One of my favorite TV shows when I was a teenager was the series "Dawson's Creek." The series centered around best friends Joey and Dawson and portrayed their experiences from high school and into college as they made and lost friends, entered and left relationships, and grew up. The show was aired from 1998 to 2003 and was one of the most popular drama series of its time. It dealt very realistically with many issues that teens can be faced with, from bullying to dealing with a parents' divorce, and I think it did this so well that the lessons from the show are still applicable even today.
One of these lessons was about figuring out when you're ready for sex.
We often get questions here on Scarleteen from people who are thinking about becoming sexually active and don't know how to figure out whether they are ready for that step. Like so many aspects of sex, this "readiness" is something a lot of peers refer to but few can quite explain.
If you ask most people what it feels like to be "be ready," the answer you will often get is that you will know it when you experience it. This vagueness can obviously lead to a lot of uncertainty. Will I really just know? If I'm still wondering, does that mean I'm not ready? What if I never feel like I'm ready? (Of course, that's not how sex educators tend to talk about readiness: we usually will have some answers for you and can give you help thinking this through, like this.)
Because this worry is so ubiquitous, it's also something that's been picked up by the writers of TV series. On Dawson's Creek, this happens during season four, when Joey grapples with the question of whether she is ready to have sex with her boyfriend, Pacey.
Joey started seeing Pacey at the end of season three. We know they have been friends from childhood and they're very comfortable with each other. When Pacey, who's already had sex with previous partners, makes it clear he's interested in sleeping with Joey, she doesn't know how she feels about that.
In episode 5, she has this conversation with her friend Jen:
Jen: Are you sure that you really want to have sex?
Joey: Of course I want to have sex. But the question is, am I ready? I don't know how you know. I mean, everyone just says that you just know, but what if that's just what they say, and they never really know?
Jen: Joey, I think that you'd feel more ready if you were actually prepared.[...] For the girls in New York, a visit to the free clinic to get birth control, safe sex advice, is a rite of passage [...]. Truth is, I don't think that anybody ever really knows if they are ready. But you do know if you're prepared.
Jen has a very good point. Being ready for sex is about much more than simply experiencing that elusive feeling of "readiness." While the emotional component is certainly important, there are many other factors involved. Jen mentions one aspect when she suggests a visit to a clinic: the risk of pregnancy and STIs. A large part of being ready for sex is being aware of the health risks involved, knowing how to manage them, and accepting that you cannot eliminate them entirely. So, if you're trying to figure out whether you are ready, you can certainly start by reading up on different types of birth control (when we're talking about the kinds of sex that present risks of pregnancy) and paying a visit to a gynecologist, urologist or general practitioner to start your reproductive and sexual healthcare.
In this episode, Joey follows her friend's advice and visits a clinic to get some information. The conversation with the doctor there leaves her pretty freaked out, and when she confides this to her sister's boyfriend later, he tells her, "If you're not ready to be prepared for sex, then you're probably not ready for sex."
So, a good first step towards figuring out if you are ready for sex is to start gathering information, educating yourself about the risks and how to protect yourself. That alone won't automatically make you ready – but it will prepare you. And if you find that all of this new information is really overwhelming for you, that's a pretty good clue that you need a little bit more time until you are ready.
Another, equally important, factor is your relationship with your partner. Have you and your partner talked about sex at all, and not just the sexy parts? It's pretty safe to say that, if you don't feel comfortable discussing sex with your partner, you're probably not ready to have sex with them. Things like what you are and aren't ready for, what you are and aren't interested in exploring, what boundaries you have, how to get tested for STIs, what birth control to use and how to deal with a potential birth control failure are important topics to cover before you become sexually active.
Like many teens in similar positions, Joey and Pacey feel very awkward when it comes to talking about sex, and after an initial agreement that they wanted to wait, they're not sure how to re-open that topic of conversation.
After learning some things about their friends' sex-life during a double-date in episode 13, Pacey is able to get the conversation started: "[Sex] used to be this little problem that we could easily ignore, but by doing that all we really did is make it bigger." Joey feels guilty because she is the one who is holding them back, but Pacey reassures her. "I'm saying that we have a problem and this is something that we need to talk about. I'm not saying that in any way it's your fault."
That's a pretty neat move of Pacey's. Without allocating blame, he makes it clear that they need to keep channels of communication open and compare notes on their wants and needs. He makes a start by telling her, "I just… I want… I need for you to know that if our relationship is not going to be progressing on to that next level, it's not because of me."
His honesty helps Joey open up, as well, and their conversation continues:
Joey: Pacey… I want you. I really do.
Pacey: I need to know that.
Joey: Know it. I don't really know what's… wrong, but… I just keep holding back. I'm sorry, but I'm scared.
Pacey: Good! Do you think I'm not scared? I'm terrified, Jo!
Joey: You are?
Joey: So then, can we just be scared together?
This conversation makes them feel much closer, and dispels some of Joey's insecurities and fears. Being able to share her fears with her partner makes her feel more comfortable with him. Though they have decided to keep waiting a little while longer, they have created a deeper intimacy by communicating and being honest with each other.
The bottom line is this: Being prepared will not magically dispel all of your doubts about having sex. But you can't be ready without being prepared, so it's the place to start.
So what if you are prepared but you're still not sure if you're ready? That's where all of the emotional considerations come in.
A lot of teens (a lot of people, in general) have the idea that sex, especially first sex, is a Very Big Deal. And in a lot of ways, it certainly is for many people. But in a lot of ways, it also isn't or might not be. Sure, it can carry risks, but those risks can be managed and largely prevented with a little bit of effort. Sure, it can bring you intimacy and make you very vulnerable, but you could also achieve that intimacy with a cuddling-session or a deep conversation.
Sex doesn't have any magical powers, it cannot make something appear that wasn't there before, it cannot fix problems, and it won't make your relationship last longer or make your partner love you more. I know that it can be hard to unlearn those cultural expectations we've been taught to have about sex, but taking the time to separate fact from fiction and having a more realistic approach may go a long way in helping you sort out your own feelings around this.
Something else to consider is that whether or not to have sex isn't a decision that you make once and then have to stick to it for the rest of your life. If, once you have had sex, you decide that you weren't ready yet after all, you can just stop having sex and give yourself more time. No harm, no foul. Or, you might realize that you just don't find sex all that amazing and aren't interested in having it again any time soon. Either are perfectly acceptable ways to respond, and there's no need to continue having sex in those situations.
Where does this leave us in terms of figuring out if we are ready?
Joey, in episode 14 of season 4, wonders the same thing. At this point in the show, she has gone to a clinic to gather information about birth control, she has talked to her boyfriend Pacey about her fears and expectations surrounding sex, and she has confided in her friends to help her make sense of what she is feeling. In this episode, she is on her senior class trip, and shares a room with Pacey. Sex is in the air, and she finds herself wondering what is still holding her back.
This leads her to a conversation with her friend Jack:
Jack: What's your problem?
Joey: Sex. Sex is my problem. Sex is always my problem. I have so much conviction about waiting till the right moment. Not feeling guilty or obligated, and I don't.
Jack: As it ever occurred to you that you might be so caught up trying to find the right choice that you never really stop to think about the possibility that there may not be the right choice? Or the wrong choice. Just a bunch of choices.
Joey: You're a real help.
Jack: You don't need help. There's nothing to figure out here. It's only what you feel.
You might say that it's easy for Jack to say, as he had his first time several years before and maybe just doesn't remember the mental anguish or didn't have any of his own. But I happen to agree with him.
Sure, sometimes having sex is a crappy choice. For example, if you do not have birth control handy, or are sleeping with someone you don't feel comfortable with. But that can happen to us the first, tenth or hundreds time we're having sex. Experience unfortunately doesn't always protect us from lousy choices. But if you've made sure that all your bases are covered, sex isn't very likely to be a disastrous choice. The worst that can happen is that it doesn't feel like all that. And then you can simply take a break and come back to it later.
And Joey? She winds up sleeping with Pacey during the trip. The next morning, she feels a little vulnerable and awkward. But she is able to communicate this to Pacey, and she tells him, "Years from now when I look back, I'm really not going to remember the clumsy positioning or the morning after awkwardness or whether or not the experience itself meant the text book definition of great sex. I'll remember how sweet you were. How you took me to this brand new place. Pace, I'm glad I had sex. And I'm really glad that I had sex with you. And now I really just… I just ready to go home. So we can do it again."