by Heather Corinna
If we look at our sexuality one way, it looks a million times simpler than it actually is. If we look at it another way, it appears a million times more complicated. While it's important that we bear everything in mind we need to in terms of infection and disease, birth control, our relationships, our bodies and the whole works, now and then we need to remember the bare bones and the human element of the thing, and keep the essentials in the forefront of our minds.
Choose yourself as your first partner
We hear a whole lot about who should be our first partner. Most of the time, we're told it should be someone we love and who loves us back, someone committed to us long-term, perhaps even someone we plan to spend the rest of our lives with. I agree completely, because you, all by yourself, have all of those qualities, more than any other person ever can.
No one is ever going to know your body like you are, and no one else is ever going to be able to GET to know your body well unless you do to begin with. Really claiming and recognizing yourself as your first and foremost sex partner is a powerful thing. It equips you with some tools for healthy sexuality and balanced relationships for the rest of your life: it can help you to best determine when it's the right time for you to have solo sex (like when you're just plain horny) and when it's right to take a partner (like when you're wanting deeper intimacy, or are able to account for another person's feelings and desires). Getting to know your own body and sexual identity through self-evaluation, through masturbation, enables you to find out a good deal of what you like and dislike physically, to see and feel what your genitals and the rest of your body are like in a healthy state, to discover how your individual sexual response works, explore your orientation and gender identity, and to gauge your sexual expectations realistically.
All too often, young men and women -- more often young women -- may rush into sexual partnership simply because they think a partner can give them something on a sheerly physical sexual level that they can't give themselves because they haven't become their own first sex partner. And many times, that results in hurt feelings, overly high expectations, and careless treatment of sexual partners, especially when a person just isn't ready for all that sexual partnership requires. All too often, "hormones" are said to be why a teen feels the drive to partner with someone else, but the truth is, your "hormones" and your physical body do NOT know the difference between your fingers and someone else's. Your mind and your heart might, but your clitoris or penis do not. Spending dedicated time being your own lover first helps you be able to know the difference.
And hey: masturbation is the safest sex there is!
Let's talk about sex, baby.
When and if you're sexually active with a partner, communication is typically the biggest hurdle in those relationships. If we feel awkward or uncomfortable -- or unable -- bringing up issues about birth control, safer sex, sexual boundaries, sexual satisfaction or dissatisfaction, things we need to be emotionally or physically safe, we not only greatly limit the mileage of those relationships, we put ourselves and our partners in positions which can be very detrimental to all of us. At best, being unable to communicate can greatly limit our pleasure, enjoyment or emotional well-being. At worst, they can get us deeply hurt emotionally or physically or hurt others, or be the root of an unwanted pregnancy, disease or infection transmission. Being able to talk openly about sex can't just protect our hearts, minds and bodies, it can save our lives.
We can all learn to talk about sex, even in a culture where that is a major handicap. Start simple: talk to friends or family about sexual issues or questions. Learn to ask your doctor when you've got questions or concerns about sexuality or sexual anatomy, even if it feels embarrassing or a little funny at first. And well before you get sexually involved with a partner, start establishing meaningful dialogue about sex: about both of your expectations and wants, about your readiness levels, about birth control and safer sex practices, about how you'll plan to deal with friends and family regarding your sexual relationship, about what relationship model you'd like to build, the works.
Live in the real world
Honesty, like most things, starts at home: in other words, with yourself. Sex can be a veritable minefield when it comes to game-playing, delusion, manipulation and control, even when no one intends any of those things. Being willing and able to be honest about your sexuality is your biggest asset when it comes to being happy, healthy and whole in this regard.
Be willing, for instance, to take a deep look at what you want and what you need and to make choices based on the real deal when it comes to those things. For instance, if you know that you're not entirely sure about a sexual partner in terms of furthering your activity with them, don't shove that feeling in the closet for fear of losing them if you don't agree to what they want. If you know you're questioning your sexual orientation, be clear on that with potential partners.
If you know you can't be sexually active without lying to friends and family, consider putting a hold on things until you can be honest about that. If you aren't as into someone else as you know they're into you, let them know, don't lead them on or take advantage. Don't make promises you can't keep: of eternal love (even if it feels that way), of monogamy, of sexual favors you aren't sure you want to, or can, deliver.
Insist on honesty from your partners as well as from others involved, even tangentially, in your sexual life: friends, family, your doctor, and learn to accept that honesty, even when it's not so easy. Being in an environment of honesty sometimes means that the people we're involved with tell us what they really feel, rather than what they think we'd like to hear, which isn't always comfortable, but which, both long and short term, is the best thing for everyone.
Break your drama addictions
It's easier than any of us would like to think to mistake high drama for love or passion, especially when we're younger. Most of us are pretty restless in our teens: maybe school is just utterly boring, maybe we've had the same social circle for years, maybe our towns or cities don't offer us much to do, maybe we're just feeling ready to move on with our lives, but can't because of our age. So, it's not at all surprising that when a love affair enters our lives, we're going to be pretty excited about it.
But it's very clear that a lot of teens (and older people, too!) confuse drama with love, affection or real connection. The higher the level of drama gets -- parents disliking a partner, promises of marriage, a profound age difference, even emotional or physical abuse -- the more a feeling of love or passion is interpreted because the emotional stakes are raised and the tension is elevated.
That's not unreasonable, after all, writers have been using that exact same device to elevate their readers emotions for thousands of years. But. It isn't real, even when it very much feels real. We're simply reacting to those escalated circumstances, and all too often, that drama can keep young couples together, not love or real bonding.
So, when the drama kicks in, try to learn to see it and know that then, more than ever, is NOT the time to leap in with both feet, but to step back and really look at what's going on. To take a break to do that, if need be. To do whatever it is you need to to get a good, solid reality check. One of the best tests of love, really, is if it still feels like love when it's at its quietest and calmest, not just its loudest and most tumultuous.
Be a smartypants
Let's be honest: very few of us, whether we're 15 or 65, can be truly objective when we're head over heels in love or in lust. So, it's a bit of a given that when making sexual choices, we can rest assured that our judgment is bound to be a little colored from the get-go. Being in love, having a crush, and sexual partnership is heady stuff. That's some of why it can feel so nice. Colloquially, some of us call that space NRE, or new relationship energy. It's great stuff, and it feels fantastic, but it can do quite a number on our analytical or critical thinking.
It's important to recognize that when we're in that space, we probably need to use a little more caution than usual when making decisions because those feelings can really do a number on our heads as well as our hearts. Other additional factors may also be at play which can impair sound judgment: body or self-image issues, feeling pressured to be sexually active or have a sexual or romantic partner, performance pressures, rebellion or conformity issues, and even simple curiosity.
So, it's generally sound to assume that we're probably going a little faster than we would otherwise, and so we should be sure to step back inasmuch as we can, and evaluate where we're going, what we're agreeing to, and what we're initiating. Asking for more time to consider something, asking that something going very fast get its reins pulled in for a bit or asking for some physical or emotional space to consider sexual decisions is always, always okay. Asking friends, family or people you value in your community for input and advice is always a good idea, even if you end up disagreeing with what they contribute -- divergent opinions are going to give you food for thought so you can make the best choices for you in the end.
And by all means, handicapping your judgment intentionally from the outset with alcohol or drugs which impair your critical thinking is just never a wise idea.
Start a revolution: stop hating your body!
We live in a culture that is obsessed with appearances, in which lookism and ableism are epidemic. The messages we're sent via our culture and media about our bodies are almost always about how they look or how perfect they should be, and more specifically, how they look to the opposite sex (despite the fact that some of us aren't even interested in the opposite sex, all of the time, or ever). Advertisements for gyms or exercise regimens rarely talk about feeling increased energy, getting sick less often, getting better strength or balance, but all too often, instead work to sell us on trimmer thighs, tighter bottoms, or washboard abs because those things fit our current physical ideals of beauty and attractiveness.
That isn't to say we have to ignore how our bodies or faces look. People are amazing creatures, great to look at, and sexual attraction is part of our physical nature. But it's only one part of many. Our bodies enable us to do everything we do each day: to go to work or school, to build cities and cultural movements, to create and nurture families and friends, to live out our whole lives. And the state of our bodies effects the state of our minds: when we're physically healthy, it's a lot easier to be emotionally healthy.
So, take good care of your body in every way you can. Give it healthy food, the rest and activity it needs, the healthcare -- sexual and general -- it requires, both preventatively and when you become ill. Don't sacrifice your health or well-being for appearances with fad diets or starvation, with obsessive focus on physical perfection, with conformity to ideals which not only may not fit you, but which change almost as often as most of us change our underpants. Understand that when it's right for you, be it by yourself or with a partner, sex can also be part of honoring your body, whatever it looks like, however it works. If any sex you have with someone isn't about your bodies just as they are, it's not likely to feel very good or leave you feeling very good about yourself.
Let's also look at body and self-image. It always feels good to have someone we're attracted to or in love with tell us we're beautiful or sexy or wonderful or smart or perfect.
While that can make us feel fantastic, that can't replace feeling those things about ourselves first, nor can having someone else tell us that make us feel those things about ourselves. It's not pop psychology or bullshit to say that self-image is just that: from the self, about the self. It can only start and end with you.
Having a boyfriend or girlfriend can make us feel great about ourselves, and having sex can make us feel great about our bodies. But if we aren't already there, or at least part of the way there, on our own, if something starts to go wrong with our partnerships or our sex lives, what made us feel great about us can turn and start to make us feel terrible instead because we've put much too much stock in those things creating positivity in us we need to have all on our own.
Some studies or philosophies have put forth that young people, especially young women, who are sexually active suffer from low self-esteem in ways those who are not do not. The usual assumption made about that premise is that sex, especially sex when you're young, must be bad for you, but I'd posit that that isn't so. Instead, what I've seen a lot of over the years is some people who seek out sex or sexual partnership to try and fill a void in terms of self-esteem or positive body image reinforcement that already exists before they seek out the sex, and then most of them discover -- alas -- that the sex or boyfriend/girlfriend doesn't fill that void and get even more depressed and self-hating, thinking something must be wrong with them.
It's not, I promise. We're all going to spend decent parts of our lives on our own, without sexual partners or spouses, living by ourselves, being by ourselves. When we ARE in relationships, for them to be healthy, we need to be sharing, not just doing all the taking or all the giving. So, it's important that we really can stand alone; that we can love and accept our bodies whether or not anyone else shows attraction to them at any given time. That we can love and accept ourselves, even on the days, weeks or months when no one says anything good about us, even when we get negative feedback instead. To be able to do that, we need to have value in ourselves when we're not in relationships or sexual partnerships; things we enjoy doing be they work or hobbies, a sense of body love that isn't just about how our bodies look or how perfect they are, but about how they feel and what they enable us to do with our lives each day.
Honor your feelings
Sometimes it takes a lot of tries before we meet someone whose needs and wants are the same as ours. Because of that, it's tempting to try and compromise things we really shouldn't compromise, like limits and boundaries, relationship models we know we don't want or can't deal with, or sexual velocity that is just too fast.
Sure, part of any relationship is compromise, but we should not and cannot compromise our essential character or nature, nor what we know we need in a relationship to participate in one healthily and happily. If we find we're sticking in a relationship where we know our partner wants things we can't or don't want to give, for instance, we're likely not honoring our feelings, perhaps because we don't want to hurt them, or because we're afraid of being without a partner, or because we just don't want to make a huge mistake. But, you know, in relationships that are right for everyone, we can safely voice our feelings and work with them, and we need to be able to do that to be in good relationships. Most of us adults have been in relationships where we've voiced deeper feelings than our partner felt, or asked for more than they could give, and that's resulted in a split we didn't want. Or, we've had to tell a partner they were asking for more than we had available and either pull away from the relationship or take it back a few paces. While at the time, none of that is ever fun, in hindsight, we'll all know that was best for everyone. As well, most of us have happier tales of honoring our feelings that brought about far better outcomes than we would have had had we not voiced our true feelings. Sometimes, when you love someone deeply and tell them, they tell you -- and mean it -- that they love you just as much back.
A big part of honoring your feelings is being able to first look at them and recognize them yourself. So, take a good look at them, even if they're not so realistic. If you have a good idea of what they are, in a given situation or in general, you're in a better place to honor them, to see how they may or may not be creating obstacles, to get a good idea of what you really want and need so you'll be able to recognize when those needs can be met and when they can't.
And while we're at it, don't talk yourself into a situation that isn't really right for you, especially when it comes to casual sex. That isn't to say that casual sex can't be okay for some people sometimes, because it can. But much of the time here at the Scarleteen community, we see people clearly talking themselves into believing they're okay with no-strings-attached or friends-with-benefits scenarios when they truly want more than that, but have convinced themselves to settle for less because they feel it's better than nothing, or think that sex with someone casually will make that other person develop romantic feelings after all. Bzzzt. What you don't want isn't better than waiting for what you do want, and sex can't change anyone's real feelings. To boot, saying you're okay with casual sex to a partner suggesting it when you know you aren't in your gut makes YOU the bad guy for being manipulative and dishonest, not them for wanting less than you do.
Don't try and use sexual identity as your whole identity
Part of our development in our teens and twenties is seeking out and discovering our self-identity. It's why it's not uncommon for teens to be very enthusiastic about something one month that's completely forgotten the next. A little embarrassing when we have to backpedal sometimes, but it's all normal, and we've all been through it (some of us way more times than we'd care to admit).
So, it's also not unusual to do the same with sexual identity.
Sexual identity, is, by its nature, somewhat fluid. While some portions of our sexuality are at least somewhat fixed, like our sexual orientation (whether we're attracted to men, women or both/all gender), parts of our gender identity as well as some of our preferences, many aspects of our sexual identity will develop and shift all through our lives. So, while your sexual identity is an integral part of who you are, there's never any hurry to claim or label it, nor is it a good idea to make your current sexual identity your whole identity -- because when it shifts and evolves -- and it always will -- you may find yourself feeling utterly lost in terms of knowing who you are. As well, sex is only part of our lives. If every part of us is completely wrapped up in it, we're likely to miss out on other equally enriching and fulfilling parts of our lives.
Who are you, besides so-and-so's girlfriend/boyfriend or Jane or John, queer or straight person? Jot it down, and make note of what accompanying activities you engage in to support all those other aspects of your identity. Are you a musician? If so, how much time are you getting to play and practice? Are you a good friend? Spent much time with yours lately? Are there aspects of your identity that keep getting shoved on the back shelf, even if you would really like to explore them? Look at your time during the week, and carve out some for those parts. Sex is great, and having a partner equally great, but if we aren't more than our sex lives or sexual identity, not only are those aspects of our lives going to peter out fast, the rest of our lives are going to seriously suffer for that.
Become a sexpert!
Obviously, no one needed a book to figure out how to put Tab A into Slot B when it came to sex. If they had, none of us would be here today, because our eldest ancestors certainly didn't have The Joy of Sex hidden under a straw pallet in the back of the cave. While there are some things we don't need books or media for -- and some it's best we learn on our own anyway, like discovering what a partner finds pleasure in -- there are others we do. We live in a different world than our hunting and gathering forebears. We have longer lifespans, different and more complex health issues, we choose not to procreate, we have factors in our lives and culture that make our relationships more complex. As well, we simply know things now we didn't back when that really can benefit us, like understanding how our reproductive cycles really work, how disease or infection may be spread, like that our sexual or gender identity doesn't have to be what is prescribed for us.
So, dig in and educate yourself! Hit the library or the net and read up on your body, the body of your partner if they're opposite sex, on safer sex practices and disease and infection news, on birth control options. Fill your mind with material to help you start to evaluate things like orientation and gender identity, the quality of your relationships, and your own wants and needs when it comes to sex and sexual partnership.
Do yourself a favor, though, and be selective with that media. Look for sources that offer you real information, not salacious tips on how to bring someone else to orgasm or how to achieve firmer breasts. On websites and with books, look for mentions or endorsements by credible organizations or resources in sexuality and sexual health. We get enough garbage and misinformation on sex from television, movies and popular magazines as it is -- none of us needs any more of that gump.
It truly is best to educate yourself about sex and sexuality BEFORE you leap in headlong, especially with a partner or partners. All too often, people only start educating themselves during or after a crisis (such as a pregnancy scare, an acquired STI, or being physically or emotionally hurt during sex), and while late is always better than never, in advance is always better than after the fact.
Most of all...
... don't forget that sex and sexuality are supposed to be pleasurable and bring you joy and richness. So many of the messages sent out to young people are about the dangers of sex or dating, are about saying no to sex based on very general and arbitrary ethics that may not be your own, and make sex out to be the Big Bad, when really, it doesn't have to be. If you aren't ready for sexual partnership, then no, sexual partnership isn't going to be right for you right now. But even if you try something out and discover it isn't, it's unlikely to cause you lifelong trauma. We all err sometimes; we learn, we move on. We're an adaptable species like that.
Your sexuality is yours to have, explore and enjoy even all by yourself, and yours to share with partners, when and if you're ready and willing to do that. When you respect it and you, it's a wonderful part of who you are, one that has the power to enrich your life and make you feel physically and emotionally great. And it can be great responsibly and healthfully: a lot of the time, we plop sex and adventure into the same pile, and assume that for sex to feel great, it has to be risky or we have to feel "naughty" doing it, and that just isn't the case. In fact, it's reasonable to say that if our culture could ditch a lot of the taboo and shameful attitudes it has about sex, the whole lot of us would be a much healthier people, physically and emotionally.
So, if you're engaged in sex in any way that makes you feel bad, stop and look at that. Sometimes, sex can be disappointing, either alone or with partners, that happens the same way any aspect of life can be disappointing or just plain lame. But if that's the case continually, it's time for a change, be that by splitting from a partner, pulling back on something you're doing or asking for things you want but aren't getting, taking better care of your sexual health or spending more time getting to know your own body, reevaluating your sexual identity or taking a break from sex altogether for a while. If you can't feel or experience the joy of sex, then it's just not worth doing. And when you can? Let yourself enjoy it. That's what it's there for.
To sum up?
1. Be your own your first partner, before anyone else.
2. Learn to talk openly about sex.
3. Be honest. For real.
4. Ditch the drama. Save it for the movies.
5. Use and trust your own best judgment.
6. Respect your body and yourself.
7. Honor your feelings, even when it's a bummer.
8. Be your whole self, not just your sexual self.
9. Further your sexual education.
10. Enjoy yourself and your sexuality.