Doing It Right 4: Am I Ready? IN CHAPTER 3 WE TALKED ABOUT PUBERTY AND WHAT HAPPENS TO your body as you grow from a child into an adult. All those changes—breasts growing, hair appearing in new places, changes in your genitals, getting your period, having your first wet dream—mean that your body is ready to have sex. Being physically ready is one thing, but how do you know if you’re ready emotionally? The fact that you’re reading this chapter probably means you’re asking yourself this question.
Becoming sexually active is a big deal. Having sex can be a great experience. But it also comes with a lot of consequences. Sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy are very real risks, so you’ll want to make sure you’re informed and ready to take precautions (you can learn how in chapters 5 and 6).
In addition, sex can bring on a lot of feelings you might not be prepared for. If you have sex with someone you feel really strongly about, those feelings might deepen if you have sex with them—which can be both wonderful and a little scary. If you have sex with someone you don’t feel that strongly about, you could find yourself feeling more attached to them, whether you want to or not.
I’m not trying to discourage you from having sex. But I want to be sure that if you do, you’ll think about it carefully.
For starters, why do you want to have sex? There may be lots of reasons:
You have a steady girlfriend or boyfriend, you’ve been getting closer to each other, and sex just feels like the natural next step.
You’re curious—everyone is talking about sex, and now you want to experience it for yourself.
You’re just plain horny! Sex is all you can think about, and you’d rather do it than think about it.
You feel you’re old enough. Sex is something people your age do.
But maybe you’re not sure if you’re ready. Everyone is different, and everyone feels ready at different times. The important thing is not to have sex before you are ready, and only you can figure out when that is. DOES AGE MATTER? The law tells you when you’re old enough to drink, drive, and vote, and believe it or not, it has rules about when you’re old enough to consent to sex, too. Someone above the age of consent who has sex with someone below the age of consent can be charged with a crime. Age of consent varies from state to state, but in most states it ranges from sixteen to eighteen. For specific information on your state, go to www.avert.org/aofconsent.htm, and for more information on consent, see chapter 14.
Lots of people consent to sex before they’re allowed to according to the law. Young people don’t usually get into legal trouble for having sex with another young person unless someone (like a parent) presses charges, but it’s something to keep in mind when making the decision to have sex.
That being said, no one can tell you an age when you’re ready to have sex. There can be lots of pressure, but the only good reason to do it is because you know you’re ready. If you don’t know that, then wait. Having sex can make you feel very grown-up. But here’s another thing that can make you feel grown-up: making your own decision, one that’s right for you, no matter what other people around you are doing. READY OR NOT, HERE I COME! You may not be ready, but maybe your partner is. It can be tough having a boyfriend or girlfriend who is ready for sex when you’re not. That’s a situation requiring a very honest conversation. Talk about why you don’t feel ready, and ask for patience. In addition, talk about the ways you can be close without having sex, and be clear about what kinds of touching you are comfortable with. You will have to do some serious talking in this conversation, but make sure you do a lot of listening, too. Even talking about the ways you enjoy touching each other can feel very intimate. You can both feel close to each other, and satisfy each other, without having sex until you’re ready.
Even if you’re sure you want to wait, it can get tougher as you get older—if lots of your friends and classmates are doing it and you’re not, you can start to feel left out, like they all belong to a secret club and you’re not a member. But keep this in mind: By the time they graduate from high school, roughly 60 percent of all teenagers have had sex. This means that 40 percent of your peers haven’t had sex by that time. You’re far from being the only one.
Sex is a very intimate act. It’s a great way of expressing strong feelings for someone, and it’s also a great way of developing even stronger feelings for them. If you want to have that experience with someone you love and trust, then hopefully that will feel more important than what your friends and classmates are doing. At the end of the day, your sex life matters only to you and the people you have sex with.
If you’re thinking about having sex for the first time and are feeling confused, here are some questions to consider:
Do you have a partner who you trust and feel close to? Does that matter to you?
How would your parents feel about you having sex? How important are their values to you?
Have you thought about how you and your partner will protect against sexually transmitted diseases? Do you feel that both you and your partner are responsible enough to always have sex safely?
Have you and your partner decided to be monogamous—that is, have you decided to have sex only with each other? Is this important to you?
If your partner is of the opposite sex, what would you do if you/she got pregnant? Do you feel mature enough to handle the big decisions and responsibilities that would come along with that? Is abortion an option? How do you feel about having a child or giving a child up for adoption? You need to consider not just how you feel about these decisions but how your partner feels as well.
Why do you want to have sex? Sometimes it seems like everyone else is doing it and you start to feel left out. But sex is a very private thing. When you think about it, what you do or don’t do sexually is really no one else’s business.
Why now? Are you in a more serious relationship than you’ve ever been in before? Are you in love? Do you just feel ready?
Is your partner pressuring you to have sex? No one has the right to pressure you to have sex before you’re ready. If you’re scared this person will break up with you if you don’t say yes, that’s a good sign that you should break up with them. If you feel threatened in any way, tell an adult immediately.
How do you feel about having sex? What emotions come up when you think about it? Are you excited or scared? Trust your feelings. If the thought makes you feel more nervous than happy, that might be a sign that you should wait a while longer.
Before you make this decision, I suggest you talk to an adult you trust, if possible. There’s no way to anticipate all the very strong feelings that sex can bring on. Someone older—a relative, a counselor at your school, an older friend or neighbor—can offer some perspective.
Q: I’m underage and I know I’m not supposed to drink, but if I’m nervous about having sex for the first time, would having a couple of drinks help?
A: Although I won’t preach to you about underage drinking, I can tell you that alcohol tends to make sex worse rather than better. It can affect your body’s ability to become aroused—this means you may have trouble getting or keeping an erection or reaching orgasm. Alcohol can also cloud your judgment, making it more likely you’ll do things you wouldn’t have done otherwise, and more likely that you’ll forget what you know about safer sex (more on this in chapter 5). In the majority of date rapes, the victim, the assaulter, or both were drinking or on some other kind of drug. Finally, alcohol dulls sensation—you’re about to do something that feels really good, and this is no time to dampen your senses! If you’re too nervous to have sex sober, think about whether that’s a sign that you’re not ready, or think about other ways you can get over your nerves.
Q: I can’t wait to have sex for the first time! My partner and I don’t love each other, but we both want to have sex just for the experience. Should we do it, or should we wait?
A: It sounds like you feel you’re ready for sex, and you have a trustworthy and willing partner. This is a pretty good scenario for having sex for the first time.
But I’m curious about why you’re so eager to have sex. Is it because so many others around you are having sex? Or is it because you want to?
Of course sex—the first time or any time—doesn’t have to be with someone you love. But one reason sex and love often go hand in hand is because having sex with someone—especially your first someone—can bring on a lot of very strong feelings, maybe more feelings than you’d expect.
I recommend a little soul-searching. Which is more important: having sex now, or having it with someone you love? Whatever you decide is okay as long as you feel sure it’s what you both want.
Bronwen Pardes is an alumna of Vassar College and New York University’s graduate program in human sexuality. She has taught sexuality education at middle schools, high schools, and colleges in New York City. Doing it Right is her first book.