Much of contemporary culture has gotten it wrong. Sex is not that connected with love. Sex is, foremost, pleasure, though I think it is also rather overrated even in that regard. Playing the piano can be more fun. Trust me, I’ve done both.
Too many adults tell enquiring teenagers that sex is something special and should be reserved for the one special person you love. Then when the teenager asks, What is love? the answer is “You’ll know it when you experience it.”
The next moment, the teenager gets a crush — and hormones would not be doing their jobs properly if he or she did not get crushes — and they soon think they’re in love, and Why not? Didn’t everybody say sex goes with love?
This patch 3’s bottom line is: Sex is a decision very separate from love. It is a decision taken on its own merits. You can love someone without it being a sexual relationship, and you can have sex without love even entering the equation.
To link sex with love is to make teenagers’ bodies hostage to their endocrine function. I trust teenagers’ rationality and mental maturity more than I would trust the vagaries of raging hormones. I would rather teenagers steer their lives through thoughtfulness and consideration than magnify their ups and downs on the roller-coaster of adolescent love, by putting sex in hock to it.
To teenagers I’d say this: The decision whether to engage is sex is not a decision you make when you’re in love. It’s a decision better made before you’re in love. When you’re in love, that particular person, and wanting to please that person, wanting to hold on to that person, will have a powerful grip on you, and these considerations can overwhelm others. Yet, having sex is an activity with far more consequences than your relationship with that person, consequences you will tend to factor out in a moment of love. The result is that you may make a decision under those circumstances different from the one you might prefer to make in a more sober moment. And then you might regret your actions.
Fine, but what if there’s an opportunity for sex just for the fun of it? That too is a decision for you to make, but again, it is better to have your own thoughts and principles in place before temptation and impulse overwhelms everything else. That way, what you finally do is one that you’re less likely to regret.
But first, let’s talk about the counter-party.
The urge to get physical can sometimes be very strong. However, because it involves another person, it is important that both persons must feel equally ready to take the step. Quite often, this is not the case; one party is more eager to go ahead than the other party. To complicate things, the less eager party, afraid of losing the other’s affection or friendship, might fail to articulate his or her reservations clearly, and then events acquire a momentum of their own. The next day, the less eager party might regret what had happened; with that, a big thorn is introduced into your budding relationship. Will that relationship that you so treasure have a future?
The rule of thumb should be that the less eager party sets the pace and the limits. The slightest hesitation should be given the importance it deserves. Better to do less than to do too much only to wonder if you’ve made a mistake. There will always be another day, when you’re both more ready.
Another thing to bear in mind is that sex is not an all-or-nothing play. There are degrees of sex. There are even degrees of pre-sex, like kissing and fondling. Is mutual masturbation more agreeable to the both of you than penetrative sex?
Everything we do involves risk. Ditto with sex. As explained in patch 2, there are pregnancy and infection risks. Some risks can be mostly eliminated with precautions, but other risks will remain. This is true even for adults engaging in sex. But there is a difference: Adults generally have better resources for dealing with negative consequences should they occur. These resources include emotional ballast, the perspective of experience and communication skills, making them better able to resolve problems within themselves and with their partners. They also include financial resources, to deal with an unexpected baby or visits to the doctor.
As a young person, you don’t have the same resources. When problems arise, you’ll need to depend on your parents or older siblings for help, not to mention the fact that a pregnant teenager faces social taboos that a pregnant adult does not. So if you make a reckless decision, the consequences of your decision affect other people around you too, people who are important to you.
Decide well in advance
Precisely because matters of the heart and physical intimacy are powerful forces, so we must act responsibly: to ourselves, our partners and our families.
I think it is important that each person, young or old, establishes certain baselines for himself or herself. We should know within ourselves what each of us is prepared to do, and what we do not want to do. These decisions should be made taking into account as much cost/benefit and risk/reward information as we can obtain. They must also be consistent with other overarching beliefs, such as religious convictions, and expected obligations to other people we love (e.g. family), so that we are at ease in our minds.
Making such decisions early before falling in love or before facing temptation is helpful in numerous ways. We communicate better to our future partners when our private resolutions are well-formed; we are less likely to be beating around the bush, or giving conflicting signals, leading our partners to draw mistaken conclusions. We are also less likely to be carried away by the moment when we have something clear in our rational minds that can balance our emotional impulses. This may not totally stop us from making mistakes, but it can make the difference between a small misstep and huge, lifelong one.
Thirdly, it’s useful against peer pressure. Because we’ve thought through and understood our feelings and convictions, when peers come and nudge us to do something else, the gap between what we really want and what peers are pointing to comes into focus easily. We become aware that it’s going to lead to an uncomfortable situation, enabling us to take appropriate measures, such as distancing ourselves from such conversations or such company.
Nor is it responsible behaviour to be the one putting peer pressure on others. Even if you have chosen to get intimate (safely, I hope) and are sexually experienced, you still have to respect your partner’s privacy. It’s not mature behaviour to talk about your intimate relationships like they were trophies to be displayed, or to egg others on. We all need to respect the fact that different people make different decisions in their own best interests.
Yes, you have a right to control your body and make a decision for yourself. But you also have a responsibility to yourself, and to those you love, to be making the best possible decision you can.
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This post is the third in the series.