When you're a teen-ager, falling love is fantastic. But falling in love can also be a disaster.
The emotional intensity can make it difficult to keep a level head. It's easy for young people to find themselves swept off their feet, sexually excited and wondering, "Should I or shouldn't I have sex?" Emotions are tumbling full-tilt, hormones are racing full-throttle, one partner may be urging the other on, and there's only a tiny voice in the back of a teen's mind saying, "Maybe this isn't such a good idea."
Each day, nearly 8,000 teen-agers become sexually active. But all is not bliss. Sexually active young people often end up stressed out, worried and in over their heads.
Many teens begin having sex while they're still struggling to answer important questions such as: How do I know if it's really love? How do I know if it's the right time and the right person? What about the values and morals my parents have always taught me? How do I know if my partner cares for me as much as I care for him or her? What if my partner is more interested in sex than in me? Is sex what I want out of this relationship or do I want something more?
Most young people want something more. Most hope to find a soul-mate and a romance full of tenderness and understanding. The problem with sex is that the focus of the relationship can become SEX, not real emotional intimacy. This makes for problems. Partners who begin having sex may see their relationship start to fall apart.
Teens who think that sex is for any couple who's madly in love, on top of the world and "made for each other" might want to keep the following in mind:
- On confidential questionnaires, most teens say sex hasn't really made them happy. According to a survey, most teen-age girls who have had sex wish they hadn't. In another study, nearly 85 percent of sexually active girls who were surveyed in 1997 believed they had sex too young. Half said they hadn't fully understood all the consequences of sex and realized later they had not used good judgment.
- Teens need to understand the difference between sex and their need for affection. They need to remember that the most satisfying parts of a relationship do not involve sex, but are the sharing of time and activities together -- sharing thoughts, being affectionate, talking, laughing, enjoying mutual friends, and feeling that they have a best friend. There are lots of ways to be affectionate and close without having sex.
- The love relationship that a teen is in today is probably not the love of his or her life. Studies show that most people have many romances before they marry.
- Love can be glorious one day and a mess the next. One week a partner's personality seems ideal, and the next week he or she is a big disappointment and seems full of shortcomings. In other words, attraction can be intense and positive but feelings can suddenly change. When teens later realize that their sex partner was not the perfect person they imagined, they feel awful.
- Part of what holds a relationship together is the sexual tension. While having sex might relieve frustration, it often hastens a break-up.
- Breaking up can be very painful. It usually means that one partner rejects the other. When we are rejected, we realize that someone we love or think is terrific wishes we weren't around anymore. That person no longer wants us or values us. If sex was involved, these feelings of rejection can be extremely intense and painful. They may make us doubt our value. Young people need experiences that build them up, not tear them down.
- Many teens expect or hope to marry their sex partner. Nationwide, only one out of 100 high school dating relationships leads to marriage.
- Loneliness can be one of the hardest things about being a teen-ager. Some teens ache for friendship, some for more attention from their parents, some for the affection of a boyfriend or girlfriend. Teens want to give love and feel loved in return. But a sexual relationship is not the answer to loneliness. In fact, it can cause even greater disappointment in a teen's life.
- Surveys show that the majority of young women prefer affection to sex. Yet some girls these days are pressuring guys for sex. This can be the result of peer pressure, a girl's need to feel loved, curiosity, high sex drive, or her notion that sex is how you attract and hold on to a boyfriend. Guys, like girls, need to be careful not to allow themselves to be pushed into sex.
- Adding sex to a teen-age relationship cannot assure a deeper love, greater faithfulness, or a longer-lasting relationship. Sexual attraction can exist without love.
- Males and females are not created equal sexually. Our brains process information differently, leading to different ways of understanding and behaving. Lots of girls believe that sex is tied to love and romance. Lots of boys, on the other hand, separate love from sex and physical pleasure. A girl may see sex as the mark of a long-term commitment to her boyfriend. A boy may want physical affection, but not a long-term commitment. Unless young people understand these big differences, they're likely to hurt one another.
- Most teen-agers are confused and worried about sex. Chances are good they'll admire a partner with self-respect and sexual integrity. When their partner says "no" to sex, they may actually be relieved.
- Teens who keep sex out of their relationships find that they and their partner are more likely to develop a lasting friendship, respect, trust and understanding. Even when they break up and seek new partners, they don't see the relationship as a black mark that stains their self-image and their pride.
-- This is part three of an eight-part series of columns on teen-age sexuality by Susan Pogany, author of "Sex Smart: 501 Reasons to Hold Off on Sex," available in local bookstores.