Get Real! I Might Not Be Ready for What Other People Will Say if I Start Having Sex

Published in partnership with Scarleteen.

Aliciapash asks:

I truly think I’m ready for sex, I’m comfortable with myself and my partner and am not at all nervous for losing my virginity. I’m only 16 but people say that different people are ready at different times right? and I think I’m ready now, I’ve ticked off all of the checkpoints on your “am I ready” checklist but there is one problem. I’m worried about if people will judge me for it. My question is should I stop doing what I want out of fear of how others will see my action?

Heather Corinna replies:

People do say that people are ready for sex—and not just the first time, either—at different times, different ages, and in different situations. And that’s absolutely right.

Whether we do or don’t want any kind of sex at any given time, with any given person, in any given situation, and also feel emotionally, physically, and practically ready for it is a very individual thing. That’s the case whether we’re talking about the very first time we do something sexual or the 501st. Some people certainly have the idea that whatever they think is right for them must be the only right choice or set of choices for everyone else, but no one who thinks that is correct or is probably really thinking about anyone but themselves. People are diverse, as are our sexualities: one size, or choice, most definitely does not fit all when it comes to human sexuality.

There’s ultimately no right answer to what you’re asking here; it’s just a matter of you figuring out how you feel about the opinions of others about your sexual choices, and how up to handling those opinions you feel right now.

There’s no choice you or anyone else can make here to avoid judgment from everyone. Some folks may judge you, or have negative opinions or feelings, if you do engage in sex. Others will if you don’t. Some people might get all judgypants if you have one kind of sex versus another, have sex at this age or that one, or engage in sex in one kind of relationship but not in another. Some people will have opinions, feelings, or judgments about your sexual choices they share with you or others, while others may have thoughts or feelings about your sexual choices they choose to keep to themselves.

I know how hard other people’s opinions about our sexual lives and choices can hit us sometimes and how vulnerable a person can feel when potentially facing that. I wish I could give people worried about judgments one specific choice they could make and feel good about where they were guaranteed no judgments from anyone, but people’s feelings and opinions about people’s sex lives are just much too varied, and some people lack the etiquette to keep their opinions about the sexual lives of others to themselves unless asked for them. There isn’t any one choice that can free us from the possible judgment of others.

That said, there are a few core things you can think about and talk about to sort this out.

1) Your right to privacy

Who does and doesn’t know about your sexual choices is mostly up to you. For the most part, you get to choose who you tell about your sexual life and who you don’t. If you aren’t literally having sex in front of people, or announcing sex you have engaged in to the world at large—or somewhere, like Facebook, where it can easily get to a bigger audience than you intended it to—the world at large will usually not know about it. You also have rights to privacy with things like sexual healthcare, so, for instance, if you ask your healthcare provider for birth control, or go to get STI screenings, they are typically required to keep that information confidential.

Obviously, the part of this where you don’t have control is with who someone you choose to tell chooses to then tell, or with who a sexual partner chooses to tell, and who they, in turn, choose to tell. You certainly could draft up a legal contract with your partner or anyone you tell requiring non-disclosure, but that’s a LOT more formal than most people, and probably you, tend to want to be with their sex lives. (Plus, your average person doesn’t usually have a notary handy at sexytimes.)

You can choose to only tell people about your sexual choices who are required by law (like health-care providers or counselors) to protect your privacy, or who you know you can trust to both be supportive of your choices and to keep what you share with them to themselves. Being selective in who you share information about your sexual life with, all by itself, offers you a lot of emotional insulation and protection when it comes to judgments. If you think someone you might tell isn’t someone you’re sure won’t blab about it to everyone, then don’t let that person have that information to spread around in the first place.

This also brings us to…

2) Your trust with your partner

Is your partner someone you trust to respect what you want and need around privacy? If you’ve gone through that checklist and come out all aces, it sounds like they are, but I figured I’d check.

You two can negotiate who you each want to tell about any sex you engage in or other parts of your sex life. You can make real agreements around that: it’s always okay to ask a sexual partner to be respectful about our privacy, and to keep information about our private sexual lives pretty private, sharing that information only, for example, with their doctor, parents, or a close friend. And it’s okay to veto someone a partner wants to tell who, for example, you know has gossiped to others about someone else’s sexual life in the past. If you two negotiate who you each want to tell with each other, do you feel you can trust this person to honor those agreements?

How about trust with your partner in terms of having your back in the case that anyone either of you tell, or who finds out, does make judgments you need some support with? If you’re not sure, that’s something else you can talk about together in advance, working out a plan for a unified front if you need one, and gathering some ideas about ways you can support each other well if and when you have to face any judgment.

3) Your community

The people who you or your partner would tell or think you might tell about your sexual choices: Who are these people? What are they like? Are they people you feel you can trust to be supportive of you, whether or not they agree with or approve of your choices? After all, we don’t have to agree with the sexual choices of a friend or someone in our family in order to be in their corner. We can have our own feelings and still choose not to be judgmental.

Who are the people you know have your back, who you can always call on or turn to for support when you need it? If you’re coming up blank with that, or your partner is the only person you can think of, then it might be that before you take this step, you need to identify some more of those folks. Dealing with judgments is a whole lot harder and scarier when we have to go it mostly or totally alone, and a whole lot easier and less scary when we have people in our lives who support us and our decisions and who can help us process and deal with the judgments of others.

Is there anyone in your community, be it your smaller community, like your friends and family, or your larger community, like your neighborhood or school, you’re really, really scared about with this? With the latter, like I said, you can usually control them even getting this information. However, with someone like a parent, sibling, or best friend, they either will often find out just because they’re close to you, or not telling them may be more uncomfortable than telling them. If you’re afraid of the judgment of someone like that, someone whose opinion you care about, and who you have a close relationship with, my best advice is to get in front of this, rather than having to deal with it from behind.

Talk to a person like that in advance of your choice if you can, voicing your worries about their judgments and seeing what you can do to work things out with them now instead of later, when you’ll probably be feeling a lot more vulnerable. That way, too, if you care about what they think—and you probably do—and value their opinion, you can also perhaps get feedback from them you might even find useful in making your own choices. You can also ask for their support even if they don’t agree with your choices, and they’ll often be more likely to give it because they felt heard and valued, and less likely to put judgment on you.

Of course, if any of your fears in this are fears of judgment that might or likely will result in anything like being kicked out of your house or physical, verbal, or emotional abuseif your safety is at risk—then that’s a very different situation. In that case, our advice is generally not to put yourself in danger in order to pursue sex: I just don’t think even great sex will tend to be worth that. Instead, I advise waiting until you can be in an environment where you don’t have to choose between your safety and your sex life.

4) Your own resilience

We don’t always feel emotionally able to deal with certain things well. Sometimes, we’ll feel like we can take on the whole world, and other times, we’ll feel like we might crumble at even the smallest thing going wrong, or the smallest slight. We might lock our keys into our house by accident one day and think trying to break into our own place is hilarious, while if it happens on another day, we might fall into such a huge, quivering, blubbering mass of tears we can’t even get up off the sidewalk to try and figure out what to do.

Only you can know how resilient you feel you might be about the judgments of others and how capable you feel now and in the near future of dealing with them. If you feel like you really can’t handle any judgments, or just don’t want to be open to being judged for choosing to engage in sex at all, then for now, the best choice is probably to hold off so you don’t even take that risk. On the other hand, if you do feel able to deal with those opinions—especially if you’re being very selective about who’s even told about this in the first place, have good support in place, and feel confident and strong about your own decisions—even if you would obviously rather everyone was 100 percent supportive, and engaging in sex is something you and your partner otherwise are feeling great about moving into, you probably will be able to get through it.

Sex is such a loaded thing for so many people. When we’re talking about sex and young people, it tends to get even more loaded. There’s a lot of bias against young people and their ability to capably make sexual decisions, including from people who are, themselves, young people. A lot of people also talk and communicate about sex and sexuality very poorly, which isn’t a shocker, since our world at large tends to lack those skills and enable crappy communication about it. So, we do all tend to have some resilience when it comes to people’s opinions in order to enjoy our sexual lives and to conduct them based on what we want and feel right about, based on what others want and feel is best. Sometimes we’ll feel able to do that. Sometimes we won’t. We obviously can’t look into a crystal ball and know for sure how people will react, so not only is there some guesswork involved about what people will say, there’s also guesswork involved about how we’ll feel if and when they do say something. The best we can do with this is be as realistic and real as possible in assessing ourselves and where we’re at, and how strong with it—and our own choices—we do or don’t feel.

It’s entirely possible I might have left you in the same place with my answer as you were in when you asked your question, where you just have to make a call on if this particular set of risks is one that seems worth it to you—if this set of risks does or doesn’t outweigh the potential benefits of choosing to have whatever sex it is you want to have.

If I did leave you in that exact same place, I’m sorry that I wasn’t of more help. However, if you really have already evaluated all of this, then all that really is left for you to do is to make a decision for yourself.

Certainly, if you find you feel really torn about this, or very uncertain, even after considering all of this some more, even with agreements you feel confident you’ll both honor around privacy and people around you you know you can count on to be supportive, then it might be that you’re not at this choice just yet. If you’re feeling really, really scared about this, I’d honor those feelings and not hurl yourself into something you just don’t think you can handle (or where even if judgment doesn’t happen, the fear of it is so big it makes what might otherwise be a great sexual experience into something you feel fearful about). In other words, it might be that the best choice for you to make right now is to put sex on hold until you do feel less conflicted about this issue, or less scared around it—until you have some more talks with your partner, or with friends or family, or just have some more time to gather any inner strength you think you might need to weather any judgment that could come your way.

I’m going to give you a few links below that might give you some extra help or food for thought around this. Hopefully, if what I’ve said here wasn’t what you needed to help you make your mind up around this, something in the links below might do the trick.

Whatever you choose, I hope you know that when it comes to our sexual choices, the only truly important feelings, thoughts, and values to consider are our own and those of whoever else is directly involved in those choices—whoever it is we are or might be engaging in sex with. If everyone in the world had positive opinions about sexual choices that you didn’t feel positive about at all, those would probably still be the wrong sexual choices for you. And if everyone else in the whole world had negative opinions about what you and yours felt were your best sexual choices—even though that would seriously never happen, with any sexual choices—that wouldn’t make what you two felt was the rightest thing for you the wrong thing.

It usually takes time for any of us to develop a sense of self-confidence about our own choices in life, be they sexual choices or any other kind. And the newer we are to making any given choices, the more insecure we’ll tend to be about them and the more vulnerable with the judgments of others about them we’ll tend to feel.

The very best we can usually do when we’re new to all of this is first make sure a sexual situation is generally emotionally safe for us overall. We can then also ask for the opinions and input of people we trust, whose opinions we value—people who know us well, and who we know have our best interest at heart—and then we just trust ourselves, which is something we can do when we’ve done whatever we can do to be very informed and consider our choices carefully, when we’ve done all we can to assure that our partners or potential partners have been clear and true about what they want, can handle, and can do, and when we have consulted our gut feelings to be sure we’re doing something that we really want and feel good about. It sounds like you’ve been thinking this through pretty carefully, so I’m not seeing anything that says to me that you can’t trust your own choices here.

Lastly, I want to make sure you also know that you’re not responsible for what other people think or why they think what they do about your sexual life. Your choices don’t create their opinions, after all; those belong to them and are about them. No sexual choice you or anyone else is going to make is going to be something everyone approves of, no matter what you do or don’t do. All you can do is what you know and feel is best and right for you and yours, act with integrity, own your own choices, stand by them, and ask the people that you know care about you and think well of you no matter what to do the same. And maybe, just in case you need it, practice flipping the bird with a finely-honed, leave-me-alone, up-yours glare.

Here are those links, sent along with my very best to you, and my confidence you’ll make your own right choices, whatever they are:

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  • nettwench14

    Great article. As an older person looking back on what goes on today, I would be VERY careful about exposing any part of your private sexual life to media. The best example I can give for this is the Jody Arias trial, where the intimate details, including pictures taken on cell phones or transferred to a computer hard drive, as well as personal texts and emails, is a hard lesson to show that this stuff can go public anytime in very unexpected ways. The person accused of murder, and the man murdered, are having all of their intimate pictures, chats, and email being exposed in a court of law in a trial that is being broadcast on television and the Internet around the WORLD. Not something I had to worry about when i was contemplating my first sexual experience, I can tell you! And it’s not just the guy who was murdered, and the woman accused, but all of their past boyfriends/girlfriends/love interests are also having their intimate lives exposed!

    The Internet is forever, and very public. That picture you take of your breasts and send to your boyfriend could be on everyone’s cell phone at school the next day – and the person who sent it could be looking at being branded as a sex offender for the rest of their lives. Guys who are immature, or lie to you in order to get sex, may betray your confidence the next day in horrifying ways – of course, the locker room was around long before cell phones and sexting! At times when I was your age I would very much want to have sex, but could not find a steady boyfriend I could trust. I also heard boys talking about their “conquests” in the next row over in my classrooms, like “I got her!” and it was so disrespectful I didn’t want anyone talking about ME that way. When you apply for a job, you don’t want your possible boss to google your name or find inappropriate pictures floating around on Facebook. Once they are out, there’s no way to ever get them off.

    I decided to wait until I fell in love to have sex – my first serious boyfriend, in college, when i
    I was 19. It was right for me then, because I was no longer in the fishbowl of high school, and I had a lot more privacy since I wasn’t living at home anymore. Sex involves a lot of things – chance of pregnancy or disease, rejection – and having sex emotionally bonds you to someone like a drug. You have to fully understand all the consequences of sex, not just the act itself. if you are not adult enough to handle all the responsibilities and possible consequences, then you are not ready. Of course there is always necking and petting – nothing wrong with that! I think young people today skip that part and go right to having intercourse. You can have fun without rushing things.

    My last year of high school was in 1974, in a small southern town close to the beach. I was a surfer, and always trying to prove myself with the boys. Two guys in my school, both surfers, one on the football team, decided to STREAK – that was the rage at the time! Always being a bold type of person, I decided that a GIRL (me!) should also do it – I was really competitive with these boys!! Well, i worked up the nerve to do it, but they had expected someone and they CAUGHT ME! I streaked just before the bell rang to let school out for the day, so after I was caught it became a mob scene with everyone rushing out of class!! I was suspended for 3 days, but a bunch of people I went to school with circulated a petition around the school to give me leniency! I also got a ride to the police station in the back of a police car, but was not charged because I was still a juvenile. the one and only time I have ever been in trouble – my grades were good, i was heading to college, and that was the one big act of rebellion (besides surfing) that i could get out of my system. I didn’t know how many friends I has at school until that happened!

    If I did that today – everyone’s camera phone would be out and there would be naked pictures of me all over the Internet! I was still a virgin, too, when I did it! For me it was a feminist statement that I had to make – but the only people who ever saw that statement were the ones meant to see it, my classmates – not random strangers. I wasn’t completely naked – i had on a black watch cap, boat shoes, and a long pink scarf tied around my neck!! I did risk being expelled, but thankfully that did not happen. Even today i sometimes wonder how I got up the nerve to do it, but I almost felt like I had to. It was a test of my courage.