Okay, well, here is the thing: I'm a girl and I'm so afraid to be in a relationship for too long, because I think that I'm going to have to have sex. I know that my boyfriend right now wants it, but I really don't. He says he'll wait for me, but I'm still scared. I don't think that I will ever be ready to do it, and so I'm worried. What if I am NEVER ready?!
Heather Corinna replies:
Because you don't want to have any kind of sex or a given kind of sex now, in a given relationship, or don't feel ready now or in this relationship does not mean you won't ever. There are many, many kinds of sex -- not just intercourse, and sex also includes masturbation, having sex by ourselves without a partner, and many different kinds of interpersonal contexts and dynamics we can potentially have sex within. I'm not sure if you're talking about all kinds of sex or just one, but most people, in a lifetime, will want to engage in at least some of them and will feel ready for at least some of them at some point.
But while that's true for most people, it's not true for all people. Some folks really don't ever want to have some kinds of sex or even all kinds, because they just don't feel those desires or don't feel the desire to enact them. Some people feel the desire to engage in sex, but don't feel ready, or know that the things they need to be and feel ready aren't something they have yet, at a given time, or in a given situation. Some people feel the desire for sex and feel ready, but make a choice not to be sexual with other people, like because of ethical or spiritual beliefs or practices or intentions or other scenarios where they want whatever those goals or values are more than they want sex.
You're not the first young woman (or person) who has expressed exactly what you're expressing here. I find that sometimes when I'm mentally taking myself to a possible future that feels very scary or awful, that even if my hypothetical scenario is unlikely, it can help to go ahead and try and just go there intellectually and see what it might be like. When I do that, more times than not, what seems like a worst-case scenario often isn't so awful or unmanageable when I think it all the way through, which I'd certainly say is the case with the scenario you're envisioning.
So, let's go ahead and say that you do find you never really feel ready, or that you never want to have one kind of sex or any kind of sex with a partner at all. Let's just say that is what winds up being the case for your whole life, and envision what that could mean or be like and see if it helps you any.
If it was your lifelong reality, you'd probably find other ways to get in touch with, feel connected to and enjoy your body and self. Sex is not the only physical, emotional, sensory and creative thing we can do to explore and express who we are and to connect our minds, hearts and bodies. There are about a gazillion ways we can do that, like various kinds of exercise, dance, other movement or bodywork, like meditation practices, like cooking or creating all kinds of art, like singing along with the radio loudly and passionately, like gardening, painting our bedroom or other practical, but sensory, parts of living we can choose to really, fully engage in. Even for people who do choose to have sex, having sex be the only way to connect and express all the pieces of who we are doesn't tend to be a satisfying way of living or a very rich way of experiencing life.
In terms of interpersonal relationships, you'd want to only choose to have the kinds of relationships with other people that were not sexual, and where it was understood and accepted that's not something you wanted with people and not something they should expect from you. That would not mean you'd have no relationships. There are many relationships in life we do, may or can have that are not sexual by default, assumed understanding or choice, like relationships with our family members, with platonic friends, with children (those other people parent or who you do: you don't have to have sex to become a parent, after all). We can have intimate relationships -- relationships where we're emotionally close, but not sexual -- with friends or family, with teachers, students, mentors or teachers or people we mentor or teach, with people we engage in creative projects or work with, with neighbors or fellow community members. Not only are most of those relationships we already have and/or want in our lives anyway -- this is another area where putting everything in one place isn't sound: only having one relationship that's a sexual or romantic one isn't healthy -- if and when someone does not want to have sex or doesn't feel ready, all of those kinds of relationships and more are ways they can connect with other people.
Opting out of sex with people and not having that choice become or feel like a nightmare also would require that you be honest about not wanting sex. It would mean that when someone clearly or covertly says what they want from you is a sexual relationship, that you make clear you're not the person to seek that out with; that if and when someone said, "But I'll wait for you," you'd say, "You really shouldn't, because you're going to be waiting forever. That's just not something I want." Not being clear about that, or going along with what someone else is assuming you'll want that you know you don't would at some point create huge problems since what each of you wanted and who each of you were would be at odds, so neither would be likely to wind up happy. At least one of you might wind up very seriously unhappy, angry or hurting.
It's probably going to happen far more than once in your life that you want something someone else doesn't, or they want something you don't. It happens, and fairly often. When it happens around sex, no one usually needs to do anything they don't want, and things usually don't go well at all if someone does go ahead and do or agree to what they do not want to or know they can't handle. What works a lot better is to accept and honor our differences and to seek out areas or different kinds of relationships where we do want the same things, where what works for us both is in alignment.
While it can be a bummer to opt out of something with someone that we want in some ways, and would be right for us in some ways, but not in others, once we get over that and they do, sometimes we can not only avert disaster, but wind up discovering ways and avenues to get the good stuff and the stuff we want without having to compromise ourselves or others. What seemed like it might be a worst-case scenario or a real drag can become a gift. Sometimes what happens in situations like that around sex or romance is that we wind up discovering that someone who wasn't the right boyfriend for us makes a fantastic best friend, or a perfect partners for someone else we really care about. Sometimes moving away from something that isn't right for us and isn't a good fit paves the way for us to find what is.
Stating and holding a strong sexual limit, like any other big limit, would involve you being very honest and real with people, as well as very accepting of yourself, at a level that can sometimes be challenging. It's hard sometimes to tell people we like and want to like us that we can't or don't want to give them what they want. It's also not always easy to be different. At the same time, it's only when we're very honest and real about who we are, and very accepting of ourselves and what we want, uniquely, that we tend to have really deep, enduring and meaningful relationships and lives we love in the first place.
People do not have to have sex or sexual relationships or partnerships to be happy, especially if they don't want those things. If sex is something you never want, or where you solidly know will only feel good for you under certain conditions that don't ever manifest, then you won't likely badly feel you're missing out on something, since either you just won't want that thing, or will feel strongly that without what you need feel ready, it's going to be a negative, not a positive. For example, for a whole heaping mess of reasons, I don't want to ever get married. I'm not bumming I'm not married, because I don't want that. What I want is to not get married, and because I know it'd feel and be way wrong for me, and honor who I am, other folks can talk about how much they think everyone wants that or voice being as happy as they may be if they are married. I don't feel bad when I hear that because while I get that it's what they want, and support them in having their own wants and needs, I know it's so not what I want. I feel good about my choices, not bad, even though people different than me feel differently, because I'm making choices in alignment with what I know I want and need for myself, in alignment with what makes me happy and with what I feel best about.
If sex turns out to be something you don't want and do not feel good about doing, not having it isn't any kind of worst case scenario. Not having to do or have something we do not want is pretty much always a best-case scenario, and you could make choices that let you (not) have exactly that.
I want to be clear about something you said you were worried about: no one ever has to have sex. If anyone is ever in the position where they do not want to have sex and someone forces or pushes them to, that person is being sexually assaulted, which is a serious crime, even in places in the world where social inequities keep it from being unlawful (yet) or where it's socially accepted or supported in any way. If and when anyone feels that in order to get or have something else they want or need, they need to choose to have sex they'd ideally not want to choose, that's often not a crime, but it's certainly a terrible situation.
What's emotionally and physically healthiest for everyone, and most supportive of our basic human rights, is for sex to always be an option and a choice made freely, not anything we do out of duty, obligation, because we feel we have no choice or feel we must do in order to survive, to get our most basic needs met, like having a warm place to sleep and food to eat.
I know it can seem like in order to have certain kinds of elective relationships that you have to have sex, but I disagree. I know there are a lot of messages out and about in the world that say or suggest that's so -- that say things like that, for instance, you MUST have sex if you're married or MUST have sex to "keep a man" -- but those are messages that don't tend to be truthful about real diversity, and which are usually at least somewhat based in discrimination or inequality of some kind; in presenting all people as being only like folks either with the most power and privilege or which intend to influence other people's choices in order to assure those folks with all the power and privilege keep it all.
Messages like that stink, and not just because of what they're often motivated by. They can make or keep many people invisible, can make people feel they only have some degree of choice when they have far more, and because, as I think you're experiencing right now, they can make people feel scared and backed into a corner, instead of empowered and confident in making their own best choices. Unfortunately, even when those messages aren't as true as suggested or aren't true for everyone, it's not like any of us can singlehandedly undo them: to some degree, we just have to put up with them. At the same time, some messages like that have changed through history, and the way they change is when one person at a time just sticks to what they know they really want and what they really feel right about, and makes their own message that while a given thing may be right for someone, even a lot of someone's, it's not right for them, and that's just that. When that happens and keeps happening, eventually we do tend to see changes because it gets harder and harder for people to claim something is unilaterally true, since more and more people it isn't true for become more and more visible and vocal. And the more people make choices that may be different, but are best for them, the more other people start to feel empowered to do the same for themselves.
For sure, realistically, most people do want relationships or interactions which are sexual -- though how they're sexual is diverse -- or relationships which include sex of some kind as part of that relationship. But not everyone. Just because a lot of people want something doesn't mean everyone does and that anyone who doesn't should just fall in line. Again, I'd disagree with anyone who says or thinks something like that: I think the right answer is to always be ourselves, including in the ways we're different, even when that means being different from most people.
If what we find out we want are intimate relationships or partnerships without sex, either for a little while or for a lifetime, that is 100% okay. Some people who have the idea that sex will be part of their most important or closest relationships can even wind up finding out that's not what actually winds up happening in their lives, and that instead, their big life partnership turns out to be with a platonic best friend, with a child they parent, or with some kind of collective of people, like a community. Sex being part of a relationship doesn't mean a relationship will be our most important or deepest. Even though many of us grow up with or surrounded by a lot of the same ideals when it comes to what our deepest, closest or most enduring relationships will look like or are supposed to be like, that doesn't mean that those ideals will match our realities, nor that they're right for who we and the people in our lives are as individuals.
You -- like everyone -- should never feel afraid you have to do anything you do not want to just because someone else wants it from you for themselves, very much including having sex. If ever you feel like that, chances are you're in a situation or relationship that either isn't safe, or just isn't right for you, so the best answer would be to get away from that person or relationship or just opt out. In healthy relationships, and relationships that are right for us and happening at the right time and pace, we don't feel scared we'll have to do things we deeply don't want to, can't handle, or which are wrong for us.
While it is possible you will never want sex or feel ready, the people in that group are a small fraction of the population. It's totally okay if you do wind up being a member of that group, but it's more likely that someday you will want to and will feel ready to. That someday, though, is not as important as right now. You don't have to know or decide about sex for the rest of your life today. All you can do now, and all you need to do now, is to make choices about your present and the near, somewhat-more forseeable future.
You're saying clearly that you don't want to have sex (whatever you mean by that) right now. You're saying clearly that you don't feel ready right now. You get to -- and should -- honor those feelings and stick with what you want, and steer clear of what you don't.
Your boyfriend is saying he's comfortable waiting until you do want to have sex and do feel ready: that's good news, and I think you should take him at his word. Of course, he can also only make that choice for right now and not for way down the road, so he might not always feel that way. If he ever changes his mind, and feels he really does not want to wait for sex anymore, and you still feel the way you do, you two can part ways so that he can seek out what he wants and you can seek out what you do. People don't always want the same things, and that doesn't mean one person is right in their wants and the other is wrong. Often it just means you're different people at different phases of your life who have different wants and needs. People in your life or who want to be part of it who care about you and who have the kind of maturity we need to be sexual with others in a healthy way will understand and accept when you don't want sex, even if they're disappointed. This is another one of those things in life you're not going to be able to avoid unless you're signing up to be the world's biggest doormat: we are going to disappoint other people sometimes, or not want what they want. It's a bummer, but we all get over it, whether we're the ones doing the disappointing or the ones who are disappointed.
So, do try and relax about this, okay? Your oh-my-gawd-what-if-I-never freakout scenario, even if it came to be, really isn't that scary. It'd just be different from what some other folks want or think, that's all. Lots of us are a little (or a lot!) different, and we do just fine. And right now, you feeling the way you are as a young person is actually not that different at all: it's incredibly common.
If you need to talk to your boyfriend about this some more to feel better, do that. If being in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship at this time in your life, no matter how awesome the person is you're in it with is, feels like too much pressure, do yourself a solid and step back from that kind of relationship for now, only pursuing or agreeing to those kinds of relationships when you feel more comfortable with them. Nobody has to have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and even if people around you or you yourself think that that's something more valuable than not having one. If it makes you feel terrified and worried all the time, it's obviously not valuable for you at all.
I'm going to leave you with some links I think might help you out some, now and later. But I also want to leave you with this clear message: whatever you want is okay to want, and whatever you don't want is okay to not want. The "right" answer to any of this is what you most strongly know and feel is right for you: not a boyfriend, not a best friend, not what someone says on television -- only you. If you make your choices from that place, no matter what they are, it's more than all good, it's the very best thing you can do for yourself and others.
This post was originally published at RH Reality Check, a site of news, community and commentary for reproductive health and justice