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I want to save sex for later in relationships, but I can't do that... can I?

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Miss Anonymous asks:

I am worried about sex, and I don't think its normal at my age (24) but I don't know what to do about it. I was raised in a really strict family and so I didn't lose my virginity til I was 21 which was really way later than everyone else, even my younger sister. I wasn't really ready but I was sort of curious and I did it to please my boyfriend and lots of other reasons. We dated for about a year and I had sex with two more guys after I split up with him but mainly from feeling like I should to fit in. I haven't had a serious boyfriend in ages now, and I'm afraid to have another relationship cos I think it will surely involve sex. I know in theory you can say no, but hey, what guy is going to stick around with me when he can get it from any other girl on the street? It doesn't seem realistic. When I think about sex I just get scared, cos I feel like I don't know at all what to do, and its not like I was even an adventurous teenager so I can't give head or anything either. I really don't know how to do anything except kiss. But I'm sure most guys are expecting way more than that! I don't want to become a slut just to learn but I can't claim to be a virgin any more so I don't know what to do. In my ideal world I'd like to be with a guy for at least a year before sleeping together, maybe wait til marriage, but I am scared to even admit that's what I want cos I know its not normal. Please help! I'm worried that being so messed up about this will mean no decent guy will want to be with me.

Heather Corinna replies:

A lot of people are worried, anxious or nervous about sex, whether they are 15, 24 or 44. It's not just you, really.

Given how many people in the world have conflicting feelings about sex and sexuality, I'd disagree that the concerns you're having are not normal at your age or any other. You say a couple times that you know how you feel isn't normal. Looks like it's time to question what you feel you know, because from my side of the fence, in working with a wide range of people around sexuality for a long time now, I would disagree with you. I have seen and heard what you are voicing before, far more than once, and don't think there is anything abnormal about it. The range of wants and needs, personal ethics and values, and comfort and discomfort with sex and sexuality is vast among all of us.

How we each feel about sex is influenced by an awful lot of different things. Some of our feelings come from childhood and our teen years, and how sex and sexuality was treated in our families, in terms of what was said to us as well as what wasn't said: we get a lot of messages about sexuality from our upbringing which are covert or subtle, but influential all the same. We also get loads of messages about sex from our peers, our communities and our culture. You use the word "slut," which tells me that somewhere you picked up the (very common) idea that some kinds of sex, frequency of sex, or number of sexual partners is a bad thing, and that the way someone has sex, or the motivations someone has to have sex, say something about a person's value. Ideas like that are going to impact how you think about sex and yourself in relationship to your sexuality.

We also have feelings about sex and sexuality based on what our sexual experiences -- by ourselves and/or with partners -- have been, and what our sexual relationships have been like. I hear you voicing that your sexual relationships, and your sexual experiences within them, have not been particularly positive. You voice feeling like you have only had sexual partnership out of feelings of obligation or a need to fit in or keep someone around: those are not positives.

By all means, as time goes by, as any of us have more experiences with sex or more sexual partners, we will learn some things about sex, and will tend to become more comfortable with sexual partnership, when we do feel like we know what we're doing, and also when we don't.

However, every single time we have a new partner, in so many ways, it's everyone's first time. In other words, if we're doing it right and really treating every partner as a whole person, a unique person, we're all learning sex anew with that new partner, and we're all at least somewhat clueless. Everyone does not like all the same things, or finds that one way of doing an activity is how that activity feels best for them. Too, our sexual dynamics tend to differ from relationship to relationship, so something we didn't like with one partner may be something we love with another; something that felt good this way with that partner may not feel so great with this one. So, when you're with a new partner, you're not the only one who doesn't know what to do, even if your partner (or you) thinks they do. What they, or you, know, is what has worked for partners before. You or they will learn what you two, uniquely, like, just over time through experimenting together.

By all means, the awkwardness, the unfamiliarity, of new sexual partnership can be daunting -- for either or both partners -- but how daunting it is or is not tends to have a lot to do with who we are with, how we feel about them and how they feel about us, what our dynamics are in that relationship, and if we're entering into sexual partnership when it really does feel both right and like something we want, not just because someone else wants it or because it seems like something we "should" be doing based on someone else's standards. It can also feel all the more daunting if we have the idea that sex isn't always about experimenting, trying things out, fumbling plenty of times, relearning every time, but is about somehow being an expert with sexual activities, about doing things "right," in some kind of static way that magically works for everyone, despite the fact that we're all so different.

What I hear you saying is that you've yet to be in a situation or relationship where sex has really felt like the right thing for you, or like something you wanted and took part in on your own terms. You're hardly the only young woman at your age who feels that way at this point in your life: I've even heard women twenty years, forty years, older than you voice feeling that way before.

You talk about what would be ideal for you as dating someone for at least a year before you're sexual together, or perhaps saving sex until after a marriage. You get not only to have that ideal, you also get to choose to live that ideal if that is what you want to do and what feels best for you. Is that ideal going to work for every potential partner? Nope, just like someone else's ideal of having sex before then isn't working for you. But that's okay: it tends to take anyone some trial-and-error to find partnerships that fit them best, and the world won't end if, in dating, you like someone but you two aren't a good fit in that department.

There are other women who share your ideals and there are other men who share them, too. I'd encourage you not to think of men as a group of people who all think and act the same, because they're not. While some men would want sexual activity before then, others want what you want. Men, like women, vary.

I also want to address some of your statements, and let you know what I hear in them. You voice concerns about why a guy would stick around without sex when he could "get it from any other girl on the street." That seems to presume that other women besides you don't have their own sets of wants and needs which are just as important and valid as yours, and that there are all these women hanging around just to put out for some guy you won't put out for. Absolutely, some women are not only okay with more casual sex, or sex earlier in a relationship, but want casual sex or sex earlier in a relationship. (And they're not in competition with you, for the record: their wants and needs are just different from yours.) But there are also some who don't want that, and want other things, other scenarios. That statement also suggests that sex is nothing more than this thing men get or don't get, rather than something any two (or more) people create together, experience together, express themselves through together, and have as part of some kind of relationship. It seems to suggest, too, that you think men, as a whole, don't see relationships as about more than sex, or see sex as about more than just getting off. Do some men feel that way? Sure. Do all men feel that way? Nope.

And you can say no, or not yet, or that you want to do this thing now, but save that one for later, or that you want to do something, but need more time first in more than just theory: you can, realistically, say that in practice, too. If you haven't ever done that, it may feel unrealistic now, but I assure you that you can, and that doing that does not mean every guy you say that to will simply go find someone who will say yes immediately. To be clear, you have the right to only have sex when you want to and on whatever your own terms are: we all have that right.

Someone who is in a relationship with you which is about more than sex alone, someone who cares for you and has respect for you, someone who wants to be IN relationship with you, based on who you are as a whole person, someone who has some maturity and heart can handle a no to something they ideally may have wanted (if, in fact, that is what they wanted). A person like that, who feels strongly for you, who doesn't want to date a doormat in the first place, is not just going to run out on you because they can't get laid when they want to. But in order to find that out, you do have to go ahead and say no when no is what you're feeling and give them a chance to respond like adults.

For any of us, we are much more likely to find what we want with partners when we are clear about what we want with partners. You say you're afraid to voice your wants and needs, and I'd encourage you to try and get past that. You voiced them here, which is a good first step, now it's time to voice them to people you are dating or interested in dating. Until you CAN say what you want to those people, you are, indeed, going to be unlikely to find it and get it. Once you can start clearly and confidently voicing your ideals and your wants, the chances of you having your needs met in this way will increase exponentially. It might be a good idea to think about how, exactly, you'd even find the kinds of guys who share similar wants and needs as you -- and they are out there -- if you aren't voicing them.

As well, it is up to you as much as anyone else if your relationships do or do not involve sex, or sex at any given point. You say you're afraid to pursue relationships because they "will surely involve sex." For sure, if you are entering what's understood to be a sexual relationship, then that, understandably, will probably involve an expectation of sex. But you get to construct your relationships how you like, which can absolutely include things like making clear before or during initial dates that you're not interested in a sexual relationship right away. Might that mean some dates who DO want that will opt out? yes, but since you don't want that right now, that shouldn't be a problem: think of it as a screening process, where you are screening out those who won't be a good fit for your wants and needs, and a screening IN process for those who may feel exactly the same way as you. Again, if you don't own and voice what you do and don't want, you can't expect to find it.

No part of what you have written here feels "messed up" to me, save that I do think you'd be benefitted by adjusting some of the ideas you're expressing about what you feel all men are like, and what it seems you presume the dynamics of sex and sexual relationships must be like. I think it'd be a good idea to examine how you're thinking about yourself and others, to put some more stock in yourself and what you want as valuable and absolutely normal, and to throw away any ideas you have that there's anything wrong with what you want, or that what you want is unattainable, because it's not.

I think if you can become more confident and assertive with your values, your wants, your needs, you're going to start discovering that you start to meet more people who value and respect them -- even if theirs differ -- start to find some of the ways you think about men, women and sex evolve, and that you're going to feel a whole lot less worried and uncomfortable about all of this. And I think that if you can put more value in yourself and your own values, no matter what they are, you are going to be far more likely to find relationships of real quality that feel good for you, all around, whether or not sex is a part of them.

Here are some more links I think will help you out:

written 08 Apr 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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