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Why am I so paranoid about sex?

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alsexnikkah asks:

Mmkay I'm 13. I want to have sex really bad but I still don't have a boyfriend and blah blah blah. I KNOW how to not have sex with a guy that I JUST met. I like to go out with a guy for awhile before I do anything like sex. But when I do have a boyfriend for like a year I would like to have sex. But I am always freaking out about getting pregnant! But I can't wait if I find someone that I like for awhile and stuff! And like I would like to do oral. But I am scared if I will get herpes or something. I'm always so paranoid about this! :|

Heather Corinna replies:

Before I dig in here, I want to make clear that I don't think there is any one right age, right time, or right kind of relationship for everyone when it comes to what makes sex right or best. That varies from person-to-person a lot, and isn't usually based on something as simple as only how old we are. I do think -- and working with people and their sex lives for as long as I have, feel comfortable saying I know -- there are some core things that tend to make for best sexual choices with people of every age, though, so I want to address some of those with you. I also want to present some things which are going to be more challenging for you with partnered sex at your age, things which often won't be as challenging just a few short years from now.

I hope you'll know that my interest is in doing what I can to help people figure out what's right for them sexually, not what I or anyone else thinks is right for you. I want everyone to have a sex life -- whenever they have it, and at every stage of your life -- that's beneficial to you, that's healthy, and that's about where you're at right now and who you are right now. here's hoping I can help you figure that out for yourself.

First let's unpack if the idea that worrying about sexually transmitted infections has anything to do with paranoia. It doesn't.

To be paranoid about something means to have irrational or delusional concerns. If I was worried that penguins from Mars were going to sneak into my house at night to do experiments on my pug, that would be paranoid. Being certain I was going to become pregnant via oral sex or from a toilet seat are also things we could say are paranoid, since pregnancy can't happen those ways.

Sexually transmitted infections are very real and very common, especially among young people: those under 24 have the fastest rising rate of STIs. That's because of where you're body is at with its development and because young people so often go without safer sex, don't get tested and treated for STIs too often -- and the younger someone is, the more likely it is safe behaviors don't happen -- and tend to switch partners more frequently than many older people do. All that while at the same time, young people often come to sexual partnerships assuming they'll be lifelong and singular even though that's rarely the case. While STIs are far more often transmitted via vaginal or anal intercourse, some STIs can also be transmitted orally, such as Chlamydia, HIV and, yep, Herpes.

Pregnancy is also very real. It's not paranoid to be concerned about pregnancy with sexual activities which can result in pregnancy. It's not paranoid to worry about pregnancy happening when it isn't what you want or are ready for. You absolutely should be concerned with both these things, and do what you can to prevent them if you don't want those outcomes, either by taking a pass on the kinds of sex where they are potential results or by doing things like using safer sex and reliable methods of birth control.

Age-in-years, all by itself, is not usually the best way to figure out if someone is ready, or in a good place in their life, for partnered sex. But even though age-in-years isn't all there is to these choices, let's also not kid ourselves.

13 is very young when it comes to partnered sex, especially genital sex like oral sex or intercourse. Just so you have a sound idea about the sex lives of others your age, especially since a lot of young people aren't honest with each other about sex, in the United States, less than 13% of teens under 15 have had sex with a partner. For those who have intercourse, most teens do so for the first time around 17. What's best for your peers may or may not be best for you, but those figures are smart to consider: there are reasons most teens wait until they're older than 13 to have sexual partners.

Very few countries -- and no states in the United States -- have an age of consent that is as low as 13. Many states provide a window in which some or all sexual activities between same-age partners below the age of consent are lawful, but there are usually still some restrictions even then. In the United States, it is not lawful in most states for you to terminate a pregnancy without a parent being notified or giving their permission. While you or I may or may not agree with some or all of these laws and policies, they are what they are, regardless, and can impact you or any sexual partners you may have.

At 13, you probably don't have the resources you need to get your own sexual healthcare and contraception by yourself, or to manage an accidental pregnancy (not to mention dealing with the emotional and practical aspects of that). Even just getting transportation to those services may be tricky for you. At 13, you're probably having a tough time with the family you've got: some sex does pose risks of pregnancy, and dealing with a kid on top of your family is likely more than you can handle or want to handle. Let's also be frank: at your young age, a pregnancy could pose some serious risks to your health. At 13, you probably won't feel able to be honest with your folks or even some of your friends about having sex, which would make it a secret: not a good recipe for a healthy sexuality. Sex can present challenges and hard feelings sometimes even without unwanted outcomes, and to have a healthy sex life, we usually need some good support from people we aren't having sex with.

At 13, you and your friends are just getting used to having sexual feelings about one another, and have usually barely gotten started learning how to manage those feelings, let alone enact them with genital sex. You may find that partners or friends are without the maturity to handle you being sexual with kindness and care: some people can be very cruel to the youngest people when they're sexually active, and that can really hurt and become very isolating. You and partners also may not even feel that comfortable with your bodies all by yourselves, yet: if we rush in to intimacy, we can wind up feeling very overexposed and insecure. Many people your age don't have the communication skills yet for a sex life that's healthy, safe and equitable. You may not feel able to be assertive enough with every partner, for example, to make clear that you want to reduce your risks of STIs and need a partner to use safer sex with you. (And since a lot of people assume that the youngest teens are easy to take advantage of sexually, you may need those skills even more than someone older does.) Developing that kind of confidence and assertiveness, especially with sex, tends to be something that takes young people some time, and which few people at 13 are very good at just yet. A lot of women still aren't great at it at 30, but they also usually have better resources than you do. While an STI, unwanted pregnancy or having a partner tell friends you're a slut isn't something anyone wants, older people won't tend to find their lives, well-being or health as derailed by things like that as someone your age can.

One other thing we know statistically is that the younger a person is, the more unrealistic their expectations of sex tend to be. So, when younger teens say they want sex, they usually have an idea of what it is that doesn't resemble reality or meet those expectations. Statistically, the younger someone starts being sexually active -- when we're talking about genital sex like oral sex and intercourse -- the more often they later report it was either unwanted or unpleasant for them. In other words, we don't hear from many young women your age who are sexually active in that way where everything is awesome: quite the opposite, really. With anything in life, it doesn't make a lot of sense to try something that can carry a lot of risks unless we're pretty sure it's going to be worth it. And if your expectations aren't sound, we can't assess that very well.

When your expectations are more realistic, for example, you'll know that just being with someone for a certain amount of time and having sexual feelings about them isn't enough to decide if someone is a good choice in a sexual partner. The quality of the relationship you're in with someone matters a lot, so, when we're considering a partner, we usually pay attention to how they treat us and others, we listen to how they talk about sex to know if they have the maturity for it, we see how they deal with other parts of life and our relationships which require a lot of care and responsibility.

Lastly, as I've also talked about here at the site before, it's really tough for us to know what sexual activities we might want to do in the abstract. For example, I like oral sex a lot, and do know what it's like, but that doesn't mean I am going to want to do it with just anyone, or with every partner at any given time. And there have been things in my life I wanted to try in the abstract, expecting I'd like them, but discovered I didn't, or didn't in a certain context or relationship. There have been things I didn't think I'd like or have interest in which I've discovered I did. One thing we know about sex and sexuality is that it often tends to surprise us.


I think in some ways, you're putting the cart before the horse. You CAN wait for partnered sex, of any and every kind, until it's something both you and whomever else you have it with are both ready for it, including until a relationship has all of what you want and need in it. And if you really, truly feel you can't -- if you feel you cannot control your own actions -- then that's a sure sign that sex right now would be a very poor choice for you. For sex with others to be healthy, the people involved need to be able to have a good deal of self-control, as well as the ability to think clearly and not too impulsively.

What I hear you saying through your question is that you're feeling very scared about unwanted outcomes with sex, and that you also have yet to find yourself in a relationship which has what you need in order to be okay with sexual partnership. Additionally, you make clear that you are feeling sexual desires very strongly, which you're having a tough time with and I also hear you saying that you worry you can't control your own sexual actions or choices if you meet someone you like.

To me, all that suggests that the best thing for you when it comes to genital sex right now is probably simply to masturbate. Masturbation is something we can all do -- and the majority of all people do masturbate -- to meet our own sexual needs, to answer our own sexual desires, to experience a release of those pent-up sexual feelings that can make us feel so antsy sometimes. It's also a great way to get to know your own body and sexual responses, which is valuable to you, but also will be valuable when you do have sexual partners. Extra bonus? Unless you're masturbating with hands or other objects that aren't clean, you don't have to worry about STIs. You also don't have to worry about pregnancy or about someone else's sexual wants and needs. When we're not feeling ready for or up to all that partnered sex requires, or who we'd choose as partners aren't, masturbation is a great answer, whether that time of not having all we need for good, healthy sex with partners happens when we're 13 or 33. And it will tend to happen more than once in our lives. Too? Most men and women do not reach orgasm for the first time, and learn to be orgasmic, with a partner, but with masturbation.

The idea, should you have it, that sexual needs can only be met by sexual partnership isn't sound. Plenty of people in sexual partnerships find their sexual needs are not met, even when those partnerships have some things they want and need, such as a given level of commitment or having what they need to take care of their health. It's also very common for younger women to find they have a particularly tough time getting both emotional and physical needs met in early sexual relationships, especially if they happen too soon for them or their partners. Masturbation meets most people's physical needs when it comes to sex, as well as many emotional needs. It is different from partnered sex in that a) there are some things you really can't do only by yourself, and b) there are emotional wants and needs, like having companionship, that can't be met with masturbation. However, this is another area where very young people's expectations are often unrealistic. If you think partnered sex is, sexually, RADICALLY different than masturbation is -- especially physically, where it's most similar -- chances are that your ideas about what partnered sex can or will provide are off-kilter.

Plus, it doesn't sound like you're currently with someone you are interested in a sexual relationship with, so it doesn't make sense to get too hung up on making sexual choices with partners just yet. And when all of this is abstract -- it's not about another person you actually are involved with and know well -- none of us can know what we want in a real way: we can only know what our fantasy is about what sex could be like.

Way back at the top of the page, I mentioned that in even just a few years, this is likely to be a pretty different situation. That might seem hard to fathom, because it's so easy to feel like the way we are is how we'll always be, but know that in the teen years, we change a LOT and often very quickly and unpredictably. Who we are at 13 is often very different from who we are at 16. What we're capable of handling and what kinds of skills and resources we have at 17 usually differs from what we've got going on at 14. Later on in life, we don't see such big changes from, say, being 35 to being 40. But in a lot of ways, adolescence is all about enormous changes happening all the time, and every single year often bringing a world of differences with it. The fact of the matter is that based on all we know, sex with a partner for you now is way less likely to be something you both enjoy and that is healthy for you all around than it is in a few years.

Don't forget that for most people, sex is something progressive. In other words, rather than leaping right to oral sex or intercourse, more young people will spend months or years with things we call "outercourse" like kissing and making out, dry sex (people rubbing their bodies together while clothed) or petting ("feeling up"): activities where there is not direct, unclothed genital contact. That often makes sense, especially when all of sex is new, because spending time with those things helps you and a partner get to know one another, get practice communicating about sex with lower-risk activities, and helps you make good choices about if a given partner is someone you even want to do more with.

For now, you can certainly take the time you need to find out about how to protect yourself as best you can from unwanted outcomes like STIs, and how you can talk about that together with a potential partner to make agreements. Reducing the risk of STIs is about practicing safer sex with partners, not about being with someone for a certain amount of time. That means a combination of behaviors you both do which include using latex barriers and getting tested. To find out more about how to practice safer sex and what it entails, check out the links I'll give you at the end of this page.

You also can research reliable methods of birth control now, and find out how to use them right. If we're going to have intercourse with someone, using reliable methods of birth control consistently and correctly is what reduces the risk of unwanted pregnancy, just like practicing safer sex massively reduces the risk of STIs. You can also take formative steps now to choose healthy relationships where you're not only cared for and treated with respect, but where everyone is on board and committed to sex and everything around it being healthy and safe.

I'd encourage you to trust your instincts in this. Often, when we feel really nervous about something, or fearful, it's for good reason. Fear is how our minds and bodies give us cues about what is and isn't safe. I think right now a lot of why you're feeling fearful now is because sex would probably be too much, too soon for you. When it isn't, and when you've also been with someone who you care for and have had time to build some trust with -- as well as time to find out about how to prevent unwanted outcomes of sex -- I think you'll feel a lot better and less freaked about all of this.

Last but not least, I'd encourage you to talk to an adult in your life you trust and who loves you about all of this in-person, rather than just interacting with someone like me who doesn't know you or your life: you could talk to a parent or guardian, an older sibling, a doctor, a teacher, a counselor, a coach, a mentor. Someone who knows you is going to have a better idea of what you probably are and are not ready to handle, and can probably better help you suss out your own unique needs than I can. I also will again say that if anything at all in our lives has to be a huge secret from the people who love us, it usually isn't good news. I know it can be intimidating to talk to adults about sex, but it usually is worth taking that plunge so you have someone who cares for you and has some perspective to connect with about this.

I'm going to leave you with some links to look at, to figure out your real readiness right now and to get a handle on what you'll need to do with things like managing risks of pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. So, look things like this over, then be sure to give yourself the time and space to digest and process them. Opportunities for sex really don't go away, and as I like to remind people of all ages, the good stuff that feels good on all levels is always worth waiting for, especially since the substandard stuff not only can be a real bummer, it can also result in some rough unwanted consequences, too.

written 04 Aug 2009 . updated 21 Jan 2014

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