Making Sexual Decisions: Not All or Nothing
Originally Published: January 25, 2018
Revised: October 31, 2018
We make choices every day. For example, we decide whether or not we should start our homework…or take a nap (I’m guilty of opting for the latter). As we get older and start to have romantic and sexual relationships, we have to make plenty of choices. In my past relationships, I’ve definitely done things that I wasn’t comfortable with because I was worried that if I didn’t, my partner wouldn’t want to be with me anymore. But as I got more in touch with myself and what I like and don’t like, I became more expressive about what was right for me. It didn’t take me one day to figure this all out; I’m still working on it. I discovered that what you like or want is fluid. It can change over time, and this is OK. Deciding what you are and aren’t comfortable with, communicating this to your partner and realizing that it’s an ongoing process are all part of making choices about relationships and sex.
Sex isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes it can seem like it’s either abstinence or “all the way,” but there are levels of physical intimacy.
So how do teens make choices about what they are and aren’t comfortable with sexually? Maria, 19, from North Brunswick, NJ shares, “I make choices sexually based on what I deem safe, consensual and what I’m attracted to and aroused by.” What Maria is saying about consent and comfort levels is important. Let’s say you’re willing to try something and then you decide you don’t want to try it after all. It’s OK to change your mind. Don’t feel obligated to do what your partner wants you to do; mutual understanding and respect is important. If your partner says something like, “If you love me like you say you do, you would do this for me,” or your partner is pressuring you to do things sexually, that’s a warning sign.
Royal, 16, from Lithonia, GA says, “I make my choices based on my intuition. If I’m feeling something, then I’ll do it. If I’m not, then my partner will know. I don’t do anything I’m not comfortable with. When I talked about this with my first partner, I felt nervous because it was something I had never done before. I figured that no one really talks about what they are comfortable with and I didn’t know how to approach it. I told her anyways, and she was very understanding. After that, it just felt natural. I think that after you say it the first time and just rip the bandage off, it gets easier from there.”
When it comes to deciding what you want, intuition is important. Listen to your gut! You may have heard about what your friends have done with their partners and now you feel inclined to do the same thing. But you should do what’s right for you because you’re an individual. And that’s a good thing!
All or Nothing?
Sex isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes it can seem like it’s either abstinence or “all the way,” but there are levels of physical intimacy. You can hold hands with someone and have it go no further. You can kiss someone and have it go no further. You can touch and caress each other and have it go no further. You can have oral sex with someone but not vaginal or anal sex. Keeping this in mind is important, as some people think sex is just about intercourse. There are all sorts of behaviors and different ways to practice safer sex and prevent pregnancy. These are all things you have to make choices about and communicate with your partner about.
There also isn’t anything wrong with waiting to have sex, especially if you aren’t ready. If you do decide to have sex, make sure that it’s what you want and you aren’t doing it for anyone else. For instance, Jason, 18, of Washington, D.C. had to check in with himself when presented with a sexual situation “I haven’t had a lot of sexual experiences, and I’m not comfortable having my first time be with somebody I don’t really know,” he explains. “So when I was offered, at a party, to have sex with somebody who was attractive and not sober, I elected not to because I wasn’t comfortable both with the idea of having my first time be with someone I didn’t really know nor was sober.” Jason points out two important things: one, his potential partner wasn’t sober and so couldn’t consent and two, he wanted his first sexual experience to be with someone he knew better. He was able to trust his intuition and stick to it.
Not Like in the Movies
Ever watch a sex scene in a movie and think it’s not like what happens in real life? In the vast majority of movies, the sex scenes don’t involve much talking or awkwardness (unless it’s being played for humor). No one asks, “Is this OK?” or says, “This is what I like and am comfortable with.” This implies that you don’t need to communicate because you and your partner are magically going to know what to do. This can set up expectations of what sex should look like: “perfect” without communication. But to know what your partner likes and doesn’t like takes time. To know what you do and don’t like takes time, too. There isn’t a way that you’re “doing it wrong.” You aren’t doing it wrong if you’re communicating during sex. You aren’t doing it wrong if it doesn’t happen like in a movie. What works for you and your partner is more important than anything else and it’s also important to be able to talk about it.
Communication: An Ongoing Process
So why don’t people talk about sex that much even though it’s a part of most relationships? Revealing your wants, desires and boundaries can be scary; it can make you vulnerable to criticism or rejection. But a crucial part of any relationship is communication.
Joelle, 19, of Somerset, NJ shares, “It was hard for me to talk and communicate with my partner. I learned from more experience what I am comfortable with, but I was too shy to talk about it in case of rejection. Over time, as I got more comfortable, I realized that I wasn’t having a good sex life because I wasn’t communicating. So I impulsively talked about it to my partner one day, and that made it easier. It wasn’t ultimately perfect, but it was better than the beginning.”
You and your partner should talk about what you’re both comfortable with. Writing it down can be helpful as it allows you to reference it later during your discussion. When it comes to making choices about your boundaries, go with whatever you’re comfortable with. Not your best friend telling you what to do. Accept that your feelings about sex matter and are important enough to have a discussion about. They shouldn’t be pushed aside and dealt with when the time comes. I know I’m making this sound so easy, but it isn’t something that happens in two minutes. It’s an ongoing process and that’s OK.
Pay attention to what you want, what you like and what makes you feel safe. You can then communicate this with your partner. This is important when it comes to choosing what you want to do and practicing safer sex, if you choose to have sex. Whether you write it down, email it or talk in person, express your feelings and boundaries. Keep in mind that focusing on knowing yourself and deciding what you are and aren’t comfortable with is key, along with listening to what makes your partner happy and comfortable. Talk to your partner and discuss consent. Remember that it’s a journey and there are going to be bumps in the road, but with communication and mutual understanding, you can get through it! You know yourself best.
Visit Sexetc.org and click on “Action Center” and “Communication Tool” to learn how you can start important conversations with your partner.
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