How do I tell my boyfriend I don't think he's ready for sex yet?

My boyfriend and I have been going out for over five months now. In an emotional sense, we're a perfect couple. We love and respect each other, and get along incredibly. However, I am his first real girlfriend. I'm only the third girl he's ever kissed and done other things with. We "fool around" such as we make out, he feels me up and fingers me, and I go down on him, etc. However, I have essentially taught him everything he knows. He is a virgin. I am not. He tells me he is ready for sex, but despite the fact that I love and think the world of him, I know that he is not. Biologically he is raring to go, but emotionally he is not. I don't really know how to tell him this. I know it won't compromise the relationship, but I just don't want him to feel like I think of him any less. I just want his first time to be special and wonderful. And the only way I can let that happen is if he is totally emotionally ready. Deep down, he agrees with me, but his hormones are getting the better of him. I don't want to deny him, but at the same time I don't want to hurt him either. What do you suggest?
Heather Corinna replies:

My hat's off to you for being so thoughtful about the readiness of your partner. Too many people not as concerned as they should be about a partner's readiness, and people are often particularly prone to presume male partners are always ready: that if men want sex, it's all go, with no need to consider things like emotional or practical readiness. It's a very pervasive double standard, one that I think really hurts people of all genders. So, I'm always so happy to see women who don't make those kinds of assumptions. It's not like sex before a person is ready for it is any less likely to be problematic or negative for men than it is for women, after all. Readiness matters for everyone.

I can see why you feel in a bit of a pickle, especially because those kinds of assumptions are so culturally popular. Some guys can take it particularly hard if it's suggested they aren't ready, or even if they just feel for themselves that they aren't. Some will feel their masculinity is being questioned or threatened: a whole lot of cultural ideals of masculinity include being sexual with partners, after all. or being the one in a partnership to call all the sexual shots. But even though it can be tricky, I think you can manage it just fine, especially in a relationship that's as solid and caring as yours sounds like it is.

I can't know about the overall dynamics of your relationships besides what you have told me here. Do you think that, overall, your boyfriend feels like he's in a relationship of equals? In other words, while yes, he's newer to sex and sexual relationships than you are, all the same, in that arena and others, do you get the impression you feel like a partner to him, and he to you, rather than a mentorship kind of relationship? If so, you probably have less to worry about with this than you think. If not, you may want to tread more lightly, and also make some extra efforts all around to assure y'all have and feel real equality between you.

Ultimately, you can't make this decision for him, and you shouldn't. It's his to make, as you know. Who you can and do make decisions for is yourself, and you are also half of the decisions you make as a couple and a sexual partner. You can only determine what's best for him to a point, but you can absolutely determine what you know is best for you and what you feel is best for your relationship. I think it's fantastic to want someone's first time (and hopefully, every time!) with any kind of sex to be wonderful and special. That is absolutely something we'll want for the people we love and care for.

But I would not suggest you frame the conversation you have about this around what you think he is or isn't ready for. That, to me, is more a parent-child kind of conversation than the conversation we have with a peer or partner. I think the goal is to state your own wants and needs, your own sense of what's best for you as a couple, and to have discussions that help him discover what he feels ready for and which support him in whatever place he's at.

I'd use statements that express what you want, what you feel is right for you and your relationship right now, and what is and is not any kind of action or situation you feel fits or doesn't fit the way you want to love and be loved; the ways you are and are not comfortable being sexual with him or any partner. For example, you can say that it's strongly important to you when having any kind of sex (or intercourse only, if that's how you feel about it) with someone you care for, that you have as strong a sense they're ready for that as you can, and when you're not feeling that yet, it just isn't right for you or what you want. You can express that the kind of sexual relationship you want is one where everyone involved takes whatever time they need to get to the places where both people are really ready for the steps they are taking, sexually or otherwise. You can even talk about how real readiness and full consent play a big part in you feeling turned on, as they tend to with people who are paying real attention to their partner, and want to truly, deeply connect and interrelate with them.

There are probably reasons you feel the way you do. You can certainly bring up what those are, whether they're about knowing people who had sex before they were ready and had negative experiences, about you having that issue yourself in the past, about what your ideals and models of healthy, positive sexual relationships are and have been, what have you. It would also be helpful to talk about what you need to be at the place where you feel comfortable having intercourse with him. Is it about his having a better understanding of certain risks involved, be they physical, like pregnancy, or emotional? Is it about wanting more time first to explore other kinds of sex and get in better alignment with those? Is it about cooperation with birth control or safer sex? Is it about wanting to refine your sexual communication together more first? Is it about him understanding that intercourse all by itself may be more physically satisfying for him than you? Whatever it is, if you can give him a good, tangible idea of what you need, and make it about your needs, he'll probably be less likely to interpret this as any sort of negative judgment about him as a person, a man or a partner.

You can make clear that you love him, you care for him, you're attracted to him, and you think of him as your equal and a person of maturity. I'd mention that having sex doesn't mean someone is any more or less mature, especially since so many people feel that it is. This situation is quite a perfect example of how maturity can be about a choice NOT to have sex. It sounds like you have strong feelings for him, you've obviously wanted to be sexual with him, and yet, you're exercising maturity in holding off on a kind of sex that, however wanted by you both, just doesn't feel totally right or like it's going to result in the best outcome for both of you. That's serious maturity, just as it's very mature for any of us to choose for ourselves not to do something we know we're not in the best space for yet.

I'd emphasize the fact that intercourse isn't the only sex there is. I know that might sound like semantics, but the thing is, oral sex and manual sex ARE both kinds of sex, just like intercourse is a kind of sex. I'd be sure that's something you both recognize and acknowledge, especially if you're concerned he might not feel quite on par with you in this sphere. It's not that you feel he isn't ready for sex: you've had some kinds of sex together already, after all, and I assume you have because you have been comfortable with your perceptions of his readiness for those activities with you. But you just don't feel like, as a couple, you're both at the place for THIS kind of sex you'd ideally want to be at yet. And when we're talking about a kind of sex that not only tends to be more culturally loaded than other kinds, and which also presents physical risks other kinds do not, that's particularly relevant.

While I'm at it, know that "hormones" only have so much impact. It's very unlikely to be hormones that make us want to have one particular kind of sex rather than another. Our hormones, after all, don't really know the difference: for the most part, stimulus is stimulus as far as they're concerned.

What's more likely is that intercourse is something he wants to do because it's another sexual activity TO do, and he enjoys sexual activities with you. It may be something he wants to do because it's an activity he hasn't done yet and is curious about, and because, as many people do, he assumes it'll feel good. He may also want to because so many people frame intercourse as THE sex, as THE sexual thing that means you have really HAD sex, as THE kind of sex that's really about bonding, while others aren't. That, in fact, is probably the biggest driver of all, far more so than hormones. Mind, none of that is actually true in any essential way, but just like the idea that men are always ready for sex, those kinds of ideas about intercourse are really pervasive. I don't know if those are ideas you hold yourself or have been enabling (you say he's a virgin and you're not, so you do in at least one way put a greater premium on intercourse as capital-S sex than other kinds of sex), but if so, I would suggest you reconsider them and unpack them a bit together. ALL the ways we are sexual with a partner are real, all of them are ways we can bond together, all of them mean we have had sex, all of them can be THE sex if we're fully present in it (and intercourse can be no kind of sex at all when we're not). The only quintessential, rather than ideological, differences genital intercourse has from other kinds of sex are a) that we're doing something where our genitals are interlocking, and b) we're doing something that presents higher risks of infections, and if we're a person with a vagina and a person with a penis, something that can potentially create a pregnancy.

I do want to add one last thing you might want to pass on to him. With any and every new partner, we're all really learning for the first time. Because you've "taught" him what you like with kissing doesn't mean that if and when he has another female partner, he'll walk in knowing what to do. She might like something completely different than you do, after all, and may kiss a different way than you do. You can't teach him about sex with everyone: you can only teach him about sex with you, just like he can only teach you about sex with him. We may sometimes find common threads between one partner and others, but when a person knows that they are always learning sex anew with a new partner, it can help them to feel less like babes in the woods, or like one partner is a teacher, rather than a partner. Just something for you to remember, and that might make him feel like this joint learning (and it is joint, because you have been learning with and through him what he likes, too) isn't just about the fact that he's a total newbie to sexual partnership and you're The Big Expert. It's learning for you both because you are new to each other, not because he's new to sex with anyone.

As you're saying all of this, give him the chance to share his own thoughts and feelings, and listen to what he was to say, too. I know you say you think he agrees with you about where he's at, but if it turns out he has a different perception of his readiness, it's important you hear that and that he feels heard. Of course, you still get to make whatever choices you want to about if you want to have that kind of sex with him or not: even if he and you felt he was 100% ready, that doesn't mean it has to be a go for you if it still doesn't feel right, even if you don't know quite why. Lastly, I'd be sure to close any conversation like this making clear that you're open to continuing talks about this, and intend to assess this together as you go.

That all said, my sense from what you wrote is that your feelings are coming from such a great place that it's hard for me to see you mucking this up. Really. I think if you take in some of what I have said here, use a lot of I-statements, and, most of all, lead with that mutual respect and care you two have you're going to do just fine, and he's going to feel just fine about it, as well as very deeply cared for. I think the conversations you have about this are likely to improve your relationship, both with where it is now, and if and when it gets to a point where you do choose to have intercourse together.

Besides my best wishes, I'll leave you with a few links I think you will find helpful and which might also be good tools for the two of you to work with together.

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