked for by either of you. I think you'd both do best to press pause on sex of any kind while you get all of these feelings and thoughts out there and start sorting through them together.
When you two start talking about this, something else you might want to talk about is what kind of relationship you each wants right now, and what being a boyfriend and a girlfriend means to each of you. For example, for one of you, that might have a lot to do with sex and a sexual relationship, but the other of you may feel differently, and have different wants, priorities and expectations. Touching base on what each of you want and expect out of the agreement you've made to be boyfriend/girlfriend, and what that agreement even means or involves at this point, matters a lot. If and when both people feel like they're guessing about this stuff, or assume the other person feels and thinks the same way they do about that, it can be easy for that lack of communication to result in parts of the relationship moving faster than one person would like, especially if everyone is staying silent.
Something else that can often be a barrier to making sexual choices well is making them in secrecy, or without some kind of help, advice and support from someone who has had some measure of life experience, and who you know cares about you but isn't a sexual partner. For instance, if you're not talking about any of this with a parent or guardian, someone else's parent or guardian, an older sibling, aunt or uncle, a trusted counselor or mentor, it's a lot easier to muck it up and feel pretty freaked and alone. When things are new to us, we usually need some help navigating them, and ideally, some of that help should be coming from someone a lot more objective than we are and with more experience than we've got. The younger someone is when they start being sexually active in some way or start thinking about it, the more likely they tend to be not to tell anyone -- especially an adult -- about it. I think that's one of the big factors at play when it comes to what we know about the often-negative outcomes of sexual relationships in the very early teens that involve some pretty advanced stuff, like intercourse, versus the often-more-positive outcomes from those same kinds of sex or relationships even just a few years later.
I'd strongly encourage you to find at least one trusted and trustworthy older person to talk to about this in your life. I know that telling that person, especially a parent, and asking them can be intimidating, even scary, and I also know that you might worry that if you tell certain people, that means restrictions might be put on you and your boyfriend you don't want. But in my experience, doing all of this in secrecy is much more likely to make an early sexual relationship a negative than talking to someone is. And hey, let's be honest: even if a parent suggested you and your boyfriend go without unsupervised time for a while, it doesn't sound like that would be a bad thing for you. It sounds like that might help support you in more of the kind of pace you'd feel comfortable with.
Hopefully, all of this has given you some places to start, and do be sure to check out that article. I'll give you some more links I think will help with these conversations, in creating a pace that really does feel right, and in knowing what to talk about to figure all that out and work it through, but I have every confidence you're going to ace this. So, on top of bringing all of this information and advice to the table, I'd also suggest that you bring that kind of confidence in yourself, too.