By Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD
Deciding to have sex (of any kind) is a big decision. Unfortunately, parents and educators often focus on only the physical risks of sex, like sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and pregnancy—and that’s if they talk about sex at all. But deciding to have sex is also an emotional decision, and navigating those feelings and how they affect relationships can be tough.
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself to help you navigate the emotional side of sex—whether it’s your sexual debut, or you’ve slipped between the sheets (or in to the back of a car, or on to the kitchen counter…) more times than you can count. There are no wrong answers. These questions are about helping you understand your own emotions and values, and to help you communicate with your partner about them.
Remember: Sex includes WAY more than just penis in vagina (PIV) sex. It also includes manual sex (aka hand jobs or fingering), oral sex and anal sex, between people of all genders. These types of sex are just as “real” as PIV sex, and may feel more serious or intimate depending on the person and situation.
1. What does sex mean to me?
Sex means very different things to different people—and that’s ok! Some people feel like they’ve reached new levels of intimacy, emotional closeness, or commitment when they have sex. If the person you have sex with doesn’t feel those emotions too, things can get messy.
Check in with yourself, and talk to your partner about what you expect (and want) from sex and your relationship. Does sex mean that your relationship is exclusive? Do you imagine that you and your partner will be more involved in each other’s lives? Do you expect to meet their family and friends, if you haven’t already?
Don’t assume that you’re more or less likely to have a lot of emotions about sex because of your gender. Despite what media may show, boys aren’t immune from “catching feelings” (as if emotions are a bad thing!), and girls don’t become attached to everyone they have sex with. All genders have all kinds of emotional expectations and reactions to sex.
Remember that your emotions are always valid. Your wants and expectations may change. That’s ok! Honesty and openness can help you both work through those emotions. It is NEVER ok to shame someone for how they feel.
2. What do I expect from sex?
There are no wrong reasons to have sex, so long as it’s safe and everyone has given enthusiastic consent. You may want to have sex because you’re curious, want to become more intimate with your partner or explore your own sexuality, or just because it feels good. That’s totally fine! Just make sure you and your partner are on the same page.
But sex can’t add trust or respect to your relationship. It cannot make your relationship healthy or happy if it isn’t already.
Sex will also probably not…
- …make you love your body, if you struggle with body image.
- …make your partner want a relationship or fall in love with you.
- …make you want a relationship or fall in love with your partner.
- …make you feel like a “whole new you.”
Be honest with yourself about what you want from sex, and then be honest with yourself about whether you think sex can deliver on that. Will you regret having sex if you don’t get what you want? If so, will you be ok with that regret?
3. Does this relationship include respect and trust?
A relationship is a connection. Even if you’re not in a romantic relationship with your partner, you still have some relationship. No matter what, you still owe your partner respect. “Unattached” sex is not an excuse to shame your partner, ignore what they want, or treat them badly.
You deserve to have your needs and wants met. This doesn’t mean that your partner owes you sex, or that it’s ok to pressure them in any way. It does mean that you should be able to ask for what you want without being scoffed at or shamed.
Do you trust your partner to be honest with you? How does the idea of being vulnerable with this person make you feel?
4. How much do my partner and I understand about consent?
Consent is a crucial part of sex (and any kind of physical touch). Violating consent is incredibly serious, and has powerful emotional consequences. Do you and your partner understand that?
As a quick refresher:
- Consent has to be enthusiastic. “Maybe” is not consent. The lack of a no is not consent.
- Repeatedly asking someone for a sex act after they’ve said no is coercion, and seriously not ok.
- Consent can be withdrawn at any time for any reason.
- Consent to one sex act does not mean they’ve consented to another. Saying yes to kissing does not mean they’re ok with clothes coming off. Wanting to have PIV sex does not mean they want to give or receive oral sex.
- Always check in with each other, and if you sense that something is off, ask!
Ask yourself: Do I feel comfortable communicating about sex like this? Does my partner? If you’re not sure, start a conversation about it!
5. Are my partner and I on the same page about family planning?
If the sex you’re having could potentially lead to a pregnancy, it’s important to talk about birth control. If you’re using a condom as your primary form of birth control and it breaks, how are you going to get emergency contraception?
This post is about emotions and sex, but an important part of being sexually healthy is taking care of your body. If you or your partner could get pregnant, make sure you’re using birth control. Regular STI testing and using barrier methods like condoms can protect you from STIs (and act as a great secondary form of birth control). After all, stress-free sex is better sex!
Lonna Gordon, MD, PharmD is a pediatrician at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center who is fellowship trained in adolescent medicine. In addition to general adolescent care, Dr. Gordon sees obese adolescents who are interested in comprehensive medical and reproductive health care through a structured, multidisciplinary approach to weight loss.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, judgment free health care at no charge to over 10,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.