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The Quick Guide to Deciding if You're Ready to Have Sex

Healthy Sexual Choices
Part 1 of 3

This article is not about sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy risk, although, as realities of sexual activity, they will come up here and there. The topic we’ll consider here concerns the decision of whether or not to have sex, what goes into such a decision and the barriers to healthy sexual decision-making. We’ll go beyond issues of physical health to discuss emotional and mental factors involved in the sexual decisions we make. No matter your age or your level of sexual experience, it’s important to think about why you make the sexual choices you make.

You’ve likely had some version of “the sex talk” before. Parents today use a variety of resources to help young people learn about the facts and circumstances surrounding sexual activity.  In addition, most young people get the run-down on pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in school. It’s extremely important for you to learn about the risks associated with sexual activity and different ways to avoid them. But you don’t learn everything in school that is important to learn in life – and this is especially true of sex education. Experience won’t always give you the knowledge you don’t get in school, either. There are things that are important to think about before having sex, and this is true even if you already have sexual experience, since you still have a choice as to whether or not to have sex again.

In the 2012 With One Voice survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy involving more than 1,000 teens, over half reported regretting that they hadn’t waited longer to have sex.  So, one of the most important choices that young people must make regarding this aspect of life is not only if, but when.

The goal of the information that follows is to help you develop values around sexual decision-making so that you can enter situations with a firm understanding of what you want outside the heat of the moment and without yielding to the pressures around you. We’ll begin Part 1 of this series by examining a number of questions you should ask yourself to determine whether you’re ready to have sex. Then, in Part 2, we’ll look at some common reasons why people choose to have sex, and think about whether each could be considered a healthy or unhealthy reason.  We’ll also outline reasons why people may choose not to have sex. In Part 3, we’ll learn to identify manipulative behaviors that some people use to pressure others into sex, and how to respond in these situations. 

What it Means to be Ready to Have Sex

The following are questions you should be able to ask yourself and answer before deciding that you’re ready to have sex in general:

  • Do I want to have sex for myself, and not because someone else or other people expect me to?
  • Who do I want to have sex with? This may be a specific person or a set of general standards, such as someone you’re in a committed relationship with, someone you’ve known a long time, someone you love, etc.
  • Do I know the risks? Even though most people get some form of sex education in school, there are still plenty of people who don’t fully understand the risks associated with sex or how to avoid them. Do you know all the facts about pregnancy and STIs? Take this quick quiz from WebMD to test and identify gaps in your knowledge.
  • Do I have ways to limit these risks? Access to condoms for STI prevention and other forms of birth control is important. Make sure you have made specific choices about these methods long before you find yourself in a sexual situation, and that you have access to your chosen method(s).
  • Am I prepared to deal with unintended consequences of sex should they result? These could range from pregnancy and STIs to awkwardness, disappointment and discomfort with a partner. While you can reduce these risks, you can’t eliminate them as possibilities.
  • Am I comfortable communicating my feelings, expectations, preferences and concerns around sex with someone else? If not, you and your partner could end up hurting one another, emotionally and/or physically. If you’re not ready to talk about sex, you’re not ready to do it.
  • Am I comfortable enough with my body to have it shown to and touched by another person? If the idea of exposing yourself to another person makes you cringe, feel ashamed or very anxious, you’re not ready to do so.
  • How does this decision fit in with my values?: We all have certain values in life – family, friends, self-respect, life goals – and it’s important to think about how sex fits into these values. Would having sex negatively affect your respect for yourself at this time? Would it conflict with religious values you hold? Would it distract you from your other interests and goals? Make sure sex fits into the broader context of your life and what you want out of it before deciding to do it.
  • Do I have access to reproductive health care? Once a man or woman becomes sexually active, it’s important to have health professionals he or she can consult for testing, birth control, questions and any other health needs around sex that may arise. You should be familiar with the laws in your state regarding access to confidential care. Ideally, young people will be able to talk openly with their parents or guardians about the desire to use birth control, but this isn’t always the case. Whether or not you can obtain birth control without parental consent depends on where you live. See State Policies in Brief to learn about access in your state.

If you’ve already asked yourself the above questions and decided that you’re ready to have sex in general, the following are readiness questions to ask yourself before any specific encounters take place.

  • Has the other person asked him/herself the questions above and answered them? Before having sex with someone, it’s important to know that they’re as ready as you are.
  • Are we on the same page concerning pregnancy and STI risk management, as well as what we would do if these methods failed? For example, if you have decided that wearing a condom is important to you – which is always a good idea, since it is the only form of birth control that protects against both pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections – then it’s crucial that your partner is on board with this. Likewise, you should both have the same ideas about what to do if these methods fail.
  • Do I trust this person? If not, a sexual experience could leave you hurt. You may want more out of the sexual encounter and the whole relationship than your partner; if you haven’t developed trust with one another, there’s no way of knowing. Plus, trust is needed in order to know the other person’s sexual history and any risk of STIs that may come from an encounter with him or her. 
  • Can I communicate with this particular person? If this person is not willing to communicate with you about sexual matters, then he or she is not prepared to have responsible sex.
  • Do I know this person’s sexual history? It can feel a bit awkward to ask your potential partner about past partners, whether he or she has been tested for STIs, whether he or she knows if past partners have been tested, etc. But it’s extremely important. If you can’t do this, you’re not ready for responsible sex. If your partner is reluctant to answer, then he or she is not ready.
  • Do I want to have sex at this particular time and place? Just because you’re generally ready for sex doesn’t mean you’re in the mood or comfortable with it at this time and place. You always have the right to say no for whatever reason.
  • Do I respect this person’s preferences, boundaries, concerns and expectations? If you don’t have a feeling of respect for the person you’re considering having sex with, you risk using, hurting or manipulating him or her. Just as it’s crucial to respect yourself in your sexual decision-making, you need to respect the other person involved as well.

Yes, there are a lot of important questions to ask and answer concerning sexual readiness. We’re talking about healthy decision-making here, and that takes extra time and thought. Imagine what would happen if you didn’t consider the answers to these questions before it was too late to do so. For example, if you hadn’t thought about whether or not you’re comfortable talking about sex and it turns out you’re not, you might find yourself in the heat of the moment and not know how to discuss birth control, your partner’s sexual history, your boundaries and other very important points. If you didn’t consider whether you trust the person you’re with, you could end up with an STI that he or she didn’t tell you about, or discover that he or she wasn’t as invested in the relationship as you. Asking and answering all of these questions – concerning both general and specific readiness – will help keep you, and potential partners, safe physically and emotionally.

It can be hard to stand by your values in the heat of the moment. But, by taking the time to seriously think about your answers to the above questions, it will be easier for you to do so when making life-impacting choices about sex.

In Part 2, we’ll look at reasons young people commonly report for choosing to have sex and consider whether they fit in with the components of sexual readiness above. Then, we’ll explore common reasons people report for choosing not to have sex.

Written by Amée LaTour
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- OTHER PARTS IN THIS SERIES -

Part 2:
Top Reasons Why Young People Have Sex (or Don't)
Healthy 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