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Top Reasons Why Young People Have Sex (or Don't)

Healthy Sexual Choices
Part 2 of 3

In Part 1, we looked at the components of sexual readiness. Here, we’ll explore common reasons why young people choose to have sex and reasons they choose not to, and consider how each fits into healthy sexual decision-making.

Top Reasons Why Young People Have Sex

The following are common reasons why people choose to have sex. Some are specific to young people, while others may be found at all age levels.

  • Physical pleasure
  • To feel mature/“like an adult”
  • Because you have before
  • To make your partner happy
  • Intimacy/love                                        
  • To “keep” your partner
  • To be popular
  • Because everyone’s doing it
  • Curiosity
  • To feel loved/to boost self-esteem

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  • For physical pleasure

In a survey of over 1,000 teens ages 13-16 commissioned by NBC and People Magazine, 68% of teens who have had sex reported sexual desire as a reason for choosing to do so. Having sex to enjoy physical pleasure isn’t in itself a good or a bad thing.  By itself, it’s not the best reason. For one, there are many ways to experience physical pleasure that do not involve having sex. However, if the desire for physical pleasure is not the sole reason – if it’s present, but alongside all the components of sexual readiness discussed in Part 1 – then it can be part of a healthy decision to have sex.

  • To feel mature/“like an adult”

What is maturity? It’s an advanced state of emotional and mental development. Having sex will not make you mature. In fact, one of the key components of maturity is responsible decision-making. Being an adult is much more about the choices you make and the values you establish than about isolated actions. Just as putting on a business suit or carrying a briefcase around doesn’t mean you have a career, having sex won’t make you more mature.

  • Because you have before

In physics, “inertia” means an object’s tendency not to change its course unless it comes up against some resistance – unless something forces it to move in a different direction or to stop moving. It’s easy for us humans to get into a state of inertia with our decision-making. If you’ve have sex before – especially with the same person – why not do it again?  But having sex is a brand new decision each time. The resistance our decision-making inertia comes up against is thought – thinking about the choices we make and why.  It’s never too late to re-evaluate the situation, consider the questions in Part 1 and choose differently next time.

  • To make your partner happy

In the NBC/People Magazine survey, 34% of participants who had sexual experience reported pressure from their partners as a reason behind their choice to have sex. Who doesn’t want the person they like or love to be happy? Of course, that doesn’t mean we should do anything to achieve this result. In the article on Personal Agency, we discussed the importance of making decisions from within yourself. Your decision to have sex should come from you. If the happiness you seek to obtain is only your partner’s, then you’re basing your decision solely on factors outside yourself and not paying enough attention to the other half of the encounter – you!

  • Intimacy

Intimacy is a special feeling of closeness shared between two people. Most romantic couples strive for some level of intimacy in their relationships; this can be achieved through physical means such as sex, cuddling, kissing or hand-holding as well as emotional means, such as the sharing of thoughts, feelings and values verbally.

Intimacy can be a healthy reason to have sex, so long as the components of sexual readiness discussed in Part 1 are in play. For example, you’ll want to trust that your partner feels for you how you feel for him or her. If your partner is less committed to the relationship than you, you stand to get hurt if intimacy is your reason for choosing to have sex. However, in a trusting relationship where both partners reciprocate feelings and are emotionally mature, intimacy can be a healthy reason to have sex.

  • To “keep” your partner

Sex is not a chip to bargain with. It should not be demanded in exchange for something else, such as the maintenance of a relationship. It can be very scary and saddening to think you’ll lose a partner if you won’t have sex with him or her, but think of it this way: He or she will be losing you, too, and not because of something you won’t do, but because you have different values or are at different places in life.

In the abovementioned survey, 56% of participants reported the desire to make the relationship stronger as a reason for having sex. The type of intimacy shared through sex may make a relationship stronger, but there is no guarantee of this. Even if your partner isn’t threatening to leave you if you won’t have sex, it’s possible for you to assume or fear such a thing and rely on sex as a way to “keep” your partner. Watch out for this type of thinking, as it’s a component of unhealthy sexual decision-making.

  • To be popular

Just about everyone would agree, here and now, that popularity is not a healthy reason to have sex. However, the social pressure young people face makes this reason very tempting. Eighteen percent of teens in the survey above reported the desire to be popular as a reason for choosing to have sex. In order to resist the temptation of popularity through sexual activity, it’s necessary to develop your values and think beforehand about your decision-making, which is what you’re doing right now.

  • Because everyone’s doing it

It’s easy to feel like the odd man or woman out when you haven’t had sex yet or in a long time; young people talk about sex constantly as if it’s happening to them nearly every day. First off, you should know that not everyone is doing it. In the NBC/People Magazine survey, only 13% of teens reported having sexual intercourse, while 12% reported oral sex experience. The Centers for Disease Control’s 2013 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 34% of high school students had been sexually active within the past three months across the nation – far from a majority, and even farther from “everyone.” While you may feel like you’re surrounded by sexually active peers, in reality, there’s a lot more talk around sex than active participation.

Regardless of what others are doing, though, it actually has no bearing on your own emotional, physical and intellectual preparedness for sex. Remember: Good decision-making comes from within yourself and is not strictly determined by outside factors, such as what other are doing.

  • Curiosity

Curiosity is the desire to know something you don’t know already, and it’s a primary reason for doing anything new, including having sex for the first time or with a new person. A full 71% of teens in the NBC/People Magazine survey reported curiosity as a factor in their decision to have sex. Some may just wonder what it’s all about. Young women in particular may have heard that the first time is very painful, accompanied by the breaking of the hymen and a bunch of blood, making it seem like something best gotten over with. (Actually, that’s not at all what happens. Check out the article, The Hymen: A Membrane Widely Misunderstood, for clarification on the hymen myth.)

While curiosity is certainly an understandable reason why young people would want to have sex, it’s not a solid one on its own. Curiosity may be one motivating factor behind everybody’s first time, but it shouldn’t be the only one. Check in with the components of sexual readiness in Part 1.

  • To feel loved/to boost self-esteem

Sex can be special, and it can make a person feel special. However, just because someone has sex with you doesn’t necessarily mean you’re special to him or her. If the other person is having sex with you for, say, reasons of reputation, you stand to get hurt when your desire for love and a sense of worth fall through.

Most importantly, self-esteem doesn’t come from how another person sees you. While being respected is important, since it generally stems from behaving in a respectable manner, a true sense of self-worth must come from yourself. This is easier said than done, and it’s tremendously tempting to rely on another person for your sense of worth and esteem. But it just doesn’t work that way. You need to make yourself interesting and worthy to yourself, and having sex won’t do that for you on its own. 

Top Reasons Why Young People Don’t Have Sex

In general, we believe that any reason for not having sex is a good reason. That’s because sex should always be consensual – meaning both partners are fully ready and willing. Any reason for not wanting to, then, is a good reason not to. The following are some common reasons young people choose not to have sex.

  • Feeling like you’re too young
  • Worried about what others will think
  • Worried about STIs/pregnancy                         
  • Religious or moral beliefs
  • Not wanting to get hurt
  • Haven’t met the right person 

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  • Feeling like you’re too young

This was one reason 89% of teens in the NBC/People Magazine survey who had not had sex reported for making that decision. Adolescence is a time of intense emotional, intellectual, psychological and physical development. New experiences are everywhere, and many young people don’t feel ready to take on the potential consequences of sexual activity. Not feeling ready means not being ready; feeling too young means being too young.

  • Worried about what others will think

At first glance, this might not seem like a very healthy reason not to do something given what was said above about the importance of making decisions from within yourself. However, part of sexual readiness is being emotionally prepared for the consequences of sex, one of which is how those you love and respect regard your choice. In the survey, 84% of teens who hadn’t had sex reported concern about what parents would think as a reason for waiting. 

But there’s more behind this reason than a fear of being judged. A basic part of respecting others involves caring how they think and feel, and trusting their judgment. If you trust the judgment of parents, friends, mentors or other respected people in your life (along with your own), then not wanting to disappoint them or strain relationships with them is a legitimate reason for waiting.

  • Worried about STIs/pregnancy

Again, a key component of sexual readiness is being prepared for unintended consequences. Whether you don’t have access to preventive methods or you’re simply not ready to take on the risk that still remains even when such methods are used, concern about pregnancy and STIs is always a valid reason to abstain from sexual activities (including oral sex, which can transmit infections). In the survey, 86% of participants reported fear of STIs as a reason for abstaining, and 85% reported fear of pregnancy as a reason.

  • Religious or moral beliefs

As discussed in Part 1, it’s important to consider how sex fits into the broader context of your life, and this involves thinking about your values. If you believe that sex should be reserved for marriage, for someone you love, for people older than yourself, etc., then having sex before such a time would interfere with your overall values.

  • Not wanting to get hurt

Because sex is an intimate activity, it’s easy to experience a heightened emotional attachment toward a partner you’ve had sex with. There is a concern, particularly among relationships between young people, that this can lead to significant pain if the relationship ends, or if the other partner is not as invested in the relationship. Protecting oneself emotionally is a fine reason to wait, or to choose not to engage in sexual activity again for a time.     

  • Haven’t met the right person

Say you’re ready for sex in general; that means you’ve done some thinking about the kind of person you want to have sex with. You have standards. If these standards have not been met by a potential partner, then he or she is not the “right” person. Who the “right” person is will depend on the individual making the decision, but, in general, trust and respect should exist between the two of you.

There are certainly other reasons for choosing not to have sex at a given time and place; the above are just some of the most common. Communicate with yourself; if you’re not ready, for whatever reason, then the responsible thing to do is to wait.

Be sure to check out Part 3 of this Healthy Sexual Choices series, where you’ll learn to identify manipulative behaviors some people use to pressure others into sex, and how to respond. 

Written by Amée LaTour
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- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -

Part 1:
The Quick Guide to Deciding if You're Ready to Have Sex
Healty Sexual Choices

Part 3:
Sexual Coercion: When 'Yes' Means 'No'
Healthy Sexual Choices

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Good habits formed at youth make all of the difference in life. Aristotle