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Thursday, March 18, 2010

When Is the Right Time?

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When I was leading a workshop at a conference recently, I received the following question from a participant.

“I have been with my boyfriend for one year. We are both virgins. We’re talking about having sex, but I’m not sure. How do you know when you’re ready?”

The question of whether or not you’re ready for sexual activity is one that you’ll answer again and again throughout your life. Each one of us is faced with this question at different times: Am I ready to try a particular type of sexual activity for the first time (which could be kissing, masturbation, oral sex, or lots of other things)? Am I ready to engage in some kind of sexual behavior with a new partner? Am I ready to try something new with a partner that I’ve had for a while?

Our culture tends to place a lot of significance on male-female couples having penile-vaginal intercourse, and often, when someone asks a question like the one above, this is what is meant by “having sex.” It’s true that penis-vagina sex carries the unique risk of pregnancy, can pose a higher risk of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) than some other activities (like oral sex or mutual masturbation), and is often perceived as being more intimate than other sex acts. However, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the only type of sex out there, and that we should ideally weigh all of our decisions to participate in any sexual activity with care.

So, how do you know you’re ready? This is a question that each person is going to answer differently, but there are some general things that can be considered.

First, some people use specific, predetermined outside circumstances to decide if they’re ready. Some people decide that they do not want to engage in certain types of sexual activity outside of marriage. Others want to wait until they’ve been in a relationship for a certain length of time. Still others might choose to wait until they’re a certain age. These decisions may be based on personal or family values that are central to a person’s beliefs, rather than on internal feelings of readiness or on the characteristics of particular romantic relationships. There is no one right or wrong set of circumstances in which to have sex that can be universally applied to everyone, but it’s very important to explore and understand your personal values about sex and relationships when making decisions.

Second, some people assess their readiness based on sexual responsibility—i.e., their ability to prevent pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted diseases. Are you able to obtain latex barriers like condoms or dental dams? Do you feel comfortable using them or asking a partner to use them every time you have sex? If you’re thinking about having penis-vagina sex, are you or your partner able to obtain birth control? Are you able to use birth control consistently (for example, taking a pill at the same time every day)? Do you know where you and your partner could get pregnancy or STI testing, and do you feel comfortable making an appointment to do this? What would you do if you got an STI? Would you be able to afford treatment? What would you do if you or a partner got pregnant?

Third, some people gauge readiness by their relationship with their partner. Good sex requires a lot of communication and trust. Do you feel comfortable talking to your partner about sex? Do you feel a high level of trust in them? Do you know their feelings about you, and have you told them your own feelings? Do you expect to get the same things out of sex? Do you think engaging in a new type of sexual activity will change your relationship, and if so, how? How will you feel about sex if you break up with this person? Do you feel pressured by your partner to try a particular sex act, or could you be pressuring them?

Finally, some people think about their own level of pleasure or curiosity when considering a new sexual activity. Are you excited about trying it? Is it something you fantasize about? Are you curious to see how it feels? Will trying this make you feel better about your body and its capabilities? Although I’m listing this last, it is by no means the least important! While you may not like every new sexual activity, a genuine desire to try it is important.

That’s a lot to think about, but hopefully some of these questions or considerations stand out to you as particularly meaningful. You don’t have to be able to answer every question on the list in order to feel “ready,” but it’s good to realize all of the factors that go into making a sexual decision that you can feel good about.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.

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