The Right Time: Answering Difficult Questions
By Ruthie Kolb, Training Manager
May 11, 2017
At a training a few weeks ago, our Executive Director told us a story from early in her teaching career. A student, viewing her as a trusted adult, approached her with a difficult question: “My boyfriend wants to have sex, but I’m not sure yet. Should I have sex with him?” She shared with us that, as a theater teacher and young professional, she didn’t have the skills to answer the question the way she would now. She nervously just said “No,” thinking that’s what the student’s parents would have wanted her to hear. And with that, the conversation ended.
Hearing this story got me thinking about how exactly one could answer this question. What would you say? No? Yes? Maybe? What would the teen’s parents want you to answer? What about their religious leaders?
In the abstinence-only framework I was raised in, the answer was clear – “Are you married? No? Then don’t have sex.” But that simplistic worldview doesn’t help people as they mature and are faced with complex, lifelong sexual decisions.
“When is the right time to have sex?” is a question that follows people into adulthood. In college dorms, I generally get the same or similar questions: students are worried about being a virgin or having a lot of sex, and what to think about themselves based on sexual status. Adults ask me these questions too -- How much sex is the right amount of sex? How does one decide when and with whom to have sex? How does one continue to explore sex with a longtime partner?
Sexuality is a deeply personal experience. A decision that works for one person will not have the same positive outcome for another person because it won’t align with who they are. Ultimately, people make the best decisions if they are anchored in self-knowledge. The goal as a trusted adult, then, is to help youth get to know themselves.
Of course, that’s a bit easier said than done. Self-knowledge is so hard to come by, and as I’ve learned from conversations with people across the age spectrum, we never fully “arrive.” However, there are some ways we can help young people start to frame this understanding and think critically about their values and goals. Here are some self-analysis questions you can ask young people to help them navigate the “right” time to have sex:
1. What are the qualities of a person that you want to have sex with?
a. How does this person match those qualities?
b. How does this person not match those qualities?
c. Do you feel safe with this person?
d. How do you think having sex will affect your relationship with this person?
2. What are qualities that you would look for in yourself to know that you are ready to have sex?
a. Which of these do you see in yourself right now?
b. Which of these do you not see?
c. Are you confident to discuss protection, preferences, and pleasure with someone else?
d. How do you think sex will affect you physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
3. What are some of the values that your family or religion have about when a person should have sex? How does this inform your decision?
4. What are your life goals? How might this decision affect your goals?
5. What are some of the reasons for having sex? What are some reasons against having sex? Which of these are most important to you?
So, putting it all together, here is how I’d answer:
This is such an important decision, and many people have a hard time figuring out when and with whom they should have sex -- even when they’re adults! People decide for themselves when they want to have sex based on a lot of factors, much of which is knowing yourself -- what do you want and what will feel positive for you. What works for me or for anyone else in this room will not work for you; this is a decision you have to make for yourself.
But here are some questions that you can ask yourself to help you decide: What would you look for in a situation where you would feel positive about having sex? Are those things present for you here? What values do your family or religion have around when to have sex? Are you in a situation in which you feel you can discuss safety, stand up for protection and preferences, and ask for things you find pleasurable?
Who are some of your biggest influencers of your values? Can you talk with them as well about how to make this decision?
So, does this answer work for you and your youth? How would you change this answer?