When sexually active teen-agers honestly discuss their physical and emotional reactions to sexual intercourse, a common comment is, "It wasn't at all what I expected." Many are disappointed.
Part of the reason for their false expectations is that television, movies and popular magazines often show sex as the most glorious thing two young people can share. Long-term exposure to all this terrific looking sex may lead teens to assume that by having intercourse, they will not only experience the most intensely beautiful physical sensation imaginable, but they will also move into an exciting and sophisticated new phase of life. Only after a series of heartbreaks and reality checks do they finally understand that sex can't accomplish this.
Teens who are considering becoming sexually active need to realize that even in a great marriage, sex is only a small part of a couple's life together. For married couples, sex is an exciting and pleasurable physical activity based on a history of understanding, trust, love and respect. The couple has had time to work at understanding each other's sexual needs. Sex is meaningful because the relationship is meaningful -- because the relationship has withstood the test of time.
Without this commitment and respect, sex is a shallow, unfulfilling physical act. And without excellent communication and a clear understanding of each other's sexual needs, sex isn't even likely to feel good -- especially for girls. Most couples don't learn to communicate well about something as potentially excruciatingly embarrassing as sex until they are in their 20s. Intercourse among teens has been described as "nasty, brutish and short." No wonder so many teens are disappointed.
What do girls feel after their first intercourse? Is it pure ecstasy? In one survey, more than half the girls questioned said they felt worry and shame. By learning to associate something wonderful with feeling awful, teens are beginning the sexual side of their lives in a twisted way. A surprising number of teens continue to suffer feelings of guilt and carry these bad feelings about sex into adulthood. Some need marriage or sex counseling later so that they can enjoy sex with their marriage partner.
Likewise, sex can be a source of anxiety for young men. Many fail completely in early sexual intercourse. They experience an "equipment failure" -- an inability to achieve erection -- that causes embarrassment and continuing worries about their sexual ability.
By the time they're married, sexually active teens may have had so many negative experiences that sex has lost much of its charm and excitement. By giving in to sex too young, teens cheat themselves out of the sense of joy and specialness of sex with a lifetime partner.
An aura of romance
Deep in the hearts and minds of many teen-agers is a vision of how their first sexual experience will be. They picture a loving partner, a beautiful place and an aura of romance. Here is the reality of where most teen-age sexual encounters occur:
- In a car, sometimes with another couple present.
- On the floor.
- At night in a public place, which can be dangerous.
- In one partner's home, sometime with a relative in the next room, a nerve-wracking experience.
- In one partner's home when no one is there, with a rushed feeling, listening for the sound of parents' footsteps.
Because of these experiences, teens may begin to associate sex with sneakiness, sleaziness and feelings of guilt. This is sad.
One teen explains, "It's not like I planned to have sex. It just happened. Well maybe subconsciously I wanted it to happen. But it's not something I feel great about. Jackie and I aren't even together anymore. I feel sorry and let down about the whole thing. I thought sex would mean something. I thought I'd feel good about it."
Understanding peer pressure
Although peer pressure is only one of many reasons why more and more teens are sexually active these days, understanding this pressure can help teens postpone sex until they're ready for a lifetime partner.
Sexually active teens often try to make virgins feel that they've made the wrong decision, that they are old-fashioned, uptight or uncool. Teens need to remember that real friends help each other make good decisions and look out for each other's futures.
Trying to impress friends by having sex can backfire. Friends won't be impressed for long, and the teen who felt pushed into having sex may face the lifelong consequences of an unplanned pregnancy or disease. At best, a sense of shame or a broken heart may result. It's not worth the risks or the pain.
Some teens who act the most sophisticated about sex are actually the ones who are most worried about it. They love to tell those with less experience that "everybody's doing it." They feel a need to make a false impression about their attitudes and experience. The truth may be that they have lots of anxieties about their decision to have sex, and all the bragging makes them feel better. They want others to become sexually active so they will feel less alone in their choice.
Teens can tell a sexually experienced friend who is pressuring them to lose their virginity: "I could choose to be like you any day, but you will never again be like me."
Figure it out before college
It's important for teens ages 13 to 18 to figure out how they feel about sex and to get their "value system" in order while they're still in junior high and high school. If they don't, they may be overwhelmed by the sexual pressures and sexual freedom they encounter on a college campus. Once they get there they won't have their parents' rules to impose order on their lives.
Teens who are considering becoming sexually active need to ask themselves these questions:
- What can I do now and in the future that will make me proud of myself?
- What goals do I have for my life? (For example, a college education or an advanced degree; a career in computers, science, health, education, business, etc.; travel opportunities, marriage and a family.)
- What values do I believe in? Are there certain behaviors and ways of living and interacting with others that I think are best?
- Am I careful about making decisions that will help me live up to my values and goals?
No one expects teens to figure out all their goals or map out their entire future while they're still young. Many teens feel like Serena, who observes, "I change my mind all the time about what I want to be. When I was 11, I was sure I was going to be an astronaut. Later I decided I wanted to go into politics. A month ago, I told my friends I wanted to have six kids. She adds with a laugh, "Today I can't believe I said that."
Probably teens won't decide just what they want to do with their lives until they're older. But one of the smartest things they can do while they're still figuring things out is to keep all their options open. This means not doing anything that decreases future choices. Teens need to realize that sexual activity and all its consequences can interfere seriously with the plans they're making for their futures.
-- This is part four 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.