Is 13 the "Right" Age for Sex or Romance?

Gabbii777
asks:
I'm wondering what a good age to have a 'relationship' is? I'm 13 and I've sort of began to have stronger attractions both emotionally and physically to boys. I'm not sure if I'm ready for a relationship and I'm scared that if it doesn't work (for example, if I'm frigid or something) it will ruin our friendship. I know it's not much of a big deal but I just want some help and reassurance.
Heather Corinna replies:

Hooray for thinking about what you might want or feel ready for in intimate or dating relationships before you pursue them! So often people just kind of passively fall into relationships and only then try and figure what they want and need. It's not impossible to do it that way, and there are some things we can't sort out until we're actually in something. But taking the time to first get a general sense of what you want, need and feel okay about before getting into relationships is a much better foundation for good relationships you feel good about.

Getting into intimate relationships is a big deal. Same goes with choosing to start a brand new and complex area of your life. You don't need to say it isn't a big deal. You know it is -- and I agree! -- which is why you are asking what you are and have the concerns you do.

There really isn't any good age (or bad age) for any given kind of relationship in a general way, because age is only one part of that and because people of even just one age -- like 13 -- are still so different.

A certain kind of relationship might feel just right for one person who's 13, and so wrong for another person who is 13. You might find that dating one person feels like it's not right for you at all, but dating someone else feels like the most perfect thing of ever, because who we're in a relationship with, how we feel about them and ourselves within that relationship and the whole context of our lives, and what that particular relationship is like is most of what determines, at any age, if a romantic or sexual (or any!) relationship feels right. When I say feels right, I mean that emotionally, we feel good about our relationships, our choices and actions in them; good about ourselves within the relationship, and what goes on in that relationship is what we truly want and also know we're capable of dealing with and managing.

In terms of figuring out if you feel ready for -- and want -- a certain kind of relationship, know that this isn't about you deciding if you are or are not willing to agree to an already-written set of rules or expectations where there's no room for negotiation. You shouldn't ever have to do that, and you sure don't have to now. You, and whoever you're in a relationship with, always get to write your own rules.

Relationships -- whether we're talking about friends, family, romance, sexual relationships or even the relationship we have with the person who waits for the bus at the same time we do -- aren't like buying jeans, where we have to try and fit into what's already been made for just anyone, rather than with us uniquely in mind.

Instead, relationships are something we get to make from scratch with other people, and that we ideally make together as a custom-fit, not as a one-size-fits-all. When we're an active part of any kind of healthy relationship, we're crafting something together; something made for and by us, based on who we each are uniquely, including what our wants, needs, abilities and limitations are.

The relationship or relationships that'll be a good fit for the person you are when you're 40 will most likely be pretty different from the ones you make and experience over the next few years. But you get to only make and participate in the relationships at 13 that feel right for you, Gabbii-at-13, just like you'll get to do for Gabbii-at-40, Gabbii-at-42 and Gabbii-at-46. All of that will be based more on just who you are as a person and what your life circumstances are as a whole than on your age-in-years. The way age plays a part is mostly about how you find your age and your life experience so far figures into or informs the bigger picture of what feels wanted, right, doable and manageable for you.

If and when you choose to pursue romantic relationships, they don't have to have anything in them you don't want or feel ready to handle. You get to create and be part of relationships only at a pace that feels right for you. You always get to opt out of things, walk away from a relationship entirely, or ask for and make changes if and when things don't feel okay for you. That kind of flexibility is needed in healthy relationships.

Know that all kinds of relationships are ultimately experiments and works-in-progress, not done-deals from the start. We interact together, and we see how things go. We learn together how to relate and connect in ways that feel best for everyone, and we grow and make adjustments as we go. We figure out and negotiate together what we do or do not want in our relationships, and what pacing for anythings feels right for both of us, based on everyone involved, rather than one person leading and the other person following or not following.

We also figure out as we go what kind of relationship feels best: like, if we try dating someone who was a friend and it turns out that's not a good fit, we often can go back to being friends who are not dating or sexual without it being that big of a deal so long as we don't make it into one. Not every kind of relationship is going to fit between us and someone else: it's okay to try something and have one or both of us discover it's not right. Really, unless we have a strong feeling right from the start that certain kinds of relationships are just not at all what we want or right for us with someone else, there's just a lot no one can predict.

But what you can get to know right now are things that are just really about you. And that can tell you an awful lot.

How about taking some real time to just think and journal about what you feel interested in and might be ready for with the folks you are feeling interest in pursuing now or only in the very near future -- let's say the next six months or so? You might think and write about things like:

  • Which ways of expressing or exploring these feelings with someone you have them for -- whether we're talking about the romantic or the sexual ones --seem like something you'd feel excited about and comfortable with? What ways seem either way ahead of what you feel ready for and comfortable with, or just seem like ways that wouldn't feel like a good fit for who you are as a person at this time in your life?
  • What feels like it could be right, right now, with someone you have romantic or sexual feelings for, and what do you think would probably not be right for you now at all?
  • What feels like something you might want, but feel like the responsibilities or possible circumstances of that thing are past what you can deal with or take responsibility for?
  • If you're thinking about sex and sexuality with others, how do you feel about your sexuality all by yourself, so far? How have you felt exploring sexual activity by yourself (with masturbation) so far? Do you feel like you're comfortable enough with sex alone and in your sexuality alone to share it with someone else yet? If so, in what ways? What ways feel like a big-time no-way-not-yet?
  • What do you feel like you want out of a dating relationship with someone else? What do you feel like you want to bring and give to one yourself? What do you feel open to right now, and what do you feel like you want to limit or put on hold for a year from now, five years, or even later in your life?
  • If you could write out how a dating relationship went for you that started today and went on for the next few months, one at the kind of pace that seems right, one that has what you'd want as part of it, what would that ideally look like?

Your thoughts about questions like that can help you start to get a better sense of what you think is right for you, and what you want and don't want in terms of where you're at right now. And in the case that you do start dating soon, you'll also have a great start in when it comes to communicating all of these kinds of things to that person and asking them for their thoughts and feelings .

There's a lot to say about building healthy relationships, and making other choices from there, including about sex; way more than I could fit in one column. I'm going to load you up with some pieces at the bottom of the page that I think can give you some more information and food for thought when you're evaluating your own feelings and general readiness around all of this.

But I've got a couple extra things I want to add to all of that information particularly for you, given what you asked.

If It Feels Too Scary or Fast, That's Probably Because It Is : For example, you express concern you may be frigid if and when you start dating. Now, that term... well, when I read that, I wondered if your question had come through some sort of time-travel machine! That term was popularized over 100 years ago, primarily by Sigmund Freud, and is one that we've known for a while (and some people knew then) was based on little more than a hot, steaming pile of sexism and ignorance about women and sexuality. The use of that term suggested that things that are or were actually common with sexuality, especially for women, the only group that term was used about, were instead psychological disorders.

Let's come back to the 21st century and leave busted ideas like that in the dust. Some people don't enjoy some, or even all, kinds of sex, don't want sex all the times a partner does, or don't find any one given person is the right sexual partner for them. Some people -- most people -- don't reach orgasm from just any one sexual activity, or reach orgasm every time they do something sexual. None of that means anyone is broken, or that when someone having those feelings or experiences is a woman, she has a sexual or reproductive disorder: it just means we're all only human, very diverse sexually, and that sex is rarely something anyone, of any gender, always wants, always enjoys, or always responds the same ways to.

I'm guessing what you meant when you used that word is that you are concerned some kind of sex may be part of the picture, and you won't feel ready, comfortable, or won't know how to be sexual with someone else. Again, you shouldn't ever have to do anything you don't want to or feel very ready for. You and everyone else also get to pace yourself and learn as you go, never doing anything that feels way past where you're at.

You're here asking about maybe -- and only maybe -- just starting to date. So, sex with someone is something that probably isn't going to feel at all like the right thing right now, since it's probably not the right thing right now or even very soon. The idea of jumping into the deep end of the pool is usually scary when you haven't yet learned how to swim. That's mostly because jumping into deep water before you learn to swim isn't likely to end well and isn't the wisest choice. I'd say the same is usually true with going into a sexual life with others before you even have some experience dating, as well as some experience with your own sexuality, all by yourself. Stick to a pace and timing with all of this that feels really, really right to you. When being with someone else sexually or intimately -- whether we're talking about intercourse, about kissing, or just about asking someone to go see a movie with you -- is really right for you, it's going to feel like it is.

And remember: you get to bring those wants, needs and no-ways you figure out on your own to the table with any dating right from the start, so you don't have to worry about expectations or assumptions you'll do or agree to anything you feel unprepared for or don't want. I'd say most people in their early teens tend to feel like or experience sex with someone else as further ahead than where they're at, guys included. Setting some limits and being real about being a total newbie to this, and spending some time letting yourself just be a newbie is not only good for you, it can also give the other person that same breathing room, which takes a big bunch of pressure off of both of you. It's easier to actually enjoy starting to explore dating when everyone feels like they're allowed to be beginners and just chill out in the shallow end of the pool for a while.

You're Going To Make Mistakes (and That's Okay): Relationships are something we learn how to do, rather than are born somehow magically knowing how. Just like with anything else we learn, whether it's algebra, riding a bike, playing an instrument or sex, you are going to make mistakes while you learn. People you enter into relationships with with also make mistakes. That's because we all make and will keep making mistakes: it's not an if, it's a when. And when we are first starting to learn anything, that's usually when we'll make the most mistakes. Unless you're made of magic, you're going to make a mess of things sometimes with this just like anyone else, especially at first.

You worry that a relationship won't "work." Some people have the idea that what it means for a relationship to "work" is for it to basically be just the right thing at just the right time, once and then for always, even if no one changes anything about the relationship to keep it growing as the people in it do. Or for people to never make any mistakes or never get or feel hurt in any way. But that way of looking at relationships pretty much destines them all to failure, because, especially over time, no relationship is likely to meet that criteria. Based on those kinds of standards, no intimate relationship will ever likely "work" for very long.

I'd suggest that if you're going to think of relationships as things that either work or don't, that are successes or failures, you figure success is about the people involved being willing to be part of the grand experiment that any intimate relationship is, participating in it with heart and care, and being willing to change things up -- which can sometimes mean letting things go -- if and when it feels like something isn't right anymore. It's like some good coaches say about really being in the game: it's not about who wins or loses, about scores or skills, nor about only how we feel after a game is won or lost. It's about everyone giving their all by showing up, fully participating in the experience while you're in it, and just playing their heart out.

I'd suggest you just give yourself some room to make mistakes, and also to just explore relating to people in the ways you want to -- as you want to -- with the understanding that everyone is learning, and especially when we're new to relationships, we're all experimenting.

Relationships are life experiences, and in our earliest relationships most of what we're doing isn't building things we'll be in for decades, but exploring how any of this can go, and finding out what it can be like. On average, romantic relationships for people around your age tend to last -- as specifically romantic relationships -- for anywhere from just a couple weeks to a few months. I don't say that to bum you out, and I don't think that that's necessarily a bummer. I say that so you can see that really, early dating is pretty much everyone just feeling things out and gathering some experiences. Everyone is just starting to only feel this out, and that should be okay, because that's developmentally where most people can only be at just yet.

If it ever turns out -- and it probably will -- that a romantic or sexual relationship isn't a fit with someone who was a friend, or who you want to remain friends with? Nothing has to be ruined. Sure, the other person, you, or both of you may want or need some time to deal with a breakup or not even a breakup, but a this-started-to-be-a-thing-we-were-doing-but-we-just-didn't-even-want-or-know-how-to-follow-it-through-so-umm-oops-nevermind before you're hanging out again. But if, when we're in this stuff with people, and changing this stuff with people (like making an end to one kind of relationship but seeking to have a different kind), we're treating each other like friends throughout, being caring and thoughtful and kind? You are not at all likely to ruin a friendship, you're really, really not. You might, in fact, just wind up making a friendship even stronger or deeper.

Don't Fly Solo: You don't need to worry about getting lost in any of this if you do yourself a solid and, if and when you do start dating, you do it with support and guidance from other people in your life.

Getting support and feedback from people outside any relationship, people we trust and know care about us, is super-helpful and important. Relationships, as you probably know from friendships already, can be complicated and hard to sort out on our own sometimes, or just with the person we're in them with. Talking with others about our relationships and choices we're thinking about making in them makes managing relationships well for ourselves easier. It also helps protect us from getting into anything over our heads, getting stuck in something that's bad news, and gives us needed outlets to voice our feelings and concerns to a more objective set of ears.

You're welcome to use direct services we have here on the site, like our message boards, to do that, but ideally, you'll also want to gather a few people from your in-person life who already know you well, and who seem pretty wise and grounded when it comes to their own relationships and talking about relationships. If you have family members you love and know love you back, that's a great place to start. If your family doesn't feel like a safe or sound place for this, how about a parent of a friend, a friend or two you know is thoughtful (and not addicted to drama or gossip), or a teacher or coach you respect? Think about and make this group as your dream team of go-to relationship advisors, and as people to always keep in the loop to help you out any step of the way.

Lastly, check in with yourself about what you really feel up to and how resilient -- how bulletproof -- you feel about starting to pursue dating, and honor those feelings. So, for example, if you have the feelings you're having but it just feels way too fast or soon to you to do anything with them besides just feeling them, you don't have to. If the idea of putting yourself out there and having someone say they aren't interested feels like something you can't deal with yet, you don't have to do that until you feel more secure and strong in yourself. It's always okay to have romantic or sexual feelings we don't put into action with someone else, and throughout life, that'll usually happen at least a few times, if not way more often. One easy guide tis to figure out that when we're ready for something, we will tend to feel ready, rather than very unsure. So, if you feel unsure, trust your own feelings. They're probably telling you that a lot of what you're worrying about here isn't stuff you're ready for yet in the first place.

But if you think you might be ready for any of it, I'd suggest you start with small steps, like maybe first just spending some more time around the guys you have these feelings around to get a better sense of who they are and what those feelings are all about. Maybe next you figure out who you not only have these feelings for, but who seems like someone you trust, would like to spend time with, and would like to try dating in some way; someone who it seems like might be a good fit for you as a person. Maybe next after that is seeing how it goes when you tell that person how you feel. Again, no need to worry about diving all in at once, or at all if you're not there yet: you don't have to. You get to set the pace for this part of your life.

By the way, know that at least some of the people you may pursue relationships with and get involved with won't have thought about what they wanted first, and won't be really trying to honor their own pace or get that they, and you, can. You can let anyone you start dating know pretty soon in that you took the time to figure out some of what you want and need for yourself already, what that is, and then invite them to do the same and share their wants and feelings with you. Doing that is quite a gift to someone else who didn't know how to make this kind of room for themselves -- or that they could! -- and it also can set a wonderful groundwork for a relationship where, right from the start, you're making something together, whatever it turns out to be, where everyone in it is clear there are no leaders and no followers, but instead, just two people being together without having to be anyone but themselves, and making something made of themselves.

That's the only person -- yourself -- that you need to be in any kind of relationship. However your journey goes with any of this, and whatever you choose to do, I'm certain someone who's as honest with themselves as it sounds like you are, who is also humble enough to be so real about feeling intimidated is going to do just fine when the timing and situation is right for you if this is the self that you bring to any kind of relationship.

So, here are those links, and I wish you all the very, very best in all your life and loves!