As kids and teenagers, we were told that we weren’t ‘ready’ for sex, that our bodies and minds were too immature. Now a lot of people my age seem to be doing it. When did they become ready, and how did they know it?
This is a very good question, and it’s a question you may want to ask some of your friends if you’re comfortable doing so. Each person’s story is different, but it may be helpful to hear friends reflect on their experience. Americans tend to be close-lipped as a culture when the topic of sex arises, but I think we could benefit from talking with friends about our thoughts, feelings, and experiences—provided we feel safe doing so.
It’s possible that many people engage in sex before they are “ready”. What constitutes “ready?” Readiness is definitely more complex than attaining sexual maturity in physiological terms. A presence of sex hormones and mature sex organs implies that the physical act of sex is possible, but sex is clearly much more than the physical act.
Our brain chemistry is deeply impacted by sexual contact. Levels of serotonin, oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine increase when we are sexually active. Oxytocin is known as “the bonding hormone”, inducing bonding with the very person that helped us to achieve the heightened level of oxytocin. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that contributes to feelings of enjoyment and reinforces the behavior which facilitated the secretion of dopamine.
See where I’m going with this? Sex is a chemical process in our brains which, in turn, impacts our emotions and behavior. Therefore, the question posed by ‘adults’ when as to ‘if you’re ready for sex’ may have something to do with understanding that there are very real emotional consequences to the physical act of sex—emotional consequences over which, as much as we’d like to, we have very little control. Nature has hardwired us, as biological anthropologist Helen Fisher says, not to be happy but rather to reproduce.
Sex feels good– and biochemically speaking, we want to keep having it. But what if the person/people who we’ve begun having sex with is no longer interested in having sex with us? We may think it easy to write them off in our minds, but our brain chemistry tells a different story: research indicates that there are shared neurochemical characteristics between being in love and the manic phase of manic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Sex can exist without love, but it’s a slippery slope…engaging in sex with the same partner, as much as one may like to remain emotionally unattached, is neurochemically challenging for many. Meaning, we become attached. So adults, when they posit the question as to if one is ‘ready’ for sex, want to know if you can handle the heartbreak that may follow. Heartbreak is excruciating enough to deal with for a relatively healthy adult who’s had time to get their shit together and figure out a grounded way of being in the world—but for a teen or young adult who’s in the midst of intense physical and emotional changes and growth? (‘Adolescence’ as a developmental stage concludes between ages 18 and 21.)
I think it’s also important for us to examine the source of messages that one may not be ready for sex. Though truth and altruism may be the primary factors informing this assertion, what other factors may be present? Might there be hidden or subconscious agendas? Clearly there are generational differences in attitudes regarding sex, and so if an adult is reflecting on the trends and experiences of his or her peer group and their coming of age experiences in order to inform a current generation, there may be some significant gaps in relevancy. Previous generations weren’t exposed to the onslaught of sexual information that is nearly ubiquitous in this day and age, and like it or not, the prevalence of sex in the media does have an impact on attitudes and behaviors—even if the impact is to make one question whether there’s something wrong with them if they are still a virgin at age 18. (The answer to that is a defiant “NO.”) Additionally, the average age of onset of menstruation has decreased steadily since 1900. Early sexual maturity lends itself to earlier sexual behavior. Does sexual maturity equate ‘readiness’? No, not definitively. But it may impact a higher degree of curiosity, exploration and even precociousness regarding sex, which can be alarming to parents, teachers, and other adults. As much information and confidence as one may think they have regarding sex, it can quickly become a different experience when you’re having it with another person—especially if the person you’re having it with may have different values and expectations than you do.
Of course, we haven’t addressed the physical risks of sex—STI’s (Sexually Transmitted Diseases and unwanted pregnancy.) These are very real and they are certainly some of the concerns voiced when adults worry about ‘readiness’. Though most STI’s are treatable and or curable, there are some that are incurable, painful, even life-threatening. Kind of puts a damper on the whole ‘sex-is-fun’ thing.
What it comes down to is that each person’s readiness for sex varies, based upon a number of things including familial influences, cultural and religious values, emotional maturity, and personal experiences. I have a friend who remained a virgin until she was 25. Up until that point, she just didn’t feel ready. She was scared, uncertain, and wanted to wait until she became comfortable enough with herself before she went there with someone else. And I have other friends who report having felt ‘ready’ at age 16.
Being “ready” for sex is much less an instant epiphany than it is a process of personal discovery.
It can be difficult to mediate sexual desire (which can be very strong, especially during certain moments of adolescence) with the emotional components of intimacy.
Here are some things to consider in order to evaluate whether or not you may be ready for sex:
–Do you feel ready to have an intimate relationship with someone else?
–Are you able to advocate for your needs within a sexual relationship, including what makes you feel safe and what makes you feel unsafe, and what your boundaries are?
–Are you able to communicate openly with your partner about responsibility, birth control, STI risk and protection, your sexual histories, etc?
–Are you prepared to deal with an unwanted pregnancy or a sexually transmitted infection?
–Can you distinguish what you want for yourself versus what your friends, family, or potential sex partner(s) may want from you?
–Do you feel that you can take responsibility for your own behavior, emotions, and expectations? Do you feel your partner can do the same?
–Do you feel you understand the difference between sex and love, even if you love the person you are sexually involved with? Are you prepared to handle rejection?
These are just a few things to consider.