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Risky Business: Learning to Consider Risk and Make Sound Sexual Choices

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When we hear about risk, especially in the context of sexual or romantic endeavors, experiences or choices, it's often framed as some kind of Very Big Bad -- like risking HIV or other STIs, an unwanted pregnancy, abuse or self-harm, or the downfall of all civilization -- and like something only about scary stuff, which exists in some kind of vacuum where risk-taking is never about anything healthy or positive and should be completely avoided at all costs.

Risk, the reality of what risk can be, and why we take risks in the first place isn't so one-dimensional. A risk is, most simply, anything that has the potential to lead to some kind of loss or unwanted outcome; something where an outcome is uncertain, a gamble, that can be different than what we expect or want. If we take a risk, it's something we usually do or consider with the aim of getting or experiencing something positive or wanted.

We can't live risk-free. To try and get or experience things we want, things that benefit us or others, even to just do the most basic things we need to to take care of ourselves, we often have to risk things we don't want, which may be unwanted or negative, or risk not getting or experiencing what we do want.

Risk is involved in something so seemingly mellow as taking the bus to get to school or work, eating lunch or putting up a new profile picture online. We risk falling down in order to stand up; we risk getting turned down for a job or by a college if we apply. If we want to come out, we may risk nonacceptance, judgment, emotional conflict, and even violence, but we probably risk those things because we hope to gain positives like acceptance, understanding, being able to be seen as who we are and a greater ability to live our lives more freely, safely and openly and with more love in them. We risk rejection when asking someone out because our hope is they'll go out with us, and to make that happen, someone's gotta ask and take that risk. We risk all the many things sex with someone else can put us or them at risk of because we hope to experience the positives of sex, the good things it can bring us or others. The notion of risk as being about nothing but bad, or as only about the risk itself, just isn't sound.

People don't just take or consider taking risks because we get a rush from being risky, or because we don't know something involves risk. However, taking risks can also involve experiencing the risk and how risk-taking makes us feel positively. For instance, people who choose to go deep-sea diving know all about this, as do people who choose to work in areas or fields which put their safety at risk. Both of those things pose risks of harm or injury, but those risks seem worth it to the folks that take them for reasons like feeling very alive, of stretching oneself past limits, of doing work that is needed and meaningful that involves taking risks others can't or aren't willing to take.

If and when we tell someone something secret about ourselves, part of the intimacy is that we're also co-experiencing risk -- that person might tell someone else or might judge us -- and knowing that risk is being taken is part of what demonstrates and builds trust and that intimacy. Voicing an unpopular opinion is another example: we probably feel it is worth it and important, but we also risk nonacceptance, judgment, humiliation, social ostracism, but can feel a sense of bravery or courage from taking those risks. People who get married or otherwise make long-term, serious commitments to someone take some big risks making that kind of commitment; people who choose to parent take on huge risks. Those decisions aren't just about taking risks, but the level of risk involved, the act of risk-taking, versus those things risking nothing and being totally safe, is some of what makes those choices meaningful to some people.

Totally avoiding risk isn't possible, and choosing to take risks -- and even enjoy taking them -- also doesn't mean you're an idiot with no impulse control or who's carelessly gambling your whole life every time you choose to open yourself up to risks. We can't avoid risk in most of life; certainly not with sex. We can do our best to choose to only take risks really worth taking, to avoid taking risks bigger than we have to, and only take risks we have choices about when we're sure we can handle, and want to be open to, the risk-taking itself and the potential outcomes or consequences of the risks we take.

Let's get some myths about risk-taking, sex and young people out of the way  first. All of the following are common tropes we hear -- even among peers, or in our own heads -- but which NO ONE with any sound and current education, credibility and without some big bias against young people would or does back up:

  • Young people are incapable of even considering risk and making sound sexual choices where there are risks.
  • Young people take sexual risks only for the sake of taking a risk; to get a high from risk-taking or to "act out."
  • Young people who make very risky sexual choices only do so out of ignorance or lack of impulse control.
  • Young people can really only decide to have sex or not to have sex: they lack the maturity or ability to make sexual choices with more nuance or layers.
  • Young people are slaves to their hormones, and are incapable of thinking through sexual decisions clearly because of hormones.

None of those things are universally true, or backed up by anything but current popular opinion, and most aren't even broadly true. Young people, on the whole, are capable of evaluating risk and making smart choices when there is risk involved, including choices with sex, and, like older people, young people's motivations for doing or expressing anything sexual tend to be diverse and complex, and about a whole lot more than the rush of doing something risky.

Some of these things may be true for some people sometimes. For instance, we do know that developmentally, in a broad way, younger teens do typically have a harder time understanding they're not magically invulnerable to risk, and making decisions when the stakes are high is often more difficult for people in that age group than for teens just a couple years older. A recent study out of Cornell found that teens they studied were more likely to ponder risks, and take longer weighing pros and cons of engaging in high-risk behavior than adults, and even overestimated risks. (It also found, though, that those teens often decided potential benefits outweighed the risks.) We also know, however, that, on the whole, the messaging many, if not most, young people are reared with about risks tends to be very black and white; many go without the help and guidance we need to learn to make choices which involve risk, especially when it comes to sex. "Just say no," "Good guys/girls don't," or "Only once you're married," after all, only dictate what decision someone apparently should make, they don't teach a thing about how to actually weigh and make choices. Same goes double for growing up in environments that are highly controlled, then winding up in one with little to no external control -- like college -- and being expected to figure out how to do all of this by (and sometimes about) the seat of your pants.


The Antidote to "It Can't Happen to Me." Quick and dirty, it goes like this: yes, it can. Anything that can happen to someone else can usually happen to us. Obviously, if we don't have a uterus, we can't get pregnant even though other people have, and if we don't have a penis, we aren't going to lose a penile erection. But I'm not talking about things like that where our bodies lack an ability. If someone else's partner can ditch them after sex, we have to know ours could, too. If someone else could get an STI by having anal intercourse, we need to know that so can we. If someone else with a uterus can become pregnant and we have one, too, the same could happen for us. And often, the more invulnerable we think we are to something happening, the more super-shiny-luck we think we have that other, more unlucky folks don't, the more likely it is to happen, especially since when we think that way, we don't tend to do the things which reduce risks that people who don't think so magically do.

Many of us are also surrounded by a cultural sexual context that doesn't support or encourage thinking things through and making sound choices based on those thoughts, but just reacting. We get messages that sex is supposed to be about being spontaneous, about being "swept away," or is something totally outside our control because our hormones make us do things; about going with the flow of other people's wants. We might have gotten messages that if we choose to engage in sex in a particular context -- like marriage, for example, or after a certain age -- that everything will be hunky-dory and we somehow (how, I don't know) won't have to worry about any risks or making any difficult choices. Suffice it to say, a whole lot of people have ignorance at the wheel with sexual decisions, because very few people have had sound sex education, and education that doesn't amplify or diminish many of the risks involved. So, while there are some issues around all of this that can be developmental and can be about different abilities, a lot of this is also cultural. In other words, you probably can do this thing and learn to do it well, and most of the barriers to doing it well aren't about anything missing in your brain, but about learning how to do this, considering risk when it really makes sense to -- rather than when there's just no way the benefits could outweigh the risks --  and unlearning some of the stuff that keeps us all from doing it better.

When presented with a sexual decision, or any kind of high-stakes choice that carries some kind of risk, how do we work it through? There are a lot of different theories and approaches to decision-making and risk assessment, but most boil down to something like this:

The Barest of Decision-Making Basics

1. We sort out what our risks in a situation are, and if we are not certain, we make an effort to find out as much as we can from credible sources.
2. We sort out what the potential benefits are or think there could be could be in taking those risks.
3. We consider the realistic -- not what we wish, hope or, alternately, fear -- likelihood of all the possible outcomes of a given choice, positive, negative and neutral, and work through how important to us those possible outcomes are.
4. We open our minds and weigh the potential benefits against the potential losses or unwanted outcomes, while also considering how big or small, important or unimportant, each are to us: we look at the pros, look at the cons and then decide if the possible benefits outweigh the possible risks, unwanted or negative outcomes for us or not. When someone else is involved, we think or talk about all of this and the impact on them, too.
5. If we're not, at that point, at an absolute go, or a total no-go, we rethink, reevaluate or reconsider our situation to see what we can do to reduce or mitigate those risks; we consider our alternative choices and options.
6. Rinse, then repeat.  In other words, we then consider an alternative at hand, and start that process again from the top, continuing as we reach decisions.

So simple, right? Sometimes it is, even if the decisions we come to aren't easy or ideal choices to make. But other times, it's tougher: some things can jack up that process, or parts of it can be more challenging to think through or work out clearly.

What and How Much Are You Risking and How Do You Know?

If and when we're taking any kind of risk, we sometimes know clearly what our risks are and how likely they are. For instance, if we've had the education or experience to know how pregnancy happens, how STIs can be transmitted, or what being in an intimate relationship or exchange can be like, then we can have a good sense of what we're risking, when we're open to those risks and when we're not, how high or low those risks might be, and how we might feel or cope with those risks or outcomes.

But sometimes, we don't know what we're risking, or think that a level of risk is different than it is. For instance, some folks think that so long as they only have penis-in-vagina intercourse for a certain period of time, a penis only enters a vagina for a certain amount of centimeters or inches, or someone is on Day Whatever of their menstrual cycle, that pregnancy isn't a risk. Other folks think that if they are within a ten-mile-radius of someone they have a sexual interest in, they'll get pregnant just by having sexual thoughts, or that if they touched something someone with a penis touched, pregnancy is a real possibility. None of those folks have a handle on the realistic level of risk in their situations.

If and when we don't have the sound, credible information we need to even know what our risks in a given situation are, how high or low they are, and what, realistically, the outcomes of those risks are most likely to be and how they're likely to impact us, others or our lives, then we start a decision-making process handicapped right at the gate; without the most basic things we need to start that process well, let alone complete it in a sound way.

When it comes to sexual decisions, so many people are lacking in sound sex education and information. So,  they're often going to make poor decisions just because their knowledge of their risks are based more in misinformation, propaganda, hearsay or people's anecdotes (often told with their own agendas affixed) than in sound, broad information from credible, reliable sources.

You're already at one place where you can seek out sound, credible information, so by all means, immerse yourself. But Scarleteen isn't the only place to get it: you can add to the info we provide by visiting other credible sites online, talking with staff at sexual or reproductive health clinics or practices, reading at the library, and asking people you trust and know to both have sound, up-to-date sex education and your best interest at heart for help and information. While a lot of junior high and high schools don't have good comprehensive sex education programs, lots of colleges do (hint: if you're younger or not enrolled in college, you may be able to audit), as do some bookstores, health centers, and other community centers.

Something we see here a lot, when a user comes to us with misinformation about risks they're taking, is "But my boyfriend/girlfriend told me that..." One of the things that makes information credible is that the source of that information doesn't have a lot of personal bias, or is able to put their bias on the table, so it's not hidden. If and when we want to be sexual with someone, we have a TON of personal bias: there's something we want, sometimes very badly, for ourselves, even if we're not an absolute tool and do care about the other person, too, and we also usually want sexual partners to see us as having some kind of sexual authority or expertise rather than as clueless. Potential or current sexual partners are great people to talk about sex and our sex lives with, and to share sexual information with, but not great people to get that information from as a primary source. So, do make sure that when it comes to the information you're getting to figure out what is and isn't a real risk, and how big or small a given risk is, the person who wants to take that risk with you or have you take it isn't the same person you're getting most of your information about it from.

Thinking Things Through When You're Running Hot

Some decision-making theory frames the context in which we make decisions as hot or cold.  "Cold" decision making is something we do in a calm, more detached state, and is also often a decision about things that don't pack a huge punch, like what we're going to wear in the morning or what movie to see.  "Hot" contexts, on the other hand, are those where we're often under stress (including eustress, stress from positive things, not just stress from negative situations), our emotions are high, and the stakes are high, with our decisions often being about bigger, more loaded things, like health or safety.  In that "hot" space, it's probably no surprise that we can all be much more likely to make irrational decisions or not think things through clearly.

When we're making sexual decisions, it's often in a "hot" context, even in relationships or interactions where everyone is being thoughtful and kind to each other, and the general environment is positive and healthy. After all, these choices are about big things like our health and safety, tend to carry high emotional stakes, very much involve our emotions and those of others and do tend to be about things that most people find to be very important; these decisions usually involve stress, sometimes a lot of it.

When we're under that kind of stress, it impacts how we make choices. It's very common to cope poorly with stress, or to react with things like avoidance, denial, or panic, all reactions that can color our decisions, or even cause us to react by refusing to make our own decisions at all, leaving them up to someone else or just "letting fate decide."  (Which it doesn't of course: someone is still deciding in a given situation, someone who's name probably isn't Fate.)

One of the toughest things about evaluating risk and making decisions which involve risk when it comes to any kind of sex is often that it is a "hot" decision-making situation, and we may have to think fast and make big decisions in the moment, decisions that ideally, we'd probably take a lot more time to make. See what you can't do in those situations to cool them a little: to make the environment you're making in them a little less loaded and a little more relaxed, whether that means taking a walk-break, getting some comforting snuggles or affirmations of support no matter what you choose, calling a friend, dancing around the room for no good reason, listening to a favorite CD -- whatever might help you can make a choice with a cooler head.

Unless we are in the midst of being attacked or assaulted, we can always make and take more time to think things through. We can always press pause and just say, "I need more time to think about this, so I need to get back to you about it later;if you want to, or we can talk some about it now, with the understanding I'm not doing it now and will still need my own time to think more." If and when we find ourselves in sexual situations where we don't feel ready to think fast and evaluate big things quickly well, we probably aren't ready to move forward with whatever that situation or thing is yet, and need more time: time to figure out, in a broad way, how we feel about whatever it is, and also time to be more ready for making a given kind of big or loaded choice quickly.

Too, make sure to shut external input or static off for at some point when you're making choices. After you've done what research you need to to get any extra information you need, step away from the computer, your cell phone, the TV, magazines, the stereo, all those cute-but-also-seriously-annoying inspiring quotes on everyone's Facebook, all of it. We all have a lot of input and constant feedback these days, and it can make it mighty tough to really think and focus on our own internal locus. If we want to really hear our own voices, we have to turn the volume of everything else down for a bit.

Take, Keep and Honor Your Own Core Inventory

One thing that can help, which we can do in advance of choices, is having a handle on the most core things we want and need in any sexual or big-time intimate situation: our ground zero, our personal manifesto. So, your basics, basics that will apply to nearly any situation, and maybe even to all of them, might be something like:

  • That I and anyone else involved is very essentially physically and emotionally safe and feel good about ourselves
  • That I am treated and respected as a whole, actual person, warts and all, and am doing the same for others
  • That I don't give up or risk things that are of the utmost importance to me or ask anyone else to
  • That going ahead with a given sexual or intimate experience, interaction or relationship seems more likely to be a positive for myself and anyone else, short-term and long-term, than a negative
  • That any choice I make is in line with the core beliefs, values and goals I currently hold most dear

Maybe your list looks like that, maybe it doesn't. What's vital is just that you come up with something for yourself that feels true to you and represents the most core things you, uniquely, want and need. So, give yourself a few hours, and create a short, basic list out, working on it until it's something that feels like a fit in terms of what it most important to you, and making sure it's broad enough that it really could fit most situations. Review it every now and then. These things will become things you won't have to strain to remember even in heated moments or when being turned on physically, emotionally or both is clouding your brain a bit (as it tends to do for any of us, no matter how old we are).

That still won't dictate what you might choose in a given situation, as we can't really plan ahead completely for the wide array of different scenarios and contexts we might experience, like how having strong feelings for someone can change some of our priorities, having someone ask us  to do something we didn't even know about to consider before, or how another person's wants and needs will factor into choices we're making. But it is a framework we can use to help center ourselves when evaluating our choices and use to keep the things biggest for us in mind. Ultimately, anything that asks us to not be who we are, or to act against our most core personal values is almost always something we can know at the gate to steer away from, not towards.

Over time, you might find you need to change up that list. And again, you also aren't going to be able to figure out all of this by yourself if there's another person involved: you're going to need to talk with them, find out how they feel, what they want and need, and how what you feel, want and need meshes with their stuff. That's especially important if and when it's not you, but someone else who'd be taking bigger risks than you, or where you'd be more likely to benefit from a situation than the other person would. If you don't feel able to talk or ask questions, or want to avoid communication, that's obviously going to be a real problem, so that's another thing that can be a big cue that any kind of sex with someone is probably not a great idea until or unless you find that changes and you feel more comfortable communicating. (That can be one of the risks we take with sex, by the way: the risk of communicating openly and honestly, voicing things that may or may not be what someone else likes or wants to hear, or things that make us more vulnerable.)


Just a Word on "But Everyone Else Is...." Life as a younger person can be like living in a fishbowl, where it's hard to know what's really outside of it. People tend to overestimate what everyone else is really doing, and also not recognize how many people aren't honest about their sexual lives, their sexual experiences, and how much information about other people's sexual lives is gossip, not reality. The media doesn't help: a lot of it only talks about young people and sex when they're talking about what young people are doing that's scary or risky or seen as socially unacceptable. A study of ten teens is often reported as "Teens Do...." whatever it is, making it seem like what those ten teens did is representative of all teens, when it usually isn't. You already know this, but what one person -- or even thousands of people -- are doing doesn't mean it's a right or good thing for another person. When you're potentially taking big risks, it's crucially important that the person you consider the most in your choices is you.

Flipping the Script and Wearing Someone Else's Shoes

Another decision-making trick to try is considering the polar opposite choice of the one you're actually considering. In other words, to help you clarify your thinking, and what you want and don't, what is or isn't right for you if, say, you were thinking about entering into a sexual situation with someone, think instead about NOT doing that, about walking totally away from that opportunity. How do you feel about that opposite situation? When you've thought and felt through that, revisit the other choice again: after thinking about it's opposite, how do you feel about it now?

One more trick is to try and look at a situation from an outsider's perspective. For instance, let's say the thing you're thinking about is, instead, the thing your best friend or sibling is thinking about, and they're bringing it to you to ask for your advice. What does it look like from the outside-in, when it's about someone else, not you? What would you advise they do or think about? How would you feel about their choices with this situation?

Avoiding Black and White Thinking

If and when we're faced with choices around risk and our choices look very black and white, or like there's only this one or that one, rather than a range of options, we can know we're probably not thinking clearly. In any situation, there aren't usually just two choices and options, but far more.

If it looks like that, step back and try and think about all your possible alternatives. If your brain feels stuck and you can't see them, know something is probably amiss and whatever the situation is, if you can, you need to get some more distance from it so you can think more creatively and openly.

Part of avoiding the trap of black and white thinking also involves doing what we can to keep one given situation or choice in perspective, instead of making it into something way larger than it is. For example, not having sex with someone when we're afforded an opportunity doesn't mean never having sex with anyone ever: it only means not having sex with that person, at that time. Having one girlfriend react poorly to a request for adding a condom doesn't mean every girlfriend will act that way so you should just go without because this is how it'll be with everyone, so what the hell. Opening our heart to one person doesn't mean we have to be that wide open with everyone. Not being okay with a level of risk with something now doesn't mean we'll never be. While we're certainly going to consider our life experiences to date when we're making choices, and we need to look at the big picture,there's a balance to be struck:  it's important to give the current situation at hand our focus and understand that unless we're taking about realistic long-term outcomes, projecting a future on to it based more in our emotional reactions than in reality isn't sound, and is also bound to make us feel panicked or distraught, which always makes it harder to make our best choices.

One other kind of black and white thinking about risk is thinking that any given risk is a given: that if it's a risk, it WILL happen. But that's not what a risk is: a risk is something that likely could or might happen. Part of making decisions around risk involves figuring out how comfortable we are -- or are not --  not just with a possible outcome, but with a certain level of uncertainty; with things not being black and white.

A Time Machine Would Sure Be Handy.

When you're younger, many of the sexual choices you'll make involve potentially risking things or outcomes you haven't experienced yet, or taking risks to try and get or experience things you think will be what you want, or think you or others will like, but don't actually have the experience to know for sure (and might find out weren't at all like you expected). It's a lot easier for someone who has experienced something to know if they want it, can deal with possible outcomes, or if a given thing is really worth what they might risk for it. It's also challenging to figure out how much we care or don't about the impact something might have on our lives long-term when we aren't sure yet what we want our life to be like later, or can't even imagine being 30, 40 or 60.

So, often you're going to have to be thinking ahead or in hypotheticals. What can you do? Try and identify and follow your gut feelings and stand by the things you know are already important to you. Revisit that inventory list we talked about up there. With a decision you have more time to make, or make more time for yourself to make, talk to people who have had those experiences, ideally finding folks to talk to for whom those experiences aren't fresh, but where they've had time to see how they panned out over years or decades, not just months, weeks or days. It's easy to say something worked out fine -- or didn't -- for us when we haven't lived with it for very long.

It can help to try to visualize, in as much detail as possible, what your life would be like with certain outcomes. For instance, if possible pregnancy is what's on the table, try and create a realistic picture in your mind of you and your life next year with an infant, you at 20 with a toddler, you at 30 with someone soon to become a teen you're responsible for and who takes up a huge amount of real estate in your life. If a possible outcome of a choice is having someone you're seeing now ditch you because you said no to something they wanted, something which might obviously hurt quite a lot now, what about a year from now, five years from now, ten years from now? How will that outcome really impact your whole life, versus the impact of doing something you really don't want to right now or getting stuck in a crummy relationship now? This kind of role-playing is really helpful in making sound choices.

When a risk is optional, also remember that if and when we really can't get any kind of sense of what taking it or it's possible outcomes mean to us, we can always choose to exempt ourselves from even being in that position in the first place. Sometimes if we're faced with a given situation or opportunity, it can feel like we have to go forward because here we are, and here it is, right now, so we must have to do it right now, right? Nope: we don't. We can usually always opt out, slow down or turn back. That's one way we can always respond to what's right here, right now.

Trying to Avoid Big Bummers or Being The Big Bummer

One of the issues that tends to come up when I work with young people around sexual risk-taking, especially those taking big risks they either don't really want to, or know really aren't smart for them to take, is disappointment: a fear someone else will be disappointed or that a given person will themselves experience disappointment, and a deep desire to avoid disappointing or being disappointed.

In a world and a time where a whole lot of emphasis is put on the value of sexual satisfaction, and what satisfaction even is tends to be oversimplified and made more about things than people (like "getting" sex or "giving an orgasm," rather than experiencing the wide range of sex and sexuality and any person you're exploring it with, for example), that's not surprising. And when you put all of that in the context of being in a space and time of life where social status and interactions tend to be more intense and super-important, and where so much judgment is put on your sexual value, status and choices, it's pretty easy to see why so many people can be so concerned about disappointing or experiencing disappointment around sex.

So, you might worry about the disappointment of not engaging in a sexual activity or experience you really want, and maybe not getting the chance to have the same opportunity again. You might worry about saying no -- or yes -- to something someone else wants sexually, or putting a limit on something someone else wanted to be limitless, and them feeling disappointment with you because of that. You might worry that not being open to taking big risks means someone else will be disappointed in you because, to them, that means not trusting or valuing them.

Disappointment will not bring anyone's world to a catastrophic end. We will all experience disappointment in our lives, sometimes a lot of it, and unless we're a total hot mess, we'll get through it, often without it being that big of a deal for that long. It's okay to feel disappointed, and it's okay to disappoint others. We absolutely will never be able to please everyone, or even always please any one person, no matter what we do or don't do.  In "The Usual Error," a book on interpersonal communication by Pace and Kyeli, they have a chapter called Giving Permission to Disappoint.

In it, they say:

When we disappoint each other, we lose our ability to solve the problem at hand because we get caught up in how we feel about the disappointment. We may feel ashamed to disappoint our partner or afraid of admitting our own limitations and needs. Or, if we've been disappointed, we may feel conflict between our perfect concept of our partner and the reality of the disappointment. We may paint the other person as somehow lacking because they didn't live up to our mythical expectations.

With all those distractions, it's a wonder we manage to solve any problems at all! If instead we give each other permission to disappoint, we can move beyond the distracting issues and deal with what's really going on... You can give yourself permission to disappoint others, too! Everyone disappoints others sometimes, everyone makes mistakes, and feeling bad about it isn't going to do you -- or them -- any good. Giving yourself permission to disappoint is giving yourself permission to be human, to be flawed, and to be yourself.

And, of course, in this context, giving yourself permission to disappoint, or others to disappoint you also means not taking big risks with potentially bad or unwanted outcomes just to try and avoid experiencing disappointment or disappointing someone else. And when we're talking about sex, that kind of permission has extra benefits, like helping you or partners worry less about performance and focus more on pleasure, like being able to really be yourself sexually instead of trying to be who someone else wants you to be or trying to be some kind of perfect lover, like allowing your body to have whatever limitations it does rather than trying to do things you can't or that don't feel good.

Of course, the other thing to keep in mind about disappointment at a given time, is that it can sometimes mean NOT feeling more disappointed later (even though, again, it's okay to feel disappointment at any time, and is pretty much a totally unavoidable part of life now and then). For instance, you might not feel disappointed at the time you choose to engage in sex that's not quite right or safe for you because you got to experience the sex you wanted, but feel disappointed later about that choice because it meant feelings or outcomes that sucked.

Passivity Bites (not in a fun way)

Let's talk for a sec about our imaginary friend Fate again. The idea of "letting Fate decide," isn't just a problem because fate isn't deciding anything, people are, but also because what we're doing most of the time if we go that way is choosing to be passive: choosing to let someone else decide for us, or choosing to pretend certain risks or outcomes that are real aren't and create an imaginary situation that's not what's really going on.  Choosing not to empower ourselves. That passivity can not only put us or others in harms way, it can also mean we -- on purpose or without intent -- avoid taking responsibility for and ownership of our actions and their outcomes.

That might seem like a good thing sometimes, especially if we really want to do something, but don't feel up to taking ownership if something goes wrong.  But I'd posit that it's really not. When we do things that have outcomes we want, when we make choices well and things go well as a result, we usually want to own responsibility for them: it feels good to take that credit. When we do or choose things that don't go well or go badly, it won't feel good in a whole lot of ways to feel responsbile, but what taking responsibility in those situations can do is make it far more likely we can figure out and be real about where we messed up, and figure out how to change things up, so in the future we won't keep making the same mistakes again and again and again. The other thing that can happen when one person in an interaction is passive and ditches responsibility is that the other person either gets all the credit for something that goes really well or, more commonly, shoulders all the blame when things go poorly.

When we're talking about any kind of sex or intimacy with someone else, decision-making and ownership of all of our choices is also a big part of what makes it doing it together in the first place. In other words, if we had sex with someone, that "with" part isn't just about both of us being there, or both of our bodies doing certain things.  It's also about both of us being truly present, making active choices together, and sharing responsibility, whether that interaction is in an ongoing relationship or a short-term hookup. In most contexts, it's safe to say that ditching that shared ownership is not only going to make us (or the other person) feel like we weren't or aren't really all there, it'll tend to make us feel less good about the good stuff, and worse about the bad stuff.


You probably know this already, but if and when booze or recreational drugs are in the mix, making sexual decisions well gets much, much harder, even if it doesn't feel that way at the time. Those things do change and impair our judgement, and often not for the better: most will make most people feel more uninhibited most of the time, which can feel liberating, but at the same time, it can make us feel like things which are a big deal to us aren't in the moment; that things that are real risks aren't so risky after all. This is a big part of why sexual violence increases so much when alcohol is in the mix, and why things like condom use and good communication with consent go down.

Identify Weaknesses To Create Strengths

Learning to make choices when there are risks involved is a lifelong process. If we work on it, we tend to get better as we grow. It's not something anyone is going to walk into and be a genius at right from the gate: it takes practice.

Even then, very few of us are flawless, perfect, expert decision-makers, especially when the stakes are high in any way. Getting good at this involves having opportunities to make big decisions -- something most young people are all going to be really new at, especially young people who haven't had the chance to have a lot of freedoms and responsibilities yet -- and having practice at working choices through. But even when we've had plenty of both of those things, most of us, if not all, are going to have parts of this we're not great at; particular things, contexts or ways of feeling or thinking that are a real thorn in the side of assessing our risks and making choices which involve risk.

If you pay attention to the patterns of your decision-making when risk is involved, you might be able to identify things that mess you up. Like, you might be someone who gets really reactive or caves to other people's emotions or wants, for instance, or someone who finds your logical thinking breaks down when certain insecurities you've got get triggered. Or, maybe you're someone who can tend to overthink if you take too much time with these choices, or who just shuts down or panics when you feel like you have to make a big choice quickly. Perhaps you find that when it comes to something you want or idealize, you're prone to engage in magical thinking, where you see things the way you want to see them, rather than how they will realistically pan out.

Whatever your own messup metric is, see if you can't identify it, and then make room for it, rather than beating yourself up about it. When other people are involved, for example, and we know something trips us up, we can tell them that  thing makes it harder for us to make choices so they can take that into account and do what they can to help work with that challenge. We can better choose the environments or conditions we put ourselves in where we have to make big decisions so we can be more likely to have conditions that work best for us as unique individuals, like choosing the kinds of communication channels that works best for us or talking about things in places where they can get less heated.  It's always not only okay to tailor all of this as best we can to make room for the things we're not so great at, doing that can help us turn those weaknesses into strengths.

Terrified of ANY Risk?

The popular notion that all young people are always ready to dive head-first into risky things is flawed in many ways, including that it doesn't address people who feel terrified of any kind of risk at all, sometimes to the degree that they feel unable to fully participate in their lives. 

Anaïs Nin, who certainly knew a thing or twelve about risk-taking, once said, "And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."  In other words, feeling very afraid and trying to avoid all risk, trying to never, ever take any risks, can hurt us too, and can be scary, too. There can come a point where it feels like life is passing us by and that we've wound up protecting ourselves from things we actually want to experience. It's scary not to actively live our lives, after all; to non-participate in them. We're also very unlikely to have lives we like very much, or that have the things in them we want. If we don't take some risks to connect with people, we run the risk of not connecting to anyone. If we never try out for the team or the play, we won't ever be able to get in. If we don't risk some growth that might be painful or uncomfortable, we risk not growing at all.

I'm not talking about something like deciding that sex or sexual relationships just aren't for you right now because you know those aren't things you want, have interest in or feel ready for. I'm talking about not going for what you do want and do mostly feel ready for out of a strong fear about taking any kind of risk at all, even risks that are small, can be made smaller, or managed in ways that make not taking the risk more likely to bring about unwanted outcomes than taking it would.

If you're feeling like this, think about what baby steps you can take outside your comfort zone: things you can  handle, even though they feel scary, but which with some extra support with, and some help managing, would probably be worth taking because they'd be more likely to get you what you want than not taking them. Where, when we do a pro and con list, the pros of taking a risk far outweigh the cons.

Maybe, for example, you've really want to start exploring romantic or sexual relationships but you haven't been able to even get to know anyone because you're so terrified to risk rejection, you're waiting for everyone else to ask, instead of taking any initiative yourself. What about stepping just a little bit out of your comfort zone and just asking someone you like to hang out with you sometime, and telling a friend you're going to do that, and having them agree to be there for you to call no matter how it goes for support, maybe help cheerleading you to take that leap the day you decide you're going to? Or, maybe you want to communicate better about sex with partners, but feel afraid to even open your mouth. How about taking a step to start getting there by first talking to someone about sex where the states feel less high, like to a counselor, friend or sexual health clinician? Maybe you've had a great relationship going, one you and your partner really want to start exploring sexually, but you are terrified of pregnancy: what about a middle ground where you simply stick with exploring some kinds of sex together you both want to, but the kinds that don't pose any pregnancy risks?

By all means, some people suffer from conditions or histories that make this way tougher. If you think or know you have an anxiety disorder or another health condition that can make all of this trickier, were raised in a way that instilled giant fears around risk, or have experienced trauma that's resulted in strong fears or, alternately, an apathy, around risks, seek out qualified help and support. We all have our limitations and our big issues, and no perky little article can just poof the big ones away.

Perfect Isn't Possible (P.S. Mucking It Up Sometimes is Also Okay)

You are going to make mistakes. Everyone -- everyone -- does. There are both going to be risks you're really glad you took, and risks you wish you hadn't. You're probably going to be really good at making some choices with some risks, and really crappy at others. You've got to know all of that because it's probably true, but also because putting pressure on yourself to be perfect, to always make perfect choices, isn't helpful or realistic. That kind of pressure not only makes us feel like crud, it makes us very likely to feel unable to make any choices or to really live our lives fully, and it can also sometimes make us feel like we shouldn't bother even trying to make choices well because our bar is set to high for us to be able to reach no matter what we do.

The goal here isn't to be perfect or to aim to avoid any unwanted outcomes in life: that's just not possible. The goal is to do the best we can with the abilities and resources we have to make good choices when facing risks, to limit situations with risk we know or suspect we're just not ready to deal with or can't or don't want to handle, and to gradually get better and better at evaluating our risks and making sound choices with them over time. That you can do.

Want some extra helps with making these kinds of decisions?  Click here for a cribsheet of lists, helps and walkthroughs from sections of this piece. Or, check out the following links here and elsewhere on the web:

written 25 Jul 2012 . updated 20 Jan 2014

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