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Putting the brakes on sex: How do I slow things down?

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sofi52108 asks:

I have been dating my boyfriend for over a year now and I have been very sexually active with him but now I want to slow things down and wait until I'm ready for marriage. I want to start everything over and just be a normal teenager. He doesn't seem to have any problems with this and I talked to him about it already, but I feel like there are problems. Our relationship is actually getting better but now he is more horny around me all the time and it tempts me but I don't want to give in. I want to have sex too even more now that I told myself I can't. Are there any methods I can use to calm myself from sex or just things I can say to my boyfriend to tell him to realize I'm not comfortable with him being horny and it really bothers me?

CJ replies:

The first thing I want to mention here is that I’m not sure there is such a thing as “a normal teenager”! Seriously, each individual is different, with different needs and desires, and so there is no one way to be in the world. The best we can do is make decisions that are well-informed and that feel good (emotionally, intellectually, physically, and even spiritually) to us, and to communicate openly and honestly with the significant others in our lives. I think that a lot of time we receive messages—both subtle and in-our-faces—about choices that other people think we should be making, but we ultimately have both the power and responsibility to think about our own situations and make the best choices for ourselves. Your decision about whether or not to engage in any type of sexual activity does not put you into a category of either “normal” or “abnormal”. That said, it is pretty common for teens to have a lot of questions about sex and sexuality, and how they want to use and express that sexuality. There is certainly no one “right” choice, but let’s talk a little bit more about your question and situation and see if this can help you work through this situation with your boyfriend.

Our decision about whether or not to have any given kind of sex, or engage in any kind of sexual activity, is usually not based on a single factor. We often point people to the Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist to give them an additional tool to think through their decision and make sure that regardless or what feels comfortable or not, people have information to evaluate the challenges and rewards of whatever choices they make. I am not sure how your decision process went when you initially decided that you wanted to be sexual with your boyfriend, or what changed for you, but of course it is perfectly within your rights at any time to decide what you are comfortable doing, both sexually and within your relationship more broadly. You might be able to use the Readiness Checklist as a talking tool with your boyfriend; you could go over it with him to help him understand the reasoning behind your decision to hold off on sexual activities at this point in your relationship.

Sometimes I think that we expect a lot of mind reading in relationships, which is neither realistic nor fair. Particularly around sex, at times it seems we want to believe that everything happening is all spontaneous and magical and we just know what our partner is thinking or wants. I’ve found that it can be really helpful to put a little bit (or a lot) more information out on the table, which sometimes represents a change from how communication in relationships has previously gone. Perhaps you didn’t have a ton of conversation about the decision to be sexual in the first place. It may have seemed or felt ok at the time, but if you didn’t talk about logistics or any of the feelings there it might feel challenging to talk about them now, when something has changed for you. It’s important that your boyfriend be able to understand your reasons for wanting to abstain right now, and it’s also important that you be able to hear his thoughts on the subject. Then the two of you can decide what this means for your relationship and how you want to move ahead from here.

I am not sure what kind of understanding he has about your decision. You didn’t give a lot of detail here so I could be completely off base, but it’s possible that he left that conversation feeling like he did something wrong that made you change your mind about wanting to have sex with him. Even if it’s not about him in the least—and it sounds like this was a very personal decision for you—it’s understandable that a partner might feel some kind of way if they think that they did something wrong or bad or hurtful that made their partner feel differently about sex. To be very clear, though, that in no way gives your boyfriend a right to pressure you into having sex when you don’t want to. It is just something to keep in mind as you try to find the best way to communicate with him about your desires and limits at this time.

What are your hopes for your relationship? You mentioned that things are “getting better” now that you are not having sex and so I find myself wondering what you’re hoping might change if sex is taken out of the picture? I think that you actually have a great opportunity in front of you to take some time to have these conversations with your boyfriend and be really clear about what you hope for, what concerns you, and how you are envisioning your relationship with him. It’s an equally wonderful opportunity for him to share his own hopes, concerns, and vision.

One big thing to keep in mind, though, is that there is a difference between feelings and actions. Your boyfriend’s feeling hornier, perhaps even more aroused and desiring than he was prior to your request to stop sex for now, may not be something he can control. Just as you’re being faced with these feelings when they don’t feel convenient, he may be at a point and in a place where he feels sexual and even with good intentions he can’t seem to remedy that. That may be a reality of feelings, but there is a lot of choice about what actions can be taken in light of the feelings. If it’s his feeling horny that is upsetting to you, that is likely a bigger challenge that if his actions that express his feelings are upsetting to you.

I’m not sure how his horniness manifests to you, or to what degree you’re experiencing distress about it. Perhaps you two could talk about how to handle those situations so they don’t feel so uncomfortable for you. Understanding that we are all sexual creatures (he is, you are, we all are regardless of whether we choose to have sex or be sexual with a partner), you two could discuss how to handle situations where one or both of you is feeling aroused if you do not want that situation to end with sexual activity between the two of you. One solution could be masturbation. If your boyfriend feels very aroused, but you don’t want to have sex, masturbation could be one way to relieve some of those urges in a way that does not put you into the position of having to manage the feelings for him. That role could easily be reversed: you could also use masturbation and self-exploration as a means to still enjoy sexual pleasure while abstaining from partnered activities. It might be helpful to have several brainstormed options for how to manage sexual feelings since one solution rarely feels perfect in every situation.

Regardless of how you choose to manage those situations, it’s important to talk about them because they are bound to happen! That happens even for folks who are choosing to have sex. Just because you are open to sex does not mean you want it all the time, or at the same time your partner does. This is a really frequent concern that many couples need to address during the course of their relationships. It’s hard to know what to do in the moment if you’ve not discussed it outside of the moment, so the best bet might be to be really straightforward with your boyfriend and let him know how you’re feeling in those sexually charged situations.

You also may want to take the time to think for yourself and then share your thoughts with your boyfriend on what you mean by “slowing things down” and even what you mean when you say “sex”. If there are certain activities that you still feel comfortable with and certain ones that are going to be off limits for now, you will want to be clear about that. The more information that the two of you share, I think the easier it will be to figure out a collaborative plan about how to relate in non-sexual ways that still show intimacy and affection.

Too, sometimes it can be more challenging to stick to decisions we’ve made if we’re not fully clear ourselves about why we have made them. So maybe it could be helpful for you to write out your logic and line of thinking that has led you to this place so you’ll have something more concrete as both a reminder and a conversation piece when you are discussing all of this with your boyfriend. If you are feeling confident and grounded in your choice, it may feel less overwhelming.

Sexuality does not need to be a place of shame, conflict, or confusion. It does not have to be a sort of evil temptress, lurking to lure us into its ways. It feels like right now your relationship with physical sexuality is one of conflict, one where you don’t feel like you have a lot of control. That is a tough position to be in, but hopefully you can frame sexuality as one piece of a whole, one aspect of your relationship with yourself and with your boyfriend. No matter whether or not you’re having sex, or what kind of sex you’re having, your sexuality is a part of you. It can be a challenge to make peace with the integration of sexuality into your life, but I truly believe that working with it instead of trying to power over it or against it is a more effective tool. Including conversations about what you do want is just as important as talking with your boyfriend about what you don’t want. Giving yourself, and your boyfriend, permission to feel sexual even without partnered sexual activity might go a long way in helping to ease some of the challenge you are feeling right now.

Above all else, try to give yourself some compassion as you listen to yourself and try out these conversations with your boyfriend. They can sometimes take practice, and while it might feel awkward at first, good communication takes time to develop! Sex—using whatever definition works for you—will be there. Good communication is absolutely a huge part of making sex pleasurable and safe for all involved people. Whether that sexual activity is happening sooner or later, with this partner or a future partner, it can help to feel confident in your decisions about what you want in a sexual relationship and how to express those desires to someone else. As you’re developing those skills and giving yourself extra practice, here are some additional articles that you might find helpful:

written 06 Jul 2009 . updated 28 Jan 2014

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