You Don't Have to Have Sex

Dear Sarah, 

I'm 20 years old and I am terrified of the prospect of having sex. Yes, the thought appeals to me...but there are just too many uncertainties to consider. I know girls who've been having sex for years and none of them have had any unwanted circumstances. But I know they exist and I don't think I could bear to risk it.

I was wondering how you managed to have such confidence and self esteem. I can't seem to conjure any up. Whether it be because I spent four years of my life being told I was useless, and worthless by the people who should've been supporting me, or because I will never be as in shape as I want to, whenever my boyfriend comments on how sexy, beautiful, gorgeous, adorable, or amazing I am, I can never believe it. No matter how much I desperately want to. I am proof that you don't have to love yourself to love someone else. But I don't want it to be that way. 

Help?

M
 

Hey M,

Oh man, I wish we lived closer to each other, because I would take you out for a cup of coffee, hug your face off, and then we could talk about all of this in person and I'd tell you that there is no certain date or birthday or timeline that you just have to KNOW things by.

In fact, I would say that right now is the most confident I've ever been in my life, but it's been quite the process to know and love my body, my mind, my "me-ness." Sure, I've always been very confident in some things...but those have only been tasks or actions, and not necessarily reflective of the confidence I've felt about myself.

And if I'm REALLY being honest, I still have moments where I look at my body and I'm overly critical, or where I walk into a room and immediately panic inside because there are at least fifteen other women who are more beautiful and more confident and more self-assured than I am. 

So I don't always get it right, but I get it right these days more often than I get it wrong, so I'll take the small wins.

All that to say, don't worry that you're 20 and haven't quite figured out this confidence thing. 

But I feel like your issues go a little deeper than a simple crisis of confidence. Please listen very closely: 

You are not worthless. And you are most definitely not useless.

Those things that people told you about yourself are lies, born from their own messed up and flawed perception of themselves and the world. They are sad, twisted beings, and cannot be relied upon to deliver facts about you, or about anything else. 

I know this sounds like a hard task, but don't add fire to their lies by believing them yourself.

Obviously, that's easier for me to say here on the other side of my screen than it is for you to put it into practice. So, I'd suggest two things to start:

1) Talk to someone--Therapy is not bad, and it's not a sign of your own weakness if you talk to a professional who can help you untie some of your knots. In fact, I think it's the brave individual who says, "Well, I've done about all I can do on my own, and I need help now."

The cool thing about talking to someone is that it gives you a neutral party to hash things out with...someone who knows how to ask the right questions to help you reach your own conclusions. It can be an incredibly empowering experience.

Quick note: it's totally okay to "shop around" for someone you trust and vibe with, so if you have the time and means, meet a few different counselors or therapists, until you feel like you both "click."

2) Engage in activities that will help boost your confidence--Is there something new you wanted to try? Is there something you used to do in your childhood that maybe you haven't revisited in awhile, like playing an instrument or swimming lessons? Or, how about something you really, truly enjoy, even if it seems small?

Putting time and effort into creating new experiences through things you enjoy will help boost your confidence when you see what you can do. For me, it's always been a few different things, like hitting little milestones at the gym, completing a personal project, or taking an improv class. Find the right combo for you...the stuff that feels both effortless and challenging, and tackle it. 

OK, on to sex.

You don't have to have sex until you're ready to have sexPeriod.

It doesn't matter what age you are, or how long you've been with your boyfriend. If you don't feel ready, you're not ready, and that is 100% okay. 

Here's the thing, though...sex shouldn't be scary, either. It should be something awesome and enjoyable and pleasurable and fun to do when you're ready.

So if you're terrified of unwanted consequences, I'd say it's time to see your gyno to talk about birth control (if you haven't already). Educate yourself on wonderful sites like Scarleteen, read books like Because It Feels Good, get to know your own body, and ask as many questions as you'd like from your doctor about sexual health.

Then talk openly with your boyfriend about protection, what you're feeling or thinking about intimacy, and what your concerns are about pregnancy or disease. A good partner will be more than willing to talk to you about these types of things...even if it's uncomfortable for a minute.

A good partner also won't pressure you to have sex until you are comfortable and can enthusiastically consent. So have one talk or lots of talks until you both are ready to go. 

But again...you don't have to have sex! Even if you've been dating for a while! And even if you have feelings for each other!

When should you have sex? When you want to, when you're ready and when you've said yes. That doesn't have to be today or tomorrow. It's whenever you feel whole and healthy and ready. 

And when that day comes, have a metric shit-ton of fun, okay? 

Love, 

Sarah 

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