I know the last thing you want me to talk to you about is sex, and while that is the primary reason for this letter, let me assure you that this is about so much more than that.
I am under no illusion that you want details of my past sexual experiences and, frankly, I don’t want to know about yours, either. I do want to encourage you to think a lot about what sex means to you and I want you to understand 10 important things.
I know that I could abandon this talk and just hope that the education you get about sex from school or books or your friends is enough, but I’ve decided to come at this head-on instead.
It’s the least I can do for the two most important people in my life.
1. “Sex” encompasses a pretty broad category of behaviors.
Our culture sends out some pretty heavy messages about sex. Sex is for procreation only; premarital sex is a Sin; sex with anyone other than your spouse is a Sin; birth control is not an option and neither is abortion. When I was your age, I defined sex as something that could potentially result in a baby: basic missionary-style, penis-in-vagina stuff. This led to a couple of errors; first, that any kind of sex act that couldn’t produce offspring wasn’t “really” sex and, second, that the worst thing that could happen was getting pregnant before marriage. In that light, any kind of fooling around outside of penis-in-vagina penetration didn’t carry the same weight as the “real” sex act and so long as I avoided pregnancy, things would be okay.
Nobody told me that other sexual acts could be just as weighty as “The Real Thing, ” that any type of intimate contact was likely to produce just as many conflicted and pleasurable feelings as vaginal sex.
2. Sex is a normal, healthy part of life when you choose it freely.
The tricky part is the second half of that phrase. Choosing sex freely doesn’t mean agreeing to do something because you think you are the only one of your close friends who hasn’t done it yet. Choosing sex freely doesn’t mean pleasuring someone else because you “owe them” or you don’t want to disappoint them or “leave them hanging.”
Choosing sex freely doesn’t mean lying there quietly while someone else takes advantage of you because you are too drunk or too high or too timid to say, “No!” Unfortunately, it also doesn’t mean blindly riding the wave of physical pleasure that starts with kissing or hand-holding without at some point (or several points) asking yourself, “Am I ready to go farther than this?”
Choosing sex, and by sex I mean any intimate contact, means that you know the risks and you are forging ahead without reservation. You’re going ahead because you feel a connection with this other person and you trust that the only agenda for both of you is expressing your feelings for each other in a mutually respectful way. You are going ahead with the certain knowledge that if at any point, ANY POINT, you feel uncomfortable or change your mind – even if your underwear is halfway across the room and you’ve said “yes” sixteen times tonight – you can put your clothes back on and walk away. Choosing sex freely means that you have asked yourself the question, “Why am I doing this?” and answered honestly. If the answer involves improving or enhancing your social status, doing someone a favor, or punishing yourself or someone else, that is not choosing freely.
3. Making clear decisions about things like sex when you are a teenager is a challenge.
Your brain has been hijacked by emotional Stormtroopers that are holding your powers of logic hostage. Do yourself a favor and think about sex when you’re alone in your room in the light of day. Ask yourself what you think you might say or do if you find yourself in a questionable situation. Ask yourself what a questionable situation might feel like, what it might look like. Figure out what you might say or how far you’d be willing to go to walk away from a questionable situation and who your trusted allies are – the people on speed-dial who won’t hesitate to come to your aid if you get into trouble. Do this at least once a month: once a week if you are in a committed relationship. Talk to your partner about it. Talk to your best friend. Or talk to your mother. Remember that the most important person here is you and the most important voice is your own. And if you get into a situation where your mental preparation eludes you, listen to your gut. If it’s twisting in fear and the hair is rising on the back of your neck or you simply feel unsure, take a breath and stop. Your gut is always right and there will be time to try again when you’re ready.
4. You will make mistakes. We all do.
We all make choices that seem utterly ridiculous twelve hours later. At least once in your life, you are likely to choose intimacy with someone for the wrong reasons and regret it later. Breathe. Learn from it. Move on. Arm yourself with information and a plan to prevent STDs and unintended pregnancy. Learn to identify and avoid people who might take advantage of you and resolve to do better next time.
5. Sex is not something to be afraid of, nor is it to be taken lightly.
Like any other important life decision, it simply requires clear thought and some effort to define your values. Relationships are both difficult and rewarding and, when you are ready and choosing sex freely, it can deepen and enhance your connection to someone else. Your sex life is yours to own; it doesn’t belong to your peer group or your partner or your parents. You have every right to make the decisions that serve you, to ask for what you need, and to change your mind at any point. If you are honest with yourself about why you want to have sex and you feel good about the answer, you are probably on the right track. My fears for you are less about you getting pregnant than they are about your choices and values being co-opted or manipulated by someone else.
6. Remember the other person in this equation – your partner.
You can’t be responsible for his or her choices, but you can be patient and kind and recognize that sexual intimacy is a big step for everyone. Just because you might be ready doesn’t mean someone else is. Always err on the side of the most cautious person’s wishes, even if it means you have to take a cold shower or go for a brisk run to calm down. The fact is, there is plenty of time and sex should be rewarding for both of you. It should make you feel good about yourself and the person you’re with.
7. You can’t trust someone’s word about whether or not they have an STD even if you love them.
They may not know they have one, they may be afraid you’ll change your mind about being with them if they admit to having one, they may not care if they pass one along to you. Again, ask lots of questions and, when in doubt, pack condoms. Protect yourself. Most STDs are for life.
8. Birth control is not shameful or secretive. It is a necessity.
There are many different options, so ask lots of questions to figure out which method is right for you and use it. If the person you are with doesn’t want to use it, you need to have an honest conversation about why it’s important to you. As a young woman, the consequences of unintended pregnancy are monumental to you. You deserve to be with someone who understands that and isn’t willing to take a chance on your life or your health.
9. Sex is confusing for everyone.
It conjures up strong emotional reactions and deserves thoughtful deliberation. Everyone has a unique reaction to and threshold for sexual intimacy. What feels good to you today with one person might not hold true in your next relationship. Tread carefully and respectfully with yourself and your partner.
10. Shame has no place in any sexual relationship.
If you are with someone who makes you feel ashamed, they aren’t doing it right. If you use jokes or share confidential details or photos to shame someone else, you aren’t doing it right. Intimate relationships are about trust and mutual respect and they should feel good. You deserve to feel good about yourself and your choices. If you don’t, change something. If you don’t know what to change, stop everything until you figure it out.
Just one more thing. I love you. I remember what it was like to wrestle with tough decisions at your age and how much easier it seemed to leave things to chance or let someone else choose for me. If you can’t love yourself enough in the moment to slow down and think, ask yourself this question, “What would Mom want for me?” The answer is always, always to be true to you. No matter what.
Kari O’Driscoll is a writer with a background in biology and medical ethics and has worked in medical and mental health settings. She is the parent of two teenage daughters. Her work has appeared in anthologies on parenting and reproductive rights as well as multiple online sites, covering topics such as social justice, parenting, food politics, and mindfulness. She is the founder of The SELF Project, a company dedicated to enhancing the social-emotional health of adolescents and building stronger communities.