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Sorting Maybe from Can't-Be: Reality Checking Partnered Sex Wants & Ideals

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Scarleteen users often ask for our help making choices about engaging in sex with a partner. When we have those discussions, we'll usually link them to some basic information, then engage in a talk starting with questions about what they feel they want and need when it comes to a sexual scenario that's right for them; that fits who they are and what they want uniquely.

In those conversations, our users will mention things which are doable and sound. But sometimes, especially with younger users, folks voice things they need and want which just aren't possible, are very unlikely, or are iffy in their given situation.

We believe there's no one right set of sexual choices, only what is and isn't right for each of us as individuals in whatever our unique situations and circumstances are. Our aim with anything like this is to help you assure that any sex you engage in is not only mutually wanted and fully consensual, but is in alignment with what you want, need and feel comfortable with. One of the things that makes it most likely our sexual choices are going to be good ones is not only being in tune with what our wants, needs and levels of comfort are, but making sure those things and our expectations are realistic with any sexual opportunity we seek out or which presents itself to us. When our wants or expectations aren't realistic, we can try to adjust them, wait for sex until a time in life when they change on their own or we feel differently about them, or we can seek out a different sexual situation or one at a different time where those things are possible and more likely.

If you want to make sexual choices based on any of the things below, have a read. We've laid out the skinny on what's possible, what isn't, and what you can think about and do to help bridge any gaps and be most likely to get what it is that you want and need for yourself.

You say: "I need to be a sexual partner to stay with me forever. Or at least for a very long time."

Is that possible? Not forever, no. Being with a partner for a very long time is possible, but unlikely when you're in your teens and early twenties, especially the younger you are.

None of us lives forever. So, we've got to cross forever off our must-have lists, even when things feel forever-y or we really want them to.

Very few relationships span a lifetime, or even decades, especially those that start when we're young. In fact, if you're in your teens, whatever relationship you're in now will most likely last less than a year or two, maybe even less than half a year, especially if you're a younger teen. First romantic or sexual relationships rarely last longer than a couple years, and even lasting that long is very uncommon. As people get even a little older, moving from the earlier teens to the later teens and twenties, romantic and/or sexual relationships often tend to endure for longer periods of time. There are always exceptions, but they seem to happen for far fewer people than the number of people who feel sure their relationship is going to be lifelong. Of course, the person you want to be with for a very long time now may be the person you don't want to be with at all next year: this isn't just about the other person and what they choose or want.

I don't mean to be a jerk here: those feelings of forever or long-time love or affection are big, important feelings of value. They're just not sound predictors of reality, especially since how we feel doesn't dictate how our lives go.

If in making choices about being sexual with someone you feel like one thing you need is a pretty safe bet your relationship will have a good chance of enduring, if not forever, a few years or even decades, you're probably going to be better served holding off on sex for a little while longer. Even just waiting another year or two can make a longer-term relationship more likely. You might also check in with yourself and do a little translation: what wanting that forever might be is just you wanting to feel more secure in a relationship, to want a relationship that is more committed, or may be an indication that at this time in your life, you just aren't feeling secure or safe enough in your own self and sexuality to be sexual with someone else, especially given forever isn't possible, and lifelong isn't likely.

You say: "I don't want there to be any risk, not even a tiny one, of pregnancy."

Is that possible? Yes, in some sexual situations, but not in others.

If your partner has the same reproductive organs you do -- you've both got penises or you've both got vaginas -- or that's not the case, but you're only engaging in the kinds of sex that can't create a pregnancy, that's an easy order to fill. In those situations, you can be sexual with a partner without any risk of pregnancy.

If you want to have the kinds of sex that can create a pregnancy, though, a totally no-risk scenario is rarely attainable. Reliable methods of birth control used consistently (always) and correctly, especially when more than one is used at a time (like using condoms with the vaginal ring or pill) can whittle pregnancy risks down to a sliver. But even using four methods at once can't usually get anyone to a 0% risk.

Often there's good reason when we don't want to take any risk of pregnancy, like knowing a pregnancy would be in some way dangerous or really derailing for us or anyone else, none of the options when a person is pregnant seem like wanted or doable choices, or pregnancy feels like something we don't want to or couldn't handle, or a that a partner couldn't deal with well.

You can choose to only engage in the kinds of sex that don't create pregnancy risks while you feel this way: it's not like only the kinds of sex that present pregnancy risks are the only kinds of sex that are satisfying or real. You can also find out about the methods of contraception you and your partner can use, make sure you're using reliable methods properly, and use dual contraception to reduce your risk as much as possible. It can help to have a long talk with your healthcare provider about what effectiveness rates mean and to be sure you're using methods properly which are most likely to work best for you: there isn't any one method of contraception that's right for everyone.

You say: "I don't want there to be any risk, even a tiny one, of sexually transmitted infections."

Is that possible? If the kind of sex you're having involves touching each other's bodies, then probably not.

There's always going to be some potential risk of STIs if we have physical sex with people, especially sex that involves our mouths and/or genitals, just like there's always going to be some potential risk of all kinds of infections when we have any kind of contact with other people and the outside world. To get a completely no-risk scenario, you'd have to grow up and live in a hermetically-sealed container, and so would whoever you'd be having sex with (which one would assume you'd arrange via some kind of walkway between your bubbles).

If and when you and a potential sexual partner have had no kind of genital sex with someone else, for real, the risks of most STIs are greatly reduced. If you've never even kissed a family member or slept over at a friend's house, they're reduced even more. But some infections are still picked up through nonsexual contact, like oral herpes, which usually isn't contracted sexually, but can be transmitted that way, infections transmitted from mother-to-child at birth, or those contracted through things like needle sharing. So if you want a 100% no-risk situation, your only option is not to be intimate with anyone else, in any way, ever.

But again, while you can't make it so there's no risk, you can reduce those risks. Safer sex practices -- using barriers for any kind of genital sex, getting regularly tested and treated if and when an infection that can be treated shows up, and limiting sexual partners -- are incredibly effective when always used and used properly. They are what we know (from study, not wishful thinking) works best to reduce STI risks, far more effectively than going without them in any situation. They don't get anyone to no risk, but at a minimum, will usually reduce risks of STIs by anywhere , depending on which kind of infection we're talking about.

If that still doesn't feel okay to you, or you don't think you or a partner can or will do a good job with all the aspects of safer sex, you'll probably want to wait until you both feel more comfortable with the possible risks, even when small, and when you also know you and yours have access to health care and will do all you need to to best prevent infections.

You say: "I need everyone to have an orgasm. Or, at least, for sex to be awesome for both of us."

Is that possible? It's absolutely possible, it just can't ever be guaranteed (and often is a lot less likely whenever anyone feels and acts really desperate about it).

It's safe to say that no matter what kind of sex we're having, with who, or at what time in our life, sex is always an experiment. In other words, we can never know for sure or guarantee that everyone will get off or even will enjoy themselves. Sometimes people orgasm and sometimes people don't, even when they're doing something they have reached orgasm from before in the exact same way as they did it when they got off the last time. Sometimes people have a good time and sometimes they don't, even when they're having sex with the same person, doing things they have enjoyed before.

It's great to want everyone involved, including you, to feel good -- emotionally and physically -- with and during sex and to experience pleasure and feel satisfied. Aiming for that is always the way to go, and by all means, sometimes everyone does reach orgasm and does have a great time. But if we feel like we desperately need that, and feel super-uncomfy with the possibility that orgasm or pleasure might not happen at any time, that can clue us in to some possibilities.

For example, it might be that you feel like orgasm is something you feel insecure or unvalidated without, whether that's about proving something to yourself or to a partner. It might be that you feel emotionally able to be with someone experiencing pleasure, but feel clueless or freaked about how to deal with it when you or someone else find something doesn't feel good or you or they don't feel good about something, which is understandable, since it's way easier to deal with everyone feeling great. Sex can be a place where we feel pretty vulnerable, including around what we can and can't offer someone else or they can or can't offer us, and what we or they feel our sexual value is. So, it's pretty easy to have insecurities around those things triggered when we have sex, especially if we're doing it for iffy reasons, going into it before we really feel emotionally ready for the good, bad and the completely-embarrassing, or are trying to prove something to ourselves or someone else. If any of those things feel true to you, it may be you need some more time to feel more secure in and confident about yourself, more time to feel safe and comfortable with that other person or to be with a different person altogether, some more education on what's realistic to expect with sex and sexual response (which tends to be very different IRL than in the movies, books or on TV) or even may just need to talk this stuff out with a partner for a while first.

You say: "I don't want to regret anything."

Is that possible? Yes, but it's unpredictable, especially over time, and not something any one set of choices could ever guarantee.

No one can make a universal list of what to do and what not to, of what sexual situations to pursue and which to avoid, to guarantee people won't ever experience sexual regret. Regret is always going to be a possibility.

Regret is a tricky thing to predict or protect ourselves against, because we don't all want the same things and we're not all the same people. A situation one person will regret taking part in can be a situation another will regret not taking part in. Like we say a lot around here, sexuality and sexual choices are incredibly individual and incredibly situational. In other words, some things just aren't right for a given person, while for another person, those things are wanted and ideal. On top of that, regret is something people most often feel looking back in their histories when they have more life experience, or have become different people in some way than they were before. No one can ever predict who exactly they'll be or what they'll see as ideal ten, twenty or fifty years down the road.

The best anyone can ever do is just to take the time to get a clear sense of what they -- not their best friend, their partner or their Aunt Mabel -- want and need (or recognize they don't have any idea, and chill out with sex until they do), have some idea of some of their life goals and their own values and ethics, check in with their true feelings, then put heart, head and that information together and evaluate sexual choices with all of that in mind. The you want to make those choices without compromising any of that you aren't seriously okay compromising.

It might help to know that people who experience sexual regret frequently have some things in common. Often they made choices they didn't give a lot of thought to or take enough time thinking about, or did things they knew at the time weren't what they, as individuals, really wanted and needed. For example, many young women find they regret sex with people they have just met. That's fine for some folks or in some situations, but many people aren't comfortable being sexual with people they haven't had time to get to know, so for those folks, that'd probably be a choice they were more likely to have felt regret about. Lack of control is another common indicator of regret: in other words, a person who felt like they didn't really have the control they needed or wanted in a sexual situation regretted the sex they engaged in because they wanted more control than they felt they had or earnestly did have. That includes making sexual choices at times when a person can't think clearly, like when drinking or otherwise wasted, or when in some kind of emotional distress. One thing we know makes regret a lot less likely is avoiding sex when you or a partner don't have the ability to make decisions or aren't in a situation where your or their judgment is impaired.

Obviously, it gets a lot easier to have a sense of what we probably will and probably won't regret the more we get to know ourselves. So, if you're worried about regret, one thing you can do is to just give yourself a little more time. When in doubt, just take a pause or a pass. While it can sometimes feel like sexual opportunities are once-in-a-lifetime, they're usually not.

You say: "I don't want my partner to know my sexual history...or my lack of one."

Is that possible? Yes, but there are reasons why not sharing some sexual history can be unethical or a bummer.

People can always choose not to disclose their sexual history, even though it's unethical if they're choosing not to disclose something which could harm someone, like being HIV positive or having a history of sexually abusing or assaulting people. Not disclosing some of your sexual history is also an ethical issue if you know or suspect your history would incline someone not to consent to sex with you, like currently being in a sexual relationship they don't know about with their best friend, or having never used condoms with partners before and also never gotten tested.

But often, no one has to know anyone's sexual history when it doesn't have things like that in it and aren't ethical issues. It's truly not a requirement to share all of our history with a partner.

At the same time, ideally, sex is exploring and sharing some pretty big parts of who we are with someone, and for it to go as well as it can, often we'll need to be able to be honest about a lot of things, including parts of our sexual history. For instance, if you've never been sexual with anyone before, pretending that isn't the case can put you in the position of having a first sex-with-a-partner experience alone, rather than having it with the other person who is part of it. It can also make you feel like you can't voice needs you have about your first-times, which could make those sexual experiences more likely to be lousy or more scary for one or both of you. Plus, as we get closer to a sexual partner, often we'll share our histories over time as a way to get more close, deepen our sexual relationship, and let them really get to know us.

If it seems like it would be an epic nightmare for a partner to know your sexual history, that can be a signal that partner might not be a good one for you. When being who we are doesn't feel safe with someone, it can be because we're not earnestly safe with that person, in a very real way. Or, maybe that feeling is actually about just not being comfortable enough with someone else yet, and you need some more time to get there. Feeling that way can be about not being comfortable with yourself, too, so it might be that you need to give yourself more time to get cozy with you, including where you've been and where you haven't been sexually.

When things are right with someone else sexually, it's not only okay to be you, anyone you're sexually involved with will usually only want you to be you, including any part of you that isn't their favorite part or that they feel a little challenged by. And you'll feel pretty great about being you with them, too, even when you also feel vulnerable.

You say: "I don't want sex to ever hurt me or a partner."

Is that possible? Yes, but it's not likely.

In our lives, we can safely say we all have been hurt or will get hurt, and have hurt someone else in some way or will hurt someone else, even when we and others have the best of intentions and don't mean to hurt anyone.

Even when we're all being as careful as can be, sex involves feelings, and feelings are complex and unpredictable. People can't always be totally sure of what will hurt their feelings or those of others and what won't, especially with new experiences and/or new people. We also can't ever be 100% sure our ideas about the ways to behave to prevent hurting others or getting hurt are going to work out. Sex also involves bodies, which can wind up with injuries and infections even if and when we're doing all we can to reduce those risks, like practicing safer sex, using lube, cutting our nails, stopping when anything hurts or asking partners what feels good to them and doesn't.

What can you do if you feel that way? A lot of the things we've already suggested. Take stock of what you need to feel and be as emotionally and physically safe as you can, and be honest with yourself and a partner about your needs and abilities around possible harm. Communicate clearly and openly with a partner, and ask that they also communicate about what they need and want to keep their hearts and bodies safe to you. Talk together about how well both of you feel able to take care of each other, and try and avoid setting yourself or anyone else up for care either of you just doesn't feel really capable of, and avoid trying to push too far past where either of you are at sexually. Talk about how you each like to be cared for if and when you do get or feel hurt. Steer clear of sex at times where getting hurt or hurting someone seems likely, or when the possibility of some hurt doesn't both seem small and easily outweighed by the possibility of the good stuff.

You say: "I need to be sure I or a partner won't bleed or that we won't see, feel or smell any body fluids."

Is that possible? Not if you're doing things like having any kind of genital sex, or even kissing, where fluids can be present or appear.

Sex is messy, people. Expecting it not to be or to never be is kind of like expecting we can go play in the sandbox and somehow manage not to touch any sand or have any wind up on us when we leave.

Even when we use latex barriers to reduce STI risks that also tend to keep a lot of fluids inside barriers or largely separate from a partner's body, sex is still often messy. Sometimes people will have bleeding, even though it's less likely when folks are being careful, when everyone is truly relaxed and aroused, and when people are using lube as they need to and not doing things that hurt. Vaginal fluids are always present to some degree, and sometimes are profuse. People get infections sometimes, and not just STIs, so someone may well see or feel thick discharge or wind up with snot from someone else's nose on them. Sometimes people will fart or drool. Now and then, you or your partner might even come into contact with urine or feces from one or the other of you. I'm not trying to gross you out here or turn you off of sex, I'm just trying to be real.

Not feeling ready for that is often about not feeling comfortable enough in your own body yet or with someone else's. This is another one of those areas where you just may need more time before getting sexual, or to take more gradual steps so you can get comfortable over time with things like body fluids at a level that doesn't totally freak you out or make you feel overexposed.

You say: "My parents cannot ever find out I'm having sex."

Is that possible? Yes, but it's less likely if you or a partner live at home.

You probably know already that sometimes you can hide things from your folks and sometimes you can't. Some of that has to do with how good you are at being sneaky, while other times, even when you employ your mad ninja skills, they wind up finding out anyway. The same goes with this: maybe you'll be able to keep it from your folks, and maybe you won't.

They might find out because they walk in on you, because they read your email, because they overhear a phone conversation, because they find your birth control method or because you have to tell them you think you have an infection or are pregnant. But even without any of those things happening, sex is often one of those things where a lot of parents seem like they must be psychic, because they somehow just figure it out, even when you're sure you have covered all of your tracks (though sometimes, it's the going-so-nuts-to-cover-the-tracks that winds up giving you away: people who aren't hiding things don't tend to act so shifty).

If you really need to keep sex from your parents to feel okay about having it, your best bet is to put sex on the back-burner until you move out and live away from your parents. Sure, even then they might find out or figure it out, especially if you move out, but stay in the same neighborhood (and even more so if you do that and aren't great about keeping your curtains closed), but you probably will have a lot less to lose then.

I'd also suggest you think some more about this one. It can actually be pretty hard to be sexual as a young person without some help and support from people with more rights and resources than you have, especially if you wind up experiencing any unwanted consequences, be that an unintended pregnancy or a broken heart. Sometimes even when nothing bad happens, trying to manage a sex life without any support from an older person who knows, loves and has the ability and desire to help you can be really tough. Sex can also be a lot less pleasant when you're trying to cram it into the only five rushed and panicky minutes you have alone in your room.

By all means, if you're in a family that is abusive or dysfunctional, I am not suggesting telling parents or guardians anything that could put you in harm's way, but when that's the case, to protect yourself, you also want to make sure you don't do anything that could cause harm to you, either. But for young people who are in homes they're pretty sure are healthy and caring, even if you're sure your folks might totally freak, it might be worth being honest. You might also be wrong about them: plenty of parents handle this well, even when their kids think they won't. More times than not the biggest sex-freakouts from parents are only kind of about sex: they're usually more about dishonesty and broken trust, because they only find out when they find out you've been lying about it, or by walking into your room when you're in the middle of sex, which can be freaky for everyone, including parents.

You say: "I need to be sure my partner loves me."

Is that possible? No, but you can get a pretty good sense of this, especially over time.

This is another one of those things we can never be 100% sure of. However, we can be much more sure when we take the time to really get to know someone and to see how they behave in the context of the relationship we're in with them. It's pretty easy to be on our best behavior with someone when a relationship is brand-new, and to appear loving and caring. It's usually when time passes that we and others start to show our truest colors, so if you know you need to be as sure as you can be that a partner loves you, you've got to give things time to develop and see how things go over time, and not just when everyone is full of happy-new-love squee.

If you need this, this is also one more reason to take baby steps sexually. Even just seeing how someone is about making out can give you information on how they might behave with other kinds of sex, for instance, or seeing how they do when you want to start talking about STI testing, or how they are when you nix something they want to try around sex, but you don't. Talking about sexual activities as you go is another sound way to see if the love and care is really there. Being thoughtful, responsible and caring with someone sexually and about sex -- even how we talk about it -- is absolutely part of loving someone we're in that kind of relationship with. When in doubt? Wait it out.

You say: "I need sex to be perfect."

Is that possible? It depends on what your idea of perfect is.

Does "perfect" mean everyone can be enthusiastically consenting to anything and everything they're choosing to do, feel pretty free to be themselves and to go with the flow, intend mutually wanted and shared pleasure and enjoyment, have and nurture good communication and enjoy sex together even if and when anything about it is imperfect, not what was expected or less-than-awesome? If "perfect" in this context means things like that, perfect is totally possible, especially when everyone comes to sex with those aims and understandings and puts real effort into supporting them, before, during and after sex.

Does "perfect" mean everyone has the best sex ever, feels totally awesome and unchallenged for every second -- before, during and after -- with everything you try, reaches orgasm (or more than one), has every sexual fantasy they ever had met or left in the dust; that no one's bodies, minds or hearts have any limitations, that sex that looks and feels just like they see in media or that a partner thinks you and they are totally perfect? If so, it's so unlikely that I feel pretty comfortable saying that's not possible. But it's also okay that it's not.

People aren't perfect, so neither is anything we do, and that includes sex. Sex should be a place where we get to be imperfect and feel okay about -- and maybe even enjoy -- being so.


Want some extra links to help you out? There are a lot of links plopped in here, but here are a few extras that might come in particularly handy when dealing with any of these issues:
Whoa, There! How to Slow Down When You're Moving Too Fast10 of the Best Things You Can Do for Your Sexual Self (at Any Age)Safe, Sound & Sexy: A Safer Sex How-ToReciprocity, ReloadedIs THAT All There Is?

If you feel like you, a partner or sex need to be flawless in every way, it's wise to really think about and evaluate those feelings. Most of what they're probably telling you is that there's a security or comfort in yourself, a partner, a relationship or sex and sexuality as a whole that you just don't have yet and need more time to build.

When a sexual situation is right for you, you'll feel pretty comfortable with the fact that sex is frequently, if not always, imperfect. That can include some of the things in this whole piece, like the possibility of regret, outcomes you don't want, everyone not getting off, or having sex be part of a relationship that lasts for a shorter period of time than you'd like. Often there is a lot of iffy stuff we need to be okay with when it comes to sex, so in a lot of ways, a sexual situation being the right thing can be a tall order to fill, especially if and when all it can entail asks a lot of us or asks things of us we just can't or don't want to do, experience or risk, as it will sometimes in life or in certain situations.

I've mentioned taking more time a lot here, so I want to make sure that you know it is always, always okay to do that, no matter how old you are or aren't, no matter how long you have or haven't been in a relationship; no matter what you think you should be ready for or okay with, but just really aren't, no matter what you or someone else thinks you should want but you just plain don't. The very biggest part of making the sexual choices that are most likely to be right for us is to be very true to ourselves, and to respect and honor when a partner or potential partner is telling us their own truths in what they want, need and expect.

written 02 May 2011 . updated 18 Jun 2014

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