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Why can't she just understand that I'm not ready yet?

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Chad asks:

My girlfriend doesn't understand why we can't have sex because I'm not ready. I keep asking her to wait a little longer, but then she gets confused and she thinks I'm not interested. I just don't want to mess up or get an STD. I don't know what to do.

Heather Corinna replies:

Unfortunately, some women don't know or understand when they're carrying around double-standards when it comes to being ready for sex. You're not the first guy to ask this question or be in this situation.

Just like it is for women, guys are not somehow automatically ready for sex any time their partner is or when sex is made available. Just like for women, plenty of men have concerns about unwanted or unplanned pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, physical or emotional safety, or just mucking a relationship up with sex that happens too soon or before it really feels like the right thing. Just like with women, men will take a pass on sex for more reasons than just because they don't feel attracted to someone or aren't in the mood for sex: sometimes men, like women, will want to hold off on sex even when they are very much in the mood and are very much attracted to a partner who wants to have sex with them.

Just as it isn't okay for men to pressure or push a partner for sex, it's not okay for women to do, either.

A lot of people are raised with, or exposed to, some pretty inaccurate, and even creepy, ideas about sex and gender that they take at face value or enable pretty thoughtlessly, even when presented with realities that make clear how wrongheaded those ideas are. Lots of folks think that guys are ALWAYS ready, no matter what (and should be, or aren't "real men" if they're not up for sex any time it's made available), and that girls either never are, only are in certain situations, or that it matters a lot for girls to have sex only when they feel ready, but not for guys. Some people think it doesn't make a difference if no one is ready, that it's no big whoop to have sex even when it's not wanted or doesn't feel right. And none of those things are universally true, or even true for most people.

It matters just as much for sex to only happen for men when they feel ready as it does for women, and having sex when you don't want to is going to be no less damaging and lousy for you than it would be were the shoe on the other foot. For sex to be healthy and positive for you -- as is the case for her or for anyone at all -- it's got to happen when it's something you strongly want, something that feels right, and something you feel ready for at the time. It also has to be freely chosen, not something you do because you cave into what someone else needs or wants. Partnered sex is supposed to be about something pleasurable and meaningful -- even though what kind of meaning that is can vary a lot -- that is shared, not about something one person just gives over to make the other quit freaking bugging them already.

I can't find anything even remotely sexy or healthy about having sex in order to be left the heck alone by a nagging partner, or to feed their ego. Bleck.

It's so important that none of us make our sex lives with our partners about having a partner need to, or feel they need to, have sex with us to prove something, be it love, commitment or attraction. By all means, one of the positive things any of us can experience during any kind of sex with someone else is a bump of validation in any of those departments, but it's not sound to make sex about that validation, nor to make that little side-benefit the whole of what's going on. We can demonstrate those things in a whole lot of ways: sex is only one of them, and even when it is wanted by both of you, sex alone is not going to be able to express those things all by itself.

I think you first need to make clear to your girlfriend that you not being ready yet is not about a lack of interest in her, and that if she keeps insisting it is, it's past time for her to stop doing that. You are telling her it is not, and if she cares for you, she needs to hear and respect what you are actually saying, not what she is choosing to hear.

Talk with her about what your real concerns are, and about what you need -- if you do feel like she's someone you want to have sex with in time -- to address them. For instance, with your concerns about sexually transmitted infections, you may need to be sure you're both on the same page about safer sex practices, and that you both have a recent STI screening first: you could even go do that together as a couple. Talk about what you're worried you'll mess up, or what you're worried could get messed up in your relationship. Make clear you need some real time spent -- probably not just one discussion -- where the two of you really work through your worries, and some more time with other kinds of physical affection or more gradual entry into a sex life together to feel more comfortable moving forward. You might want to print out our Readiness Checklist, look through it, and identify some of the areas where you're not feeling ready to help you cement your own thoughts and best have this kind of conversation.

As well, ask her about how she's feeling in terms of why sex is feeling so urgent for her, or why it's so important to her that you fill that need right now. Since it sounds like part of why she's been pushing is about a need to feel you have a sexual interest in her, you can ask about ways you might support her needs, and better demonstrate that you are interested if she's not feeling that as much as she'd like to. Is she feeling pressure from friends? Is she worried about the status of your relationship and feeling like sex needs to happen to cement it? Is she just feeling insecure of late, perhaps due to other situations in her life besides your relationship? Is she feeling sexually frustrated and unable to take care of her desires with her own two hands, thinking her sexuality can only start with a partner? Is she just really crazy into you, feeling her desire big-time, and operating under some of the double-standards I brought up and feeling upset because of those assumptions? Finding out more about why she's feeling the way she is and where it's all coming from might help you both to better understand the other.

I'd suggest sharing what I have said about double-standards with your girlfriend: you might even just want to print it out for her so she can see it coming from someone else's mouth. Now, your words should absolutely be enough, but sometimes a little backup helps.

Lastly, let her know that you are clear that she feels ready for sex, and knowing that, if and when you also feel ready, you will let her know. In other words, she tossed the ball, it's in your court now, and what she needs to do is just wait and see if you throw it back or not.

She needs to stop reminding you or bringing it up: you know she's interested and waiting on you, and her pushing for it not only isn't okay, it's not going to make you be ready any sooner. In fact, being pushed to have sex when it's not where we're at yet, and when we've made that clear, is more likely to turn us off of sex than to turn us on to it. I'd mention that she probably doesn't want to have sex with someone who only chose to do that because of pressure from her: both you and she deserve a sexual partner who comes to sex because it's what they want, and because they are choosing it freely, without pressure. If she's looking to find validation by pushing someone into sex, she's likely to discover not only that isn't healthy for both of you, but that she might even feel more insecure afterwards than she does right now.

If after talking about this some more, she still tries to make your not feeling ready yet about her appeal, just won't hear you, or keeps pushing something you've made clear you don't feel ready for yet on you, then I'd suggest you reconsider being involved with her. Truth is, when a person can't respect another person's limits and boundaries, it's actually a clear sign that they aren't ready for sex, because being able to do that is central to healthy sexual relationships. Another part of being ready is having the maturity to recognize when our sexual wants and needs just aren't aligned with someone else's. Neither she nor you are obligated to be a couple. If she feels like sex absolutely has to be part of any relationship she is in right now and she cannot wait for it, but knows she is currently seeing someone who isn't ready, it's up to her to take responsibility for the things she wants and seek them out with someone else who shares them. The person putting the brakes on is the person we always need to defer to, but not everyone has the care and the maturity to recognize that.

Hopefully, this talk with her will go well, and she'll be able to really hear you and respect where you're coming from. Ideally, if you two care about each other, and can get to that point rather than talking past each other, that in and of itself should bring you closer and demonstrate to her that you have an investment in the relationship and strong interest in her. After all, we don't invest energy and time into working a conflict out when we don't give a hoot. However, if already you are just feeling like she's not going to get this, or like you've been pushed too much already, you certainly do not have to talk with her about this any more: it's valid to nip a relationship in the bud when we just don't feel understood or respected in it, or like we're doing more than our share of the work on it.

No matter what, I want you to know, for yourself, that one place we do find maturity is in someone knowing what is and isn't right for them at a given time, and sticking to what they know is best for them, even if making a different choice might in some ways be easier or less of a headache.

In the work I do, I hear from guys of all ages often who don't feel ready for sex at any given time: you're not alone in this. And if you find yourself in a situation where you have to really fight for your right to be in exactly the place you're at in your life or a relationship when it comes to sex, know that it's not because there is something wrong with you, but because someone else is viewing sex or you in a way that is skewed and unhealthy. The bonus when that happens is that if they don't realize pretty quickly that they're being disrespectful or selfish, and don't change their behavior pronto, you get to say buh-bye and dodge a bullet. Sex with someone who can't deal with where you're at and what's best for both people involved isn't likely to be fun, pleasurable or positive for anyone.

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written 08 Oct 2008 . updated 22 Jan 2009

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