Choosing to be sexually active can feel like a big and maybe even scary decision. As with all choices, it should be thoroughly thought through because once it is done, it can’t be undone. But have no fear! HRT is here to help you process through this decision so that you can go forth in confidence!
Here are some questions to ask yourself before you decide to “go all the way” with someone.
Do I feel comfortable discussing sex with this person?
Sex can be sort of a taboo topic, so breaching the subject in an explicit way can
feel kind of awkward. However, having sex with someone can feel kind of awkward too! If you’re not comfortable enough to talk about sex, you’re likely not ready to be having sex. Sex requires open communication between the two parties, and it is a decidedly vulnerable act; you are sharing a part of yourself with this person that not everyone gets to see. Are you really ready to share that part of yourself with that person if you can’t even talk about sex with them?
Some people might feel awkward explicitly discussing sex, but directly asking is the best way to make sure that your partner is comfortable with taking that step. If you are too nervous to ask how your partner feels about having sex, you’re not prepared to care for that person’s comfort enough to be sexually active with them. If you’re too afraid that asking for express permission for something will “ruin the mood,” maybe you don’t trust this person enough to still want and stick by you through the ups, downs, successes, failures, and awkward moments that can come with life and sex. Ensuring that your partner is comfortable and safe is essential, and not something that can be skipped for the sake of avoiding an uncomfortable conversation.
Before engaging in sexual activity, you’ll want to discuss contraception. What will you be using (if any)? Who will be providing it? What if it fails? There are plenty of birth control options: hormonal birth control, natural family planning, condoms, etc. You’ll want to discuss the pros and cons of each option with your partner, with a healthcare professional, and with someone else who cares about your health (like a parent or guardian). Some birth controls require a lot of discipline or may require a lot of the responsibility to fall on one partner. You want to ask if you trust that other person to follow through on all of their responsibilities. Hormonal birth controls can also have rather devastating side effects for the person taking them. If you would rather not risk those side effects or you worry about the responsibilities of natural family planning or condom use, perhaps you should wait until you are better able to navigate a pregnancy to be sexually active.
You’ll also want to have a discussion about sexually transmitted infections. This may seem like a personal matter, but, hey, sex is personal! To properly assess the risks of the sexual encounter, you need to know about any STDs that person may have or if there is any chance that they might have STDs. If you’re afraid of offending that person by asking about that chance, maybe you don’t really trust that this person cares about your health and safety, and they certainly should be prioritizing your health and safety if you’re having sex with them!
Do I trust them to be open, honest, and knowledgeable about their sexual health?
Being open to a discussion about STDs is not enough. You want to know that the person is going to actually share what you need to know. Do you trust that this person is going to be willing to share the details of their sexual health with you? Or do you think they will dismiss or shy away from the conversation? Even if they do fully engage in the discussion, that doesn’t mean you are getting all of the facts. Our society places quite the stigma on STIs, so it can feel embarrassing to admit that you have one or may have potentially been exposed. You need to be able to trust that your partner will place those fears behind them and be honest with you about the real risks engaging with them sexually.
It is rather difficult to be honest about your sexual health, if you don’t know anything about your sexual health! You want to be confident that your partner is on top of their own well-being. If your partner seems to be someone who tries to ignore problems until they go away, they might just have an STD that they don’t know about. If you are sexually active, it is essential that you get tested regularly. The CDC recommends about every year.* If your partner scoffs at the idea of getting tested or claims they don’t need to be tested because they aren’t “dirty” or a “hussy,” they might not be as aware of their health status as they could be. If your partner isn’t willing to get tested for you, they might not care enough about your health and peace of mind.
Do I trust them with the intimate details of my sexual health?
You can’t expect your partner to spill their guts if you aren’t willing to share as well. Do you feel comfortable sharing with your partner that you have or may have an STD? Your partner needs you to be honest with them so that they can accurately assess risk levels and make an informed decision as well. If you don’t want to share details with your partner because you are afraid of them passing judgment, you aren’t ready to have sex with them. Mutual trust and respect is essential for you and your partner.
You also want to make sure that you trust that the intimate details of your sexual health will stay between you and your partner. If you are afraid that your partner may share those details with others whom you don’t want to have that information, you don’t trust them enough to be sexually active with them. This concept applies to the whole sexual encounter. If you don’t want those details leaked, be sure that you trust that person enough to respect your privacy and boundaries when it comes to sharing.
How do I feel about navigating the potential consequences of sexual activity with this person?
Sexual activity can come with some pretty life altering-consequences. You may want to ask yourself if the sex is worth changing the trajectory of your life or the complications that could arise.
Ask yourself how you would feel about potentially navigating a pregnancy with this person. Do you think they would respect your thoughts, opinions, and desires in that scenario? Would you agree on what course of action to take? If you wouldn’t agree, think about the tension that could place on the relationship or how not having your partner’s support would affect you. Males, keep in mind that if you have a female partner who becomes pregnant, you have no legal say when it comes to abortion. If it would upset you to know that a partner has a pregnancy that you caused terminated, the best way to avoid that would be to not have an unplanned pregnancy. Similarly, if you don’t want the responsibilities of a child, particularly financially, you’d want to avoid a pregnancy as reliably as possible, by not being sexually active.
The effects of pregnancy don’t stop at the navigation. If you would like to parent the child, you very well may have to do that together. Parenting with another person can be complicated, especially if you are no longer together. Do you think you will agree on parenting styles, forms of discipline, responsibilities, etc. If you’re not sure how your partner would approach parenting, maybe it’s too early to be having sex. Knowing beforehand how the two of you would parent together, can help you to feel better and more prepared if you were to experience the potential consequence of an unplanned pregnancy.
Similar to our earlier point: you need to be comfortable discussing STDs with your partner. If you experience symptoms of or test positive for an STD after having sex with someone, you’ll want to make sure you inform them in case you spread it to or caught it from them. Certain STIs have laws making it illegal not to inform partners about testing positive for them. If you think you won’t want to hear from this person a month from now and hear news of an infection (or the other way around! If you wouldn’t want to reach out a month from now), sex is not the best step for you right now.
Remember, using forms of sexual risk reduction, such as birth controls or condoms, does not eliminate the risk of potential consequences. According to the CDC, condoms have about a 13% typical use failure rate.** The pill, the most common form of hormonal birth control in the United States, has a typical use failure rate of 7%.***,**. These methods help to
reduce the risk of pregnancy, but you should still consider the possibility of potential consequences such as pregnancy and STIs.
How will this affect our current relationship?
Not all potential consequences of sex are physical. Sex affects you emotionally and socially and can change the relationship. Ask yourself if you have the healthy communication your relationship needs to navigate these changes. During sexual activity, the body releases a chemical called Oxytocin, which is a bonding chemical. It makes you feel closer to the person; more attached. Sometimes the chemicals in our brains can cloud our judgments and make it hard to view scenarios clearly.
If the person you are sexually active with is merely a friend or acquaintance, or even if the relationship is just “casual,” these chemicals can complicate that and make you long for something more, even if that wasn’t originally what you wanted or is what’s best for you. A good question to ask yourself before taking any physical step in a relationship is: does this relationship have a foundation and level of commitment that warrants the kind of biological bond we would be forging?
Being sexually active adds a whole new factor into the equation of a relationship, and as a result, a whole series of what ifs…
What if I’m not good at it?
What if their previous partner was better?
What if we’re not “sexually compatible?”
What if they expect something I’m not comfortable with?
What if I want to stop having sex?
You want to be confident that you can work through these issues. You want to be comfortable enough in your relationship to know that you and your partner will be patient with each other as you learn and try and fail when it comes to sex.
Do I trust this person to care for my feelings when it comes to sex?
Sex is a very vulnerable thing. You are sharing a part of yourself that not everyone gets to see. Sex requires trust that the other person is going to support and accept you no matter what; no matter what you look like, what works for you, or how you might fail. You need to trust that your partner isn’t going to harp on your insecurities, making you feel worse about them. You want to be confident that your partner isn’t going to leave because something goes wrong or they see something they don’t like, trusting that they will put in the effort to work through those issues or love you with your flaws.
You need confidence that your partner is going to respect your wishes and boundaries. How will they react if you change your mind about something? Is their priority making sure you are comfortable or are they more concerned with getting what they want? Do they feel entitled to your body or affections? If you aren’t sure about these questions, you’ll want to spend more time getting to know them.
Why am I making this decision?
Having the proper motivations behind sexual activity can help protect yourself and your partner during and after the fact. It can help manage your feelings around sex and your partner. Whether or not you have sex with someone is your choice, and no one can make it for you. If you feel pressured or unsure, hold off. Make sure that if you are saying yes to sex, it is because you want to.
Don’t make this decision out of fear. If you decide to have sex with someone because you’re afraid your partner isn’t going to want to stay with you if you won’t have sex or if you feel like you need to give them your body to keep them interested, it’s likely you’ll resent your partner later. Plus, taking this step may seem to curb your fears for now, but it’s only a temporary fix. Sex can’t remedy underlying issues in a relationship.
Similarly, you don’t want to have sex because you feel like “everyone else is doing it” (they’re not by the way), to get your first time out of the way, or to lose your virginity before college. You don’t need to operate on made up timelines it seems like everyone else is going by. You can go at your own pace! You deserve a first sexual experience that is with someone who makes you feel safe and loved, and if you’ve already been sexually active, you can always reserve sexual activity for those committed and trusting relationships from this point on.
At HRT, we encourage sexual risk avoidance, saving sexual activity for a lifelong committed relationship like marriage. This helps you to avoid not only the physical risks of sexual activity, but the emotional and social risks as well. Saving sex specifically for marriage allows you to participate in that intimate activity within a safe context where you are free to be imperfect, trusting that your partner will stick by you, work with you, and respect you. That trust comes from demonstrated commitment from both parties.
Check out our next blog post, where we’ll explore how to know when you are ready to take that step of commitment. But for now, slow down, and ask yourself these questions.
*Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, December 14). Which STD tests should I get?. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/std/prevention/screeningreccs.htm#:~:text=At%20least%20once%20a%20year,every%203%20to%206%20months
**Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, May 1). Contraception. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/contraception/index.htm#:~:text=Typical%20use%20failure%20rate%3A%2014,who%20have%20had%20a%20baby.&text=Male%20condom%E2%80%94Worn%20by%20the,do%20the%20newer%20synthetic%20condoms
***Cooper, D. B. (2022, November 24). Oral contraceptive pills. StatPearls [Internet]. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430882/#:~:text=The%20birth%20control%20pill%20is,pill%20with%20estrogen%20and%20progesterone.