For one, I know that a lot of people (including myself sometimes!) have or have had satisfying, full sexual lives without intercourse, either because they're not at intercourse yet in life or a given relationship, it's off the table for a while for some reason, or because they're in relationships where penis-in-vagina sex just isn't an option or possibility in the first place. I also know, as a sex educator, that some or all of the physical and emotional things that can happen with penis-in-vagina intercourse can and typically do happen with other kinds of sex, whether we're talking about emotional feelings or experiences, the human sexual response cycle, the expression of sexuality in general or possible outcomes like STIs or pregnancy. The way I define sex as a sex educator is like so:
If we say someone is having sex, or doing something sexual, we mean they are acting from their sexuality, looking to express it in action and/or to try and actively experience or explore a feeling of general or specific sexual desire, curiosity and/or satisfaction. When we say "sex," what we mean is any number of different things people may freely choose to do to tangibly and actively express or enact their sexuality; from what they identify or know to be their sexual feelings.
If "sex" was the answer, the questions would be things like "What am I doing to try and feel good sexually or to express feeling good sexually? What am I doing that feels sexual to me (or to me and a partner)? What am I doing that feels like a way to express my sexuality, or my sexual desires and/or feelings about myself or others?"
From the perspective of a health educator, it also doesn't matter what people are or aren't calling sex, and I don't even have to know what it is or what they call it. For instance, whether it's due to rape or other sexual assault, consensual sex or sex-we're-not-calling-sex, direct genital-to-genital contact or fluid sharing between someone with a penis and someone with a vagina can always present potential STI or pregnancy risks. How that contact happened or what someone calls it doesn't change that: viruses, bacteria, parasites or sperm or egg cells are going to do their thing regardless of what words we use for events, behaviors or activities where they can or do come into play.
But what I also know from doing my job with young people, especially over the last ten years or so, it that how I see and frame sex as a sexuality and sexual health educator and worker isn't how plenty of people do. I know that more than quite a few young people are engaging in what, in my view, is sex, but, in their view or definition, is not.
I'm also aware there can be a generational gap with some of this, as well as all of this having a different weight for a young person. For a lot of older adults, things "counting" as sex isn't often as loaded as it can be when you're a younger person, especially a young woman or a young religious person whose religion says having sex in some of the contexts where you are is a big no-no. Someone like me is way less likely to experience -- or, and perhaps more to the point, way less likely to care about -- social judgments about what kind of sex I'm having, when and with whom. I'm also less likely to feel the same kind of sting from some of the social consequences that can happen when you have sex that "counts" as sex to most people or yourself and are a young person right now.
I'm in my 40s. How things were socially and culturally as a young person when it came to sex were very different for me than for many teens and 20-somethings now. I came of age urban, queer, and with an oh-sod-off-all-you-haters sign perpetually looped around my neck. The cultural climate around premarital sex or sex outside marriage was very different, including for all the teens and 20-somethings in my circles. The idea that sex wasn't okay outside marriage or long-term relationships just wasn't one that was any part of my community or social scene, and even in the mainstream, while it was out there, it was pretty fringe. I also grew up bearing some nasty stigma from a grandparent about having been conceived out of wedlock myself, and saw how much that hurt me and my parents, so those attitudes were extra unwelcome.
If at 17, someone had said to me, "I don't think we should have sex until marriage. How about we go down on each other?" It would have sounded a lot like "I don't want to eat anything right now. Whaddya say we have a sandwich?" The title of this piece alone would've had my head spinning for days while I tried to make sense of it (and I might have asked if it was an Orwell quote I didn't recognize). But I know that for some of you, it might not even give you pause, or some of what I'm saying here may sound to you like what I'm saying doesn't make any sense.
It's not my place -- in fact, it's on me to make sure I don't -- to tell any of you what kind of sex is or isn't right for you, uniquely, in any given model or situation. It's my place to try and help you figure that out for yourselves when you ask for my help, but ultimately, it's on you to figure your own choices out for yourselves.
Here's the thing, though: if and when you don't want to take certain risks -- physically or emotionally -- or open yourself or others up to certain experiences, and you're doing the things which put you in those positions, what I can't do, especially if I'm to serve you well in that way, is pretend something isn't something it is. I also can't do my job well and ignore all of the people I talk with, see, or read about in sound studies who are having whatever kinds of sex they aren't calling sex and taking pregnancy risks when they don't want to, winding up pregnant when that is the last thing they want or feel able to deal with, picking up or passing on sexually transmitted infections or taking those risks when they want to avoid STIs, not doing consent well or at all, or having emotional interactions, experiences our outcomes -- negative or even otherwise -- they or any partners don't feel okay about, don't feel ready for or don't want themselves or partners to be having. Rock, meet hard place.
On top of all of that, we've also been noticing something with some of our users now that's happened often enough that I think it's important to mention. It goes something like this: two people, pretty much always a guy and a girl, begin a relationship. One of them puts on the table, sometimes right from the start, that they want to save sex for marriage. The other person likes that idea, feels good about it, and agrees. Sometimes, that other person wanted that on their own already and is relieved to hear a boyfriend or girlfriend say they do, too. They might also feel really glad that first person said that and set that limit, all the more so if they wanted that limit, too, and didn't want to be the person to put it out there first.
But soon enough, sometimes awfully fast (heck, last week we had someone who had a boyfriend say he wanted to save sex for marriage while he had his hand inside her pants), that person that said no sex until marriage starts trying to pursue or is asking for some kinds of sex, like manual sex (fingering or hand jobs), oral sex or anal sex. They may work on convincing the other person on all the reasons why those kinds of sex aren't really sex or don't count. Or, it might all be -- as it often seems to be -- very or totally unspoken, with little to no conversation or communication, including when it comes to consent, around it at all. This kind of dynamic can also happen when someone agrees to the no-sex sitch but really didn't want to, and figures the other person will change their mind soon enough or, worse still that they can wear that person down.
Sometimes it happens that both people do this pretty mutually, or totally mutually, and everybody feels fine about everything so long as they're not calling the kinds of sex they're having sex and people around them aren't either. That's not what I'm talking about here. As I've said, that can certainly be problematic on many levels in it's own way, as pretty much any kind of shared denial with big stuff can be, but not as problematic as one of these kinds of scenarios, where the people involved really aren't in the same place. I'm concerned about this kind of scenario, more so than the other, for a few reasons.
For one, I think the hard truth is that sometimes, perhaps even often, this is a line. In other words, I think that someone is saying this when they know or suspect it's what the other person wants to hear but not what they actually intend, or when they think the other person will hear this as a signal of respect when, in fact, it's only something they're saying to try and make it easier to be sexual with that person, or be let into vulnerable spaces with that person they wouldn't trust the to come into otherwise. And for sure, that's going to be hard to see when it's happening because saying they don't want to have sex with you as a way to do exactly that is one heck of a sneaky, flippety-floppy play.
As well, conversations about any of this "other" sex often don't seem to happen, probably because neither person wants to say out loud it IS sex, for an array of different reasons, including that if it gets spoken out loud, someone who wasn't saying no and was just going along then might draw a line. So, you've got one or both people doing things without talking about them, including talking about conflicts one of them is usually feeling.
I'm also concerned because often, when we see how these situations like this play out, what often is happening is very questionably consensual or even explicitly nonconsensual. And let's be real: if someone is convinced by someone else that something isn't sex, and they give consent to sex ONLY because they've been convinced that isn't what it is, that's not consent.
Too, while this isn't only something guys can do to girls, and probably is something girls might do too, we can't ignore the fact that within conservative circles or mores, it's very common for people to have the idea that women are supposed to be passive in sex, in or out of marriage, that sex soils or sullies women -- and only women -- in some way, and that men and their sexuality also need to be controlled by women, so if sex is going on, it's because the woman involved didn't do her duty of controlling the guy in question. When things like that are in people's heads in a situation like this -- and with this whole business of engaging in sex that no one wants to call sex in general -- it can be way too easy for people to think that things like a lack of consent or a lack of active consent and participation in sex are normal, or how things just are, rather than how they just happen to be going because of this kind of setup.
I've got some basic advice if a situation like this is happening for you, whatever side of it you're on. This advice also all goes for choosing to be involved in not-sex, not-really-sex, or not-quite-sex, whatever you or someone else is choosing to call it, that, for all intents and purposes, is sex.
1. If you or anyone else is saying they don't want to have sex before marriage, in general or in your relationship, don't guess at or assume what that means. Explain what you mean, and/or ask what they mean by that or understand that to mean: every possible kind of sex or only some kinds of sex? What's their story with what they want in terms of this? Is it about religious beliefs, and if so, what are those beliefs? Is it about some level of commitment they feel they want and need for themselves? If so, what's that? Talk about these wants, needs and ideas together in depth, before making any agreements and before engaging in any kind of physical intimacy together you wouldn't engage in with, say, your best friend. Anytime we make big agreements in life, whether that's about sex, a job contract or a mortgage, we need our agreements to be very clear not murky.
After you've each really got a sense of what the other does and doesn't want and why, if it does NOT sound like it's going to be a good fit -- like, you either know you don't want to "save" sex for marriage or know you aren't okay with kinds of sex before it they are -- I suggest you just opt out. Not everyone is the right fit for each other in relationships, period or at a certain time. That can be a bummer, but it's also okay: it's just how dating and relationships go. If you do try and have this kind of relationship when each of your limits and boundaries, as well as your general wants, are not in real alignment, it's usually going to result in some serious awful.
If after these talks, you ARE in alignment, cool beans. See #2.
2. Let's say you've already had that talk above so you know what the agreements and limits are, and you're both all good. But, in whatever amount of time, either you start to feel differently, they do, or one of you is acting like you feel differently by putting kinds of sex on the table, or even pushing for them in some way, that were originally off the table. If and when your feelings feel like they're changing, talk about them. I know it can be scary, but I think it's much more scary for these things to be hidden, or for someone to just feel dragged along into a sex life they really don't want or don't feel right about. If no-sex-until-marriage is something you or the other person wanted, this is all probably a pretty big deal.
You might find that over time, one or both of you does find your feelings change. They might both change in the same ways. Or, they might change in ways where you find you don't still want the same things at all. Again, that can stink, but hey, people and relationships change over time all the time, especially during times of life when people are doing a lot of growing and changing. It's always better to move on from, end or change the nature of a relationship to fit who the people in it feel they truly are, at their core, than for anyone to try and be a person they don't want to be to hang unto something.
3. Be real and stay real with yourself about what you do and don't want, are and are not okay with. There are no universally right or wrong sexual choices when it comes to what's consensual: there's just what's right or wrong for individual people and their unique relationships at a given time.
If you feel like you can't be real with you in that way, take some time to figure out why. Maybe your values or beliefs are changing and you do feel differently about engaging in sex than you did before: that happens. Again, this is life: we all grow and change in some ways over time.
Realistically, few people will actively choose not to engage in any kind of sex, including genital intercourse of any kind, until marriage. In the last hundred years in the western world, only around 5% of people have, and worldwide it's also atypical, especially for men or for women who don't get married as very young teens or as children. That does not mean that there's something wrong with you wanting that, sticking to that ideal, or that you can't have that if you want. There are billions of people in the world, so even though 5% doesn't sound like a lot of people, that's still almost half a billion people. You can choose to stick to that and seek that out if that's what you want, and should absolutely be supported in that by people in your life if it is. At the same time, it's safe to say that for plenty of people who felt this way once, they found their values or feelings changed. And that's okay, too, if that's what happens for you. (I know there are people who say it isn't okay, but I'm just not those people.)
It also happens that a person's feelings or values are not changing, but they feel unable to stand up for themselves and who they are with people who want to have sex with them. Some people have sex they don't feel right about to try and keep from being alone, to keep a relationship from ending, or to avoid social stigma. Some people don't want to talk about sex they're having with someone with that person because they worry that once it's spoken, that person will say no (hopefully we don't have to tell you why that's a problem, but if we do, know that's a problem because that means you're trying to control the other person's consent).
Just take stock, the real kind, even if you don't like the answers or you find them uncomfortable. Then own them and make your own best choices from them, communicating openly and honestly about all of this with anyone else involved. If you feel like you are in a spot where you're having to make choices before you can sort out changed feelings, step away and give yourself whatever time you need to process.
In general, we always want to try and keep in very good touch with our own sexual and relationship wants and values and make our sexual choices in alignment with those wants, don't-wants and values: that usually plays a big part in any of us having sexual lives we feel best about. It can be all too easy sometimes to let someone else make all the rules, to both be the only person setting limits, and the only person also being active, especially if and when we might not want to own any responsibility for our choices, pr when we don't truly feel like we'll be respected and accepted for who we are and want to be.
4. If even the idea of saying any of these things out loud and talking about them -- or even thinking about them! -- feels like the worst thing you could possibly do, or like something you would do anything to avoid, know that something is seriously amiss. Know that probably means it's even more important you think and talk about them. If that is just absolutely terrifying, do yourself two favors: 1) get away from any situations where you have to make choices you're clearly not ready to deal with yet, and 2) ask for some help from someone you trust who also isn't someone who wants to have sex with you.
I hope it's a given that if you have found yourself in a situation where you think someone is using no-sex-before-marriage stuff as a route to do exactly that with you, you can recognize that's a person trying to manipulate you you will want to get clear of. I know that's sometimes way more complicated than it sounds, but it's still important to do. Someone trying to manipulate us sexually just isn't safe or okay for us, in or out of marriage.
I'll leave you with a handful of links around some of this stuff, some advice pieces where these things come into play, and then a couple articles that might give you or someone you know trying to manage these frameworks or dynamics some extra helps. We can certainly also talk about this some more in the comments or on the boards, and I'd certainly be interested in thoughts from our readers on this one, especially if they've been here themselves.