Sex and Relationships

People representing diverse backgroundes gathered together surrounded by flowers

Sex and relationships can be a large part of our teenage experience (remember, sex is not just penetration).

Sometimes it feels like everyone is talking about dating, hooking up, and who has or hasn’t had sex. It can feel exciting, fun, stressful, and overwhelming (sometimes all at once). Even though everyone seems to be talking about sex and relationships, it can be hard to find accurate information about how to decide whether or when to have sex, different kinds of sex, how to practice safer sex, and the emotional skills to build healthy relationships.

The next sections provide information on deciding whether/when to have sex, consent, virginity myths, safer sex, contraception, pregnancy options, skills for healthy relationships, and warning signs for unhealthy ones.

Who’s Doing What Anyway?

It’s common to overestimate how many people around us are hooking-up or having sex and how much of it they’re having. This can make many teens and young adults feel embarrassed or ashamed because they believe they are the only ones not having sex. It’s also common to make assumptions about the kinds of sex people around you are having. This is because sex is being talked and stressed about more than it’s actually happening.

The concept of virginity may come up – in conversations with friends, stories, and in movie or TV plots. It may feel like virginity is the opposite of sex: either you’re a virgin or you’ve had sex. The reality is more complex.

Virginity Myths

Virginity is an idea based on myth, not scientific fact. The idea of virginity is socially powerful but is based on myths about what sex is and is not.

Virginity is a myth about the state someone is in before they have penetrative (usually vaginal) sex for the first time. This definition of virginity is both limiting and harmful. It erases the many ways people can be sexual, making penetration something that “changes” you. It also adds to harmful ideas about gender and sexuality. For example, young women are praised or encouraged to be virgins (though they also might be made fun of for being “prudes”) and they are shamed if they are not. Meanwhile, young men are shamed for being virgins and encouraged to do everything in their power to not be.

“Cherry popping” or “hymen breaking” is also part of virginity myths. It is a false way of describing what can happen to the vaginal corona over time from things like periods, discharge, masturbation, sex, and/or hormonal changes. The idea that there is something to “pop” or “break” inside a vagina is used to try and make real the myth of virginity.

The idea of virginity excludes those of us who don’t have penetrative or penis-in-vagina sex. The bottom line is that virginity can mean different things to different people and having sex (no matter how you define it!) for the first time is your choice.

Am I Ready for Sex?

Sexual development is part of becoming an adult and includes deciding whether and when to have sex. There are some important things to consider before you make the decision to have sex for the first time or have sex with a different partner. The next sections provide information to consider as you make decisions about sexual activity.

Many of us believe that we “should” feel ready to have sex even if we’re not because we think everyone else is already doing it. Many people feel pressure to have sex when they’re not interested or ready.

The most important consideration when deciding whether or when to have sex is to feel ready. But what does it mean to feel “ready”? A lot goes into feeling ready: the timing, the location, your mental state, and most importantly, the person you’re planning to do it with.

I Found the Right Partner

The right partner is someone who makes you feel safe. When we trust someone because they have our backs and make us feel empowered and comfortable, sex can be a source of great joy, connection, and pleasure. The right partner is someone we feel desire for. If you are feeling unsure about how you feel about a person or about how they feel about you, it might be a good idea to wait.

The Timing Feels Right, This Is What I Want

The right time is when planning to have sex (for the first time or with a new partner) fits with your personal values, life goals, relationship goals, and emotional and physical needs.

Some of us will consider having sex to please someone or because of peer pressure, but we should have sex when WE want to. This is also true for those we wish to have sex with: we should always be sure they want to have sex. It is not okay to try to “convince” someone to have sex and/or badger them once they’ve said (or implied) no. This is not consent and you need consent to be physically or sexually intimate with other people.

Timing is important and you shouldn’t feel rushed. Maybe you do feel ready to have sex (or you’ve had sex already) but the timing is not right (you don’t want to have sex at a party or in a park, for example). If that’s the case, it’s important to recognize what you want and take a step back.

I Feel Desire, I Know What Feels Good to Me and I Know How to Communicate this

We can experience physical pleasure in many ways including touching, hugging, kissing, and stroking. Some of the greatest physical pleasures in life involve sexual excitement and experience. We all deserve pleasure, closeness, and care when we have sex.

Before we have sex with other people, we should take time to get to know ourselves and figure out what feels good in our own bodies. This is especially true for many girls and young women (cis and trans) because there is little representation of what desire and pleasure might look and feel like or that it is even important! For instance, dating scripts tell us that cis men are deserving of pleasure and that it is the role of women to please, often at the expense of their own pleasure.

Masturbation or self-pleasure is one of the many ways we can get to know what feels good in our own bodies. Having a solid idea of what makes our bodies feel good, what we desire, what we truly want, and how to talk about it is an important step in becoming ready to have sex with another person.

What if my Expectations of Sex Don’t Match my Experience?

We are used to hearing about the risks of choosing to have sex. We also  hear from our friends or see in TV shows that sex is perfectly timed, fun, romantic, and always feels really good. There is less information about the areas in between.

While sex can be fun and highly pleasurable, it can also be awkward or not as good as we hoped it would be. If we expected sex to feel romantic but the experience of it was embarrassing, it’s okay. If we wanted sex to be intuitive, fun, or easy and instead it felt awkward, it’s okay. It’s normal for this to happen especially when we’re getting to know someone’s body for the first time.

Talking openly and honestly to our sexual partners about what we want, our expectations, and experiences is one of the keys to great sex.

I Have the Right Information to Take Care of Myself

Sex is great and has many positive and pleasurable outcomes but can also present the possibility of getting an STI (which is very common) or facing an unplanned pregnancy. Knowing how to take care of your body by having the right information on birth control, pregnancy options, STIs, and safer sex can help ease a lot of anxiety.

Want more information?

Click here to check out Planned Parenthood’s Am I Ready for Sex?  

Click  here to check out Scarleteen’s Sex Readiness Checklist

What if I’m Still Unsure or Just Not Interested in Sex?

Many of us are misinformed about sex and sexuality because of the lack of proper sex-ed in schools. This can make it more difficult to know if we’re ready to have sex for the first time or with a new partner, to know what sex even means, to know what to do, or know what might make it a positive experience. If you’re still unsure or not interested in sex right now, that’s totally okay too!

Some of us don’t experience sexual attraction and may be on the asexual spectrum. When we start witnessing our peers getting more and more interested in sex, it might feel like something is not right, but being asexual is a completely normal sexual orientation that many people identify with.

Hub feedback (webform)

Do you see an error or change? Information about sexual and reproductive health is always evolving, so if you have new information to share, or notice a change, please let us know here or by email to [email protected].