Q: Dr. Wes and Julia: How young is too young for sex?
Wes: It's tempting to paraphrase an old adage and suggest that if you have to ask if you're too young for sex, you probably are. However, that answer's a bit too pithy to do justice to a very honest and valid question. Unfortunately nobody really likes this question because we're all sure we know the answer but when pressed to explain ourselves we tend to fumble.
There are several levels of concern here. The first one is legal. The hard cold fact is that if you're 15 or under you can't legally consent to sex. Obviously there are significant problems with that approach involving exactly who gets charged if both teens are underage. I've seen it go both ways, but historically the guy has gotten the brunt end of the law, assuming that he was the one who pushed the girl into sexual activity. In our modern age, I find that as many girls are pushing as guys so it's hard to find a victim and an offender in most of these encounters. This conflict is usually resolved if the partner is significantly older, usually at least three years, or if there is evidence of pressure or coercion. Also, when it comes to charging a crime you'd be surprised what constitutes sexual misconduct. It's not just sexual intercourse. So my advice to you from a legal standpoint is wait until you are 16.
Now, before readers wonder where I got my degree in naivete let me acknowledge that many young people under 16 are already sexually involved, whether they are having intercourse or not. All of them, and many of those considering sexual activity don't give a hoot about the law - even if they should. If you're one of them, I hope you'll at least consider something more complicated than your actual (chronological) age - how emotionally mature you are. This may offend some teen readers, but from a developmental standpoint there are very few people under the age of 18 who are emotionally ready to be sexually involved. Of course that's not stopping anyone either, but I'd ask you to consider one thing in determining if you are mature enough to have sex. Not just the "what will you do if you get pregnant or an STD" question. I've learned that one doesn't generate much self-reflection among teens. I'd ask you to really consider whether you are going to be happy with your decision a month from now, a year from now, or 5 years from now. Will you want to tell your daughter (or son) about this decision some day when he or she asks? Or will you be ashamed of the choice because you look back and wish you'd waited for a better partner, you were more mature, or you were really in love. I see a surprising number of people in their early 20s who are very disappointed in their sexual decisions. Some are so burned out on sex that they aren't enjoying it very much. Think about whether you want to get off to a start right now that could land you similar waters when you hit 22.
Finally, nobody is ever ready to have sex until they've mastered the art and science of birth control and disease prevention. I thought this was kind of a moot point - that every teen had this information and most practiced safer sex. However, new stats indicate the pregnancy rate has begun to rise again and STDs are as bad as ever. Do NOT under any circumstances consider yourself "old enough" for sex until you have consulted your doctor, therapist or other knowledgeable adult and gotten these issues taken care of. And my advice to parents on this issue? I've never met a teen who went on birth control too soon. I've met many who went on it too late. I've also never met anyone who decided to have sex because they were on birth control. I suppose they exist out there somewhere, but no teenage girl in 14 years of asking this question has ever told me that taking birth control changed her decision about being sexually active one way or another.
Julia: This question reminds me of a song from a musical my high school put on a few years ago. The 8th grade girl characters sang the song called "How Far is Too Far" as an introduction to their first sex education class. The song never answered the question but implied this to be a personal decision. Pinpointing an exact or even close estimate for a "ready-to-have-sex" age is such a subjective decision. Not to say it isn't a fair, or very good question to ask but setting an exact age limit would be based on my own opinions and lead to a lot of controversy about something that can't be defined so easily.
I would define "too young for sex" as uneducated about, unprepared for or not able to consent to sex. Once all of those categories are overcome and, hopefully, the parents are aware of the child's actions, sex is an option. However, that doesn't mean that by reading a pamphlet, going on the pill and using a condom you are automatically ready. Nor should you have to be. Sex is not a right of initiation or the latest trend. It is something significantly more intimate and should be respected as such.
Another thing overlooked as hormones begin to override common sense is the consequences. There are too many things at stake - STDs, pregnancy, the look on your parents' faces. Disregarding a clear, well thought-out decision could result in a lot worse consequences that simply not having sex.
Next Week: A chat participant asks how much freedom or privacy parents should give to teens.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.