I'm a lesbian with conflicting feelings about only wanting to have sex with one person, the person I marry.

Lily
asks:
I recently came out a lesbian. I have known I was a lesbian for a very long time. I'm not like most teenagers. I really just want to settle down and get married. However, I know I must go through a few long term relationships in order to do that. But, I only want to have sex with one person, my committed, married partner. The thought of having sex with more than one person over my lifetime kind of stresses me out. I want to get married and in order for me to do this, I need to have more than one relationship, but I only want to have sex with one person? I just need some advice.
Hannah Boning replies:

It sounds like you’ve put a lot of thought into what you want from a romantic and sexual relationship, and that’s great! It’s always good to spend some time figuring out what you want and need before you start a relationship. By knowing yourself and your boundaries, you’ve got a solid foundation for any relationship you enter and you’ll be able to articulate those boundaries to your partner.

But the fact that you’re writing for advice makes me wonder if you’re not so sure after all, and it sounds like you have some anxiety around the thought of having sex — or not having sex, as it were.

First, let me say: it’s totally okay to not have or want sex, right now or ever. It might feel like there’s a cultural expectation that as a teenager, you should be having or wanting sex. We’re surrounded by ideas and expectations about what sex, sexuality, desires, and relationships should look like. This makes it hard to know what you actually feel or believe or want, and the societal notions of what is “normal” can make you wonder if you’re somehow wrong or not normal if your desires are outside the standard script.

The good news is: there is no normal. If you don’t want to have sex right now, if you want to wait until you’re in a committed relationship, that’s okay! You get to make your own decisions about your body, and I’m glad that you’re already taking charge of those decisions.

However, there’s a few questions I would ask that might be helpful when you’re thinking through your desires and boundaries.

First, I’m curious about why you only want to have sex with one person. You also said that you expect to go through a few long-term relationships before you find someone you want to marry. That’s entirely possible — it’s also entirely possible that the first person you date could be your person. There are lots of cultural expectations around relationships, and one of those is the idea that you shouldn’t marry the first person you date. Sometimes that’s viewed as “settling,” or people will say that you can’t know what you want if you’ve only dated one person, but there’s no “normal” when it comes to relationships. You might have multiple long-term relationships before you decide to get married, or you might meet someone, enter a relationship, and realize this the person you want to marry. Relationships are unpredictable and might surprise you. Mostly, what I’m trying to say is this: don’t discount a relationship just because it’s your first relationship. I don’t want you to miss out on something wonderful because you’re convinced it couldn’t possibly work out.

If having sex with one person is what you truly want, there’s nothing wrong with that! But it might be worth it to examine why you want this.

Did you grow up with purity culture or abstinence-only education, which told you the only acceptable way to have sex was within marriage? If you grew up in a religious environment, it’s possible you were told having sex before marriage was sinful or immoral. Often those environments view anything other than heterosexuality as extra sinful, which makes it even harder to un-learn these ideas. It sounds like you’re fairly confident in your sexuality, which is great! Abstinence-only education doesn’t always use the language of sin, but still teaches that there are right ways to have sex (within a monogamous, married relationship) and wrong ways to have sex (anything other than a monogamous, married relationship).

If you don’t want to have sex because you were taught that sex was wrong outside of marriage, let me just tell you it’s okay to have sex. It’s okay and common to have sexual desires. Maybe you know this already, and maybe you don’t believe that having sex with someone you’re not married to is wrong, but sometimes these ideas about purity and abstinence live in our bodies long after we’ve dug them out of our brains. If that’s the case, be gentle with yourself. You don’t have to rush into having sex before you’re ready just to prove that you can. But you also don’t have to wait until marriage because you’re scared of doing something wrong, because as long as everyone is consenting and feels safe, you’re not doing anything wrong.

Do you not want to have sex because you’re worried about STIs? Sometimes sex education can focus more on the possibility of STIs, and less on how to have safer sex, especially if you’re queer. If you’re avoiding sex out of fear, I’d encourage you to educate yourself about safer sex. Scarleteen has tons of great resources on safer sex, like this article on barriers and this article specifically about lesbian safer sex. It’s important to be smart about your sexual activity, get tested, use protection, and discuss safer sex with your partners — but if you want to have sex, don’t let fears about STIs get in the way.

You also mention that the idea of having sex with more than one person over your lifetime stresses you out. What exactly is stressful about that thought? Again, is it purity culture, or fear about STIs? Are you nervous about sex in general and unsure about what to do or if you’ll enjoy sex? Are you nervous that you won’t be good at sex?

It might not be any of those reasons — but if it is, just know that you can take steps to ease your anxiety. You can read up on the how-tos of sex, anatomy, and pleasure. I hope you’re taking time to explore your own body through masturbation and learning about what gives you pleasure. However, no matter how much research you’ve done, you still might be nervous. That’s normal! Bodies are weird and sometimes sex is awkward or weird or fumbly, and that’s totally okay. You and your partner should have a conversation about desires and boundaries (might I suggest the Yes, No, Maybe checklist?) and you can tell your partner what you are nervous about and why. Your partner should be willing to have this conversation, take your concerns seriously, and not pressure you to do anything if you’re not ready.

If a partner isn’t willing to respect your boundaries, however, that’s not a person you want to be in relationship with. You mention that you realize you might have to be in a few relationships before you’re ready to commit to someone, and if anyone doesn’t respect your decision to save sex and pressures you — run. That’s not a healthy relationship, and that’s not the kind of person you want to marry.

If you’re certain you want to wait for a committed relationship to have sex and you know that’s a choice you’re making for yourself, not because of outside expectations or fear, good for you! You know who you are and what you want. Don’t be afraid to articulate that to partners. It can be hard to stick to your boundaries when it feels like society has different expectations, but I’m proud of you for doing the work to know what you want and standing up for it.

Once you find a relationship, how will you talk to your partner about this? Are you hoping to be someone else’s only sexual partner, too? It’s possible you find your person, you get married, you each only have sex with each other. If your partner has been sexually active, however, are you okay with that? Will you be able to support and affirm their sexual choices without making them feel guilty? Are you expecting your partner to be able to completely satisfy you? What if you find a partner, fall in love, start having sex, and then realize you’re not sexually compatible? Will you feel like a failure if you waited so long before having sex, and then it didn’t work out? Because that happens all the time — relationships shift, and maybe what you thought was right wasn’t right, or it was right for a season and now it’s time to move on. I wouldn’t want you to come out of a relationship in which you had been sexually active feeling like you let yourself down by not living out this dream of having one sexual partner. You are not a failure if a relationship doesn’t work out, whether you got married or not, were sexually active or not, were together for years or months — a relationship ending doesn’t make you any less deserving of healthy and fulfilling intimacy.

One last piece of advice: be open to the possibility that your desires might change. If you start dating and decide you still want to wait on having sex, that’s fine. If you start dating and realize you’re in a safe and supportive relationship and you decide you want to have sex, that’s fine too. Sexuality and sexual desire are fluid, and what you want might change over time. Check in with yourself. Go through Scarleteen’s Sexual Readiness Checklist. Listen to your body. You’re clearly putting a lot of thought into your needs and wants, so I’m confident that you’ll be in touch with your desires as they may shift and change. Most importantly, remember: sex positivity is about supporting everyone in the sexual choices they make for themselves. Whether that’s being sexually active or not, I’m proud of you for taking ownership of your body and setting your own boundaries.

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