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To have sex or not to have sex: that's the question.

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Eoin asks:

I appreciate your site, and have been reading as much of it (along with several other sources) as I can, and discussing topics with family and close friends and the information is very helpful. However, I still feel amazingly overwhelmed, confused and scared about sex and was hoping I could get some direct help.

I am a 17 year old virgin guy and have a 14 year old girlfriend, as well as (and I do hate myself for this) a would-be lover (my friend's girlfriend). I love and (I believe) am loved by both of them, although at our ages I think it is hard to tell sometimes (uncertainty about feelings, the drama vs. love that you have mentioned, "is it just a casual boyfriend/girlfriend thing", etc). Anyways, I have heard many different opinions about the first time especially in emotional and spiritual terms, and also have my own personal fears and complications.

First, I am worried because I am uncertain about sex being "such a big deal". Honestly I would hope that it is not and I think I may have been close-minded to that effect. Specifically among my concerns are some statements on your site (forgive me and correct if my paraphrasing compromises the intent):

Heather Corinna replies:

(Eoin's questions continued...)

1) Abstinence-until-marriage is not superior (this will also come up later with respect to "the parents" and other concerns with my girlfriend); is it such a big deal if I have sex with my girlfriend tomorrow, in a couple months, or several years from now, including possibility of break-up and assuming we are ready at any of these times?
2) The readiness checklist; if we believe we are ready, is anything else important (she's only 14, social views and reputational effects, etc)?
3) Even if you mess up and make a mistake, you probably won't be traumatized for life; if I have sex with my girlfriend (or the other girl...),
a) if we aren't ready, how likely is it to have negative emotional, social, or psychological consequences, and how severe would those consequences be?
b) if we are ready, and there are still negative consequences (breaking up is the big fear for me, finding out we weren't really in love, guilt, general negative after-effects, etc), will it really be so terrible that we shouldn't have done it, or is it a risk no matter what and shouldn't scare me so much, or what?
c) if I have sex with the other girl; (this one is so confusing and horrible) does that mean I don't love my girlfriend? Should I talk to my girlfriend about it and is there any particular way I should talk about it? Is there any way to not feel guilty and traitorous or, most importantly, avoid hurting my girlfriend?

Wow, that was a lot, and there's more; sorry about that. Now, these are not listed in the articles and forums (that I could find), but
4) Her father has stated that she is to wait until marriage; personally, while I respect him, I believe that it is our choice to make, and I cannot solely base it on his religious values (especially since I don't share them). I know you have mentioned that you discourage sex to which the parents are opposed, but how and where do I draw a line between these two views (follow the parent's wishes vs. this is our choice), and if we have sex, does that mean I do not respect or am being deliberately disrespectful to his wishes?
5) I believe we are ready intellectually (pregnancy/STDs, etc.), but how scared should I be of possible emotional consequences? Should I let them decide the issue for me, or is there a reason not to, such as that they are not that severe or they will be a risk no matter what?
a) on the subject of emotional fears, how about virginity; should I really be afraid to give mine to a relationship that may not last, and is it a good reason to say no? (I would think that's more up to me?) Is virginity so important anyway, and will it really make the experience more "meaningful" or "proper"?
b) I respect my girlfriend greatly and feel a deep responsibility as the older one to protect her in this area, part of this being to say no to her if I do not feel that she is ready or that we are ready as a couple; is this the case, or is it not such a big deal? She has already said yes on a couple occasions, is it important that I wait or will I really not ruin anything by going ahead? (I really want to [duh, 17 year old guy, but also for emotional and relationship reasons], so are the consequences big enough to hold off [see above; emotional especially, I don't want to hurt her or make her guilty or regretful, and I don't want to have taken her virginity and have her feel bad for being so young, want it for someone else later, etc] or can we go for it?) *also, apologies about all the ())[(], that was a little messy and confusing.*
6) More technical than emotional, but if we decide to have sex, (after we discuss it deeply of course), do you have any suggestions about location? I am not sure how I can be alone with her and in a proper place; Also, should I talk to my parents (and/or hers) about our decision, and if so, how should I?

I very much hope that you can help me. Again, I greatly appreciate this site, and any help you can give me. I apologize that I had so much to ask and for taking so much of your time, and also if any of my questions were too vague, opinion based, or whatnot.

Eoin: you're right, those are an awful lot of questions. I'll do the best that I can, but it sounds like you might benefit most from an ongoing conversation, which you're more than welcome to have with me or one of our volunteers on the message boards, if you like. But as a verbose person myself, I can appreciate a lot of information, and you're obviously trying very hard to get things right with all this and be very thoughtful, so I won't shortcut in answering you here, either.

But the bare bones that I'm seeing when I see this many questions, and some of the questions you've asked, is that you're obviously feeling very confused and are very uncertain, and that right there is a very good reason to put on the brakes and put partnered sex on the shelf until you ARE feeling more sure about everything for yourself and others.

So, from what I can see here, now very much would not likely be a good time for you to start being sexually active, not with either of your potential partners.

You're right: your girlfriend is young, and through this post, you make clear that you're feeling like she's pretty young, too. You talk about being the one to protect someone else in your relationship, for instance, when ultimately, in healthy sexual relationships, both partners protect each other, as equals, not just one. As well, I don't know where you're located, but in most places, given her age, it would not be lawful for you to be sexually active with her (and in many locations, that means all genital sex, not just vaginal intercourse). Parents can't overrule those laws even when they are supportive, but she's clearly got a parent who is in no way supportive of her having sex right now. So, not only would you be setting yourself up for a potential world of trouble, but her being sexually active in that environment is bound to make the experience much less positive for her, and potentially dangerous so far as her family life goes.

Some 14-year-old people are ready for partnered sex, but we can safely say that the majority are not. Heck, even getting the kind of regular sexual healthcare that you need, having a place to have sex privately and without it being rushed, and other practical matters are very, very difficult at that age. Those things aside, most 14-year-olds are not prepared for things like an accidental pregnancy, and many do not have the kind of life experience and emotional maturity to deal with partnered sex. When you're an older partner, it can be helpful to look back and see how much you have grown and changed since you were your younger partners age; that can help give you an idea of how much difference even a couple of years can make in your teens. The 17-year-old-you now, and the 14-year-old-you of yore: how much difference do you see there with emotional maturity, dealing with social issues, being independent? Probably a pretty good deal. There have been a lot of studies done on teen sexuality which show that a sexual experience is more likely to be positive when expectations are more realistic, and how old teens are makes a big difference in that respect: often 13 or 14-year-olds have far more unrealistic expectations (which is some of why some are so eager for sex: they don't get what it all actually entails, or how stressful it can be) than teens just one or two years older.

In terms of this possible secondary relationship, ANY time you are in more than one relationship everyone involved should know you are not exclusive or are not intending to remain exclusive. That's only fair. It's just not kind or loving to have someone thinking they're in an exclusive relationship when they are not. However, in talking about this with your current girlfriend, I'd watch how you frame it. It'd be pretty easy for her to feel like you're telling her that if she doesn't have sex with you, you're going to have it with that other person. It's also particularly tough to be the younger person in a relationship when it comes to sex, period, and hard not to feel like you have to race to get caught up to where the older person is at. Flatly, if that's where you're at -- way ahead of your younger girlfriend -- fine, but if that's where you're at, I don't think that you should be continuing or pursing any kind of sexual relationship with your current girlfriend. If she is just not at the same level as you are in this regard, then that's someone to either just be a friend to -- for a lot of reasons, including that a partner deserves equality and respect -- or someone for you to be patient and wait until she is. Ideally, open relationships also need to be negotiated or agreed upon in advance.

Too, if you "hate yourself" for even considering another partner, that's a pretty strong indication that right now, another partner is not likely to be a positive for you. Before you pursue another partner, you need to work through those feelings.

(I also don't know what the story is with this other girl and your friend she is dating. Is their relationship open? Have they talked about this together? Is your friend comfortable with you dating her as well? Have any of you discussed this at all?)

I'm going to be very plainspoken with you right now. The impression I get is that you just really, really want to have sex right now; that you're feeling a lot of sexual desire at the moment. That's normal, you're a young guy in the whirling dervish of puberty. Sexual desire often runs really high in the teens and twenties, especially for young men (women have those same feelings, but ours tend to get stronger as we age). At the same time, you have a lot of reservations, both about your partners and about yourself. Just because we very much want a thing, doesn't mean it's the right time for us to pursue it, particularly when other people are involved. Too, if the desire for partnered sex is THAT urgent, it also suggests that your own expectations aren't that realistic, per what sex can offer you or a relationship. Revisit the first few paragraphs of the Readiness Checklist if you aren't sure what I mean: partnered sex is unlikely to be some HUGE departure from masturbation, and unlikely to deepen a relationship in ways it isn't already of depth or import.

Abstinence-until marriage is the right thing for some people, and for others, something else is right. Of course, there are a lot of different options with those something-elses. For some people, waiting until they're on their own is best, for others, waiting until they have made a certain commitment to a partner and vice-versa is best, for others, it's a certain amount of time having passed in a relationships, and for others still, it's none of those things and any number of other possibilities. There is, ultimately, often more than one right answer for any given person: more than one right set of circumstances for sex to be a positive for everyone involved in. But for any given person, you're going to at least have some sense of what's right for you, specifically and uniquely, and that's something you should trust.

In terms of the readiness checklist, you'll note that "believing" you are ready wasn't really a factor in there. Sure, if after looking at that checklist, you both think you've got most of what is on there, then it is. But if one or both of you have little to nothing on there, believing you are ready only makes so much sense. I mean, I can believe I am ready to drive a car, but if I don't know what I need to to know how to drive -- like where the brakes are, how to work them, or the rules of the road -- don't have insurance, don't know how to avid hitting someone else's car, or have some sort of disability which would impair my driving (even like being too short to see in the rear-view mirror), then it doesn't make much sense for me to believe I am ready. See what I mean? The reason all of those things on the checklist are there are because based on what we know about what makes sex positive or negative for people, those ARE all items of high influence. So, if you and yours don't have most of those things in check, then yes, we can safely say that "believing" you're ready probably doesn't indicate that you are.

When we're talking about what a big deal sex is, for most people, that truth lies somewhere in between the idea that it's like going to church and the idea that it's like hanging out and playing video games. If it wasn't anything of a big deal, no one would really like to do it very much, nor be so intense about it. So many people would not find it meaningful if it wasn't any kind of big deal. Partnered sex, even in casual situations -- and neither of yours right now are, between a girlfriend and a friend's girlfriend -- is something where we're all emotionally and physically vulnerable, which often impacts our esteem (and that can be positive or negative), where we're in a position to be both disappointed or very pleasantly surprised, and where we also have a certain loss of control. For instance, we can't, during sex or with sex, control if your partner sticks with us, we can't control if we or a partner reaches orgasm, we can't control how our bodies or hearts respond to things. I get the impression you want some things guaranteed here that just can't be. This is why one part of sexual readiness is feeling capable of dealing with results which you both can't predict and might not be happy about.

Ultimately, you're right: save when it is forced or coerced, or had when one or both people really don't want it, partnered sex really is unlikely to scar anyone for life. But I think it's more helpful to think about what you can do to assure the positive things you can and make things as good as they can be than to worry about the worst-of-the-worst. In other words, since sex is supposed to be something pleasurable and positive, emotionally and physically, the goal isn't just to make sure it isn't terrible or bad, but to do what we can to assure that it's good and beneficial. because if it's not, there's just no point in doing something so physically and emotionally risky.

You might ask yourself, "What can I do to make as sure as I can that when I have sex -- the first time and ever after -- it's as good as it can be for myself and my partner?" And when you're arriving at answers where it seems like it'll only be okay, so-so or substandard -- or when you know you won't have things most likely to net positives, like a private place where you can spend real time and both partners having access to sexual healthcare -- then the answer to that is usually to wait until you're pretty darn sure it can be way better than those outcomes.

Above and beyond all else, when it is the right time for sex with someone -- and again, that's not just about the first time, but about every time -- it's unlikely you'll be this confused and this torn. You and they will tend to feel a resounding sense of rightness, as well as a pretty known preparedness when it comes to the basics that aren't really situational.

To give you an idea from a perspective of basic preparedness, there are things I don't really even need to think about, at all, in advance of sex with someone else because I know I already always have them covered. Birth control when my partner is opposite-sex? Already have it, know how to use it. Safer sex items? All right here, ready to go, and I know how to use them. Sexual healthcare? Get it every year, keep up with tests, know where to get it if I need it soon again or in an emergency. The ability and confidence to talk about things like my partner's practical needs, even with a brand-new partner? Check, and if I'm uncertain, I am fine talking about it openly in advance of sex. A place of my own where it's private? Done. Being ready to handle negative consequences like accidental pregnancy or an STI? Yep: know what I'd need to do, know I can handle it. Comfort with my own body? Yep. The support of the people around me in being sexually active? Done. Know how to tend to my own sexuality, all by myself? Yepperdoodles. When I've got all of that stuff and more, and I know as well as I can know that my potential partners do too, THEN I can get to the part where I figure out if a sexual relationship or experience between us feels right, if it's what I want and they seem to want, and if I think it's likely to be positive for me.

My feeling is that for you and your partners, that basic stuff probably isn't in place yet to really put you in a position where you're able to determine if sex is right for you or not yet, and that that is likely a big part of what's got you so lost. I think you're trying to take on way too much at once, too fast. It's also pretty clear that before you even get to the is-sex-right-for-you-and-yours bit, you clearly have some relationship issues to work out. If you're not even certain who you want to be in a relationship with right now, or want multiple partnership but haven't yet discussed that with any of your partners, that stuff comes first.

Black-and-white thinking is a pretty typical part of being a teenager (and it's a lot of why adults can get mighty impatient with y'all). That's okay, and that's normal. But it might be helpful to try and step out of that a bit and realize that there is a big open space between having sex RIGHT THIS SECOND and waiting until marriage. Sometimes, just waiting as short as a few months for sex can make all the difference between something that's positive and something that's not-so-great. In some of those studies I talked about above in terms of ages and expectations, it usually shows that with every year someone waits from the start of the teens on for sex, the outcome tends to be more likely to be positive. So, how about slowing down the mania and drama right now, dealing with some of those foundational steps, and taking the time (with yourself and whoever else is involved) you clearly need to to get a better idea of what is right for you and yours. If you are just plain aching for sex in the meantime, you've got your own two hands, and so do your potential partners. It might be helpful to you to deal with this like other big decisions, too: how about making some lists of pros and cons, and some lists of your positive expectations vs. your fears and reservations, so you can really get a sense of all of them? You might even just write out what your ideals are in terms of sex and what you think is best for you, just so you can concretely compare those ideals to your reality.

Phew! Hopefully, that at least gives you a better starting point, but as I said, you're also welcome to come discuss these things with us in a more back-and-forth way if you like. I know you said you've been reading round the site, and have obviously already looked at Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist but I'm going to toss you a few more links I think will help you out just in case you haven't seen them, including some questions from girls your girlfriend's age (sometimes, seeing this stuff from a more objective place helps).

Heather Corinna • Scarleteen Founder, Editor & Advice-Slingin' Sister • Author, S.E.X.

written 13 Jan 2008 . updated 21 Jul 2008

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