Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist

One of the biggest misnomers about partnered sex is that intercourse is "all the way," is the only "real" sex, and is some sort of final goal to sexuality, which is unfortunate and untrue. Intercourse also isn't the only sexual activity that presents the possibility of both physical and emotional risks, negative and positive.

The idea that intercourse -- especially only vaginal intercourse -- is the only sexual activity anyone needs to think about being ready for can also leave many queer people out in the cold, or give the idea that the readiness (or lack thereof) of gay, lesbian or bisexual people doesn't matter. Of course, some of all that hoopla about why genital intercourse is THE sex can have to do with the fact that it's often where the greatest risks are taken.

Any kind of genital sex is often framed as "taking it to the next level," even though in plenty of relationships, or for plenty of people, that may not be any sort of "next" or "higher" level at all, especially if one or both people involved really aren't and don't feel ready. It can be a big shocker to presume a sexual activity safe and then discover you've got a sexually transmitted infection, or feel some heartache from something you thought had nothing to do with your heart at all. To have any kind of sex be as good in the short and long-term as it can possibly be, anticipating, recognizing and managing realities and risks -- both wanted and unwanted -- is a big help. The best sex is pretty much always the sex everyone involved really wants and is earnestly ready for.

If you're considering having sex for the first time or for any time thereafter, there are a bunch of things you and your partner should know and evaluate, especially with an activity like intercourse where pregnancy is an additional risk. So take stock, see where you stand in terms of a readiness ideal and get real!

The Short List

When we're figuring out if we're ready for sex with a partner, if we want to ask ourselves the most basic questions possible, those are:

  • Do I want to have this kind/these kinds of sex for myself, physically, emotionally and intellectually? Do the other person's physical, emotional and intellectual wants also seem in alignment? Do each of us feel like, or seem like, we care as much about what the other wants as we want for ourselves?
  • Do I want to do this at this time, in this setting, with this particular person? Does the other person want to do what we're going to now and with me?
  • Do I have a good sense of what possible wanted and unwanted experiences and outcomes this can entail? Do I feel pretty prepared for them? How about the person I'm about to have sex with: are they aware and prepared?
  • If there are unwanted outcomes I can avoid -- like pregnancy, infection, getting hurt in some way -- am I prepared with what I need to do/use to try and prevent them well? Is the other person? Are we in agreement about the ways we're going to protect ourselves?
  • Do I feel very safe with this person, and am I also safe for this person and myself?
  • Do I feel really good about the answers to those five questions?

If you said yes to the last question, then you and your partner(s) are probably in a sound position to have a kind of sex together and more likely to have positive outcomes. If you said no to the last question, then one or both of you might want to press pause, and rethink your choices and/or take some time to make changes to whatever needs changing to get you both to that yes.

And that's the Cliff's Notes. Want the novel? Keep reading.

We're working on getting more translations of this, but for right now you can check it out in German thanks to our volunteer Joey.

A Reality Check Quickie

Intercourse or other partnered genital sex will not necessarily do any of the following for you or your partner:

  • Guarantee a longer-lasting or closer relationship than you already have or guarantee joy or sorrow
  • Give you or them an orgasm, or mind-blowing, earth-moving pleasure
  • Feel great the first time, or feel like the ninth circle of hell, either
  • Give you increased status or importance with your friends or partner
  • Make you more mature, or grown-up, or a "real" man or woman

There's a lot to think about when deciding if it is right for you and your partner to have vaginal intercourse or other genital sex. Here are some questions to ask of yourself, and to ask of your partner.

Why do I want to do this?

Do either of you feel you must or should, feel pressured in any way from your partner or friend, or think sex will fix troubles in your relationship? Then hit the pause button. Sex between people should only happen when it is what both people enthusiastically and actively want and not just because they think it'll make the other person happy (or get them to stop nagging). Another thing to give you pause might be if you're fantasizing about sex based on movies or television. Remember how in Tom and Jerry cartoons, Tom could hit a wall and walk away from it just fine, and you knew that wouldn't work in real life? Same goes with a lot of sex in movies and television; it isn't often as it appears.

On the other hand, if you've been with your partner long enough (whatever that means to you) to feel good about the idea of sex with them, feel a strong desire for sex yourself, and have a solid level of other sexual experience (including kissing, petting, masturbation); you feel you can trust yourself and your partner with limits; if you're looking to explore your sexual relationship responsibly and sensitively, and for some greater intimacy and sexual exploration with no notion any certain result -- positive or negative -- is guaranteed, and you've got a firm grip on reality, read on.

I'd also suggest checking in with yourself to be sure that sex is what you really want from sex. In other words, take some time to think about what you're looking for in having sex with someone else, and that what you're seeking really is sex, rather than, for example, more general physical affection, personal validation, a way to cement your relationship, control or ownership of someone else, some kind of risk when you're feeling stagnant in your life, friendship or other things that certainly can be aspects of sex, but which sex might also not really tend to or be the best choice to address or accomplish.

Who do I want to do this for?

If it's for you and your partner as well as you, fantastic. But if it's for someone else primarily, not for yourself -- or JUST for yourself -- take another pause. People have hands and fingers. They know how to use them to get off and you can rest assured they've been using them long before you came along. Sex with someone else shouldn't just be about self-gratification; that's what masturbation is for. If your friends are saying you should, with no understanding of your relationship, or your own needs, they're being crappy friends. A lot of friends who pressure their friends to have sex do so because they don't feel all that good about their own choices, and want to hide behind endorsing sex to make themselves feel better. Tell them to carry their own baggage, not try and pass it off on you.

What do I expect from intercourse or other kinds of genital sex?

It's smart to take stock of what your expectations are, and give them a reality check. Talk to a friend who has had intercourse or other genital sex who is really honest with you (or an older sibling or family member) about what you expect, and listen to their own experiences. Gather diverse perspectives: one person's sexual experiences can often vary a lot from those of another.

If you have a list as long as Santa's of sexual expectations, it isn't very likely they'll all be met. Sex is often not what we expect, whether the difference between our expectations and reality is positive, negative, or just another ball of wax. Often -- with sex or anything else -- the less we expect, the more we often receive. Intercourse or other genital sex isn't a miracle cure for anything, and it isn't always a fireworks show: it can be a wonderful, natural affirmation of intimacy, and an excellent physical and emotional experience as long as you're ready for it and take it at face value, without romanticizing it or imagining it to be something it is not. The sex you have with someone else tends to be a mirror of your relationship: if your relationship is lousy, the sex within it isn't likely to be better or to improve the relationship.

Some studies show that a good 30% of people never have sex again with a first partner. Only about 25% of women usually report enjoying first intercourse; less than 8% report orgasm from first intercourse. Those bummers most likely had to do with being ill-prepared in general, not taking the time to learn each other's sexual basics, both partners not being equally invested, and overall, with unrealistic expectations. In other words, not about something being terribly wrong with people, but about people's expectations being out of whack. The cultural idea that first sex is the best sex is almost always off-kilter. Sex is one of those things that tends to improve for people over time and which gets better with time and experience, rather than starting off perfect and fantastic and either staying there or getting worse.

What if you can't? If it feels like you or your partner just can't handle even the most basic things on this list -- like practicing safer sex, using contraception, or being able to create and respect limits and boundaries -- what should you do? In that case it really is probably best to just hold off on sex for now. That'll help a lot to spare your physical and mental health and the health of others, and to assure that when you do have a sex life, it's one everyone truly enjoys and feels good about. There's just no sense into rushing into something when its more likely it'll make you sick, potentially derail your life or just be generally cruddy.

Am I as prepared as I can be to handle all aspects of intercourse and/or other genital sex?

There's a lot to juggle; probably more than you think. Here are the material, physical, emotional and interpersonal ideals for partnered sex that's most likely to be enjoyable, safe, physically gratifying, and emotionally sound.

THE CHECKLIST: Relationship Items:

  • I am able to express my wants, needs and limits. I can and do trust my partner to respect them. My partner can do the same, and can trust me to respect their limits and boundaries.
  • I feel I can assess what I want for myself, separate from what my partner, friends or family want, and think my partner can, too.
  • Sex of any kind is optional for us both: it isn't and doesn't feel like a requirement.
  • I am able to trust my partner, and am trustworthy myself.
  • I feel able to communicate with my partner honestly, even when it's awkward, and I feel my partner can do the same.
  • I am comfortable being unclothed and physically intimate with my partner to the degree what we're going to do involves either or both, and feel they're comfortable in the same ways with me.
  • I care about my partner's health, emotions and general well-being, and act -- not just talk -- accordingly, and can say the same for them. Any kind of sex between us so far feels balanced, like it is about pleasure for both of us, not just one of us.
  • I want to share my sexuality with a partner and want them to share theirs with me. I am not seeking to own a partner's sexuality, including their sexual thoughts, fantasies or the sex life they have with and by themselves, or have them own mine; I am not looking to use sex to try and control or manipulate a partner in any way.
  • I feel like the emotional and intellectual maturity levels of my partner and myself are similar enough that we both feel able to interact sexually in a healthy, equitable and mutually-informed way.
  • I have a good handle on what consent to sex is and also what non-consent is.

Emotional Items:

  • I don't have any strong religious, cultural or family beliefs or convictions right now that this sex or partner for me, right now, is wrong.
  • I can and do take full responsibility for my own emotions, expectations and actions, as does my partner.
  • I can handle being disappointed, confused, or upset, as can my partner. I can also handle positive feelings which might surprise me or feel intense.
  • I have at least one member of my family, a friend or some other trusted person -- who is not my sexual partner -- who cares for me and who I can talk to honestly about sex, my sexuality and sex life, my sexual relationships; who I know will always have my back and be honest with me. My partner has someone like that in their life, too.
  • I know that sex and love can co-exist, but also that they are not the same -- even if I love the person I am considering or having sex with. I do not seek to have sex to use it to manipulate, control or influence my partner or to try and "earn" or prove love.
  • I understand having sex could change my relationship for good or for the worse, and feel I can handle whatever may happen, good or bad alike. I'm ready to be surprised.
  • I am prepared to deal with social or cultural judgment based on my choice to be sexually active.
  • I feel I can emotionally handle a possible pregnancy (if the sex I am having poses that risk), disease or infection, or rejection from my partner.
  • I feel like I am in a sound emotional state to be sexual with someone else in a healthy way for us both. I feel secure enough in myself to be vulnerable with someone else and to have them be safe in the ways they are vulnerable with me.
  • I want to have sex for its own sake, not something else I'm hoping sex will substitute for.

Physical Items:

  • I have or can get access when needed to sexual or general healthcare of some kind, and so can my partner.
  • I understand the basics of my own anatomy and my partners anatomy, as well as the basics of sex, STIs and human reproduction, when applicable.
  • I have a good idea of when I am sexually aroused, and also know when I am not, have some idea of what I need to be aroused, or when I simply cannot get aroused, and I have a similar familiarity with my partner's arousal, and they with their own.
  • I can relax during physical affection and sexual activities without a lot of fear, anxiety or shame.
  • I can handle a mild level of physical discomfort that might happen now and then, and if I have any pain conditions, I know how to manage them and tell a partner how to manage them. I am also comfortable with experiencing physical pleasure in front of and with my partner.

Are you a person with a uterus thinking about vaginal intercourse? If you are, become acquainted with what options and limitations there are for you -- particularly if you are a legal minor -- when it comes to an accidental pregnancy. Using reliable birth control, especially two methods, makes pregnancy much less likely, but even good methods used properly fail sometimes. If you absolutely, positively do NOT want to become pregnant and/or remain pregnant, and you either are not okay with abortion, or may not be able to obtain an abortion (due to laws in your state or country like parental notification laws, finances, lack of an abortion provider near you), our very best suggestion is just to stick with the kinds of sex which do NOT present pregnancy risks until you are of an age or in a position to be able to make whatever choice you'd want to with a pregnancy.

Material Items:

  • I have or can get several condoms, dams and/or gloves -- whichever I need for the specific sexual activities I want to engage in and the level of risk myself and my partner are prepared to manage, whatever the outcome -- and both I and my partner know how and when to use them. We're both willing to do so without argument.
  • I have or can get a bottle or tube of lubricant (KY, Liquid Silk, Astroglide, Wet, etc.) for use as needed.
  • If I am having opposite-sex intercourse, and I or my partner are not comfortable using condoms alone (or at all), I have a secondary method of birth control. If I am using condoms alone, I and my partner know how to use them properly and know my partner will do his or her part to always use them.
  • I have a list, or know where to find one easily, of local sexual health clinic or gynecologist phone numbers.
  • I can have access to some money I can use should I need to take care of any needed birth control, safer sex items and annual testing and sexual health care or sexual crisis management, like abortion, for myself or my partner AND/OR am aware of and participating in a national, state or city program which can provide me with, or subsidize all or some of, my needed birth control, safer sex, sexual health or sexual crisis management, like abortion.
  • I am or could be covered under a health insurance policy or public health program, which could cover pregnancy, neonatal care, gynecological visits, STI testing and/or birth control, or I have or can raise the funds to pay for these services out of pocket myself.

Those material items are ideal to prevent and deal with disease, illness, infections or pregnancy (when applicable). Obviously, your mileage may vary when it comes to what sexual health and sexuality items might be covered by your insurance or your country, city or state's services provided to you for free or low-cost. These items may also be limited by your age or personal or family means. There is no sex, save masturbation -- no matter how long you and your partner have known each other, or what you have convinced yourself of -- that does not carry some risks, no matter how safe you play it, and reducing and managing those risks often costs money.

One last thing that is important to consider is what the laws are in your country, province or state when it comes to sex and related issues. For instance, are you and/or your partner over the age of consent? What about laws and policies around access to birth control? If you're engaging in sex with pregnancy risks, are you making your choices knowing what your rights, or those of your partner, are in terms of pregnancy, abortion or parenting? Many areas, provinces and states have laws and policies around sex and reproductive/sexual rights which may surprise you and may influence you or a partner's sexual choices, so doing a little homework in that department makes a whole lot of sense.

Toss the checklist to your partner too: talk about the items on it together. This is about both of you. You may find that simply discussing the reality of the situation makes a big difference for you both. A lot of sex is innate and intuitive, and it is perfectly normal to feel driven by our libido and our emotions, but it isn't smart to ignore good sense and responsible behavior, or the practical parts of sex, because of those feelings and desires. Rather, when we have our basic needs in place, it can be a lot easier to be spontaneous and free-spirited with sex.

That's a lot to look at, we know. How did you do? What do you have already set, and what might you need to look into evaluating, talking about or getting?

Please know that realistically, even most older adults will not check every single thing on this list. But we can safely say that any person who's pretty darn ready for partnered genital sex, and who's most likely to have beneficial and healthy sexual experiences, should have or be working towards most of what is on this list, as should their partner.

If you can see some areas where you're lacking, give yourself time to think about them, maybe re-evaluate, slow down, and hold off before you become sexually active until you've made more progress. When you see weak spots in what you've got on the list, how about just doing some work on those? In talking to a partner who feels they're ready, you might want to remember this list so that you can better articulate and explain in what areas you don't feel you or they are really ready.

There isn't a statute of limitations on your sex life. You can initiate any of it at any time during your life, and change what you want to do as you go along, determining at any time what is best for you, and for your partner(s). If you haven't checked almost all of the things on those lists, take a look at the ones you didn't check and try and figure out what you need to do for yourself right now. There is no reason to set yourself up for a fall, or rush into something that won't be enjoyable or rewarding, when it isn't going to go away if you wait. Be honest with yourself, and above all else, do what is right for YOU.

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