Dear Wes & Samantha: Your column talks a lot about kids deciding to have sex. What about if we have decided not to? Could you give some tips on how to be abstinent rather than just say that not very many teens are? My boyfriend and I already know that. We want to try anyway.
Wes: All you have to do is ask. Regardless of whether you’re doing it for religious, health or emotional reasons, the decision to remain abstinent is a great one. I’m impressed that you’ve actually MADE a decision. Too many young people just fall into sexual activity or do it as a way of competing in a limited dating pool. So the first tip I’d offer to anyone who isn’t yet sexually active is to sit down and think it through and make an affirmative decision whether you want to be or not — and let NOT be an authentic choice. If you’re already sexually active, sit down and make a decision whether you want to continue to be. It’s uncommon, but there’s no reason you can’t decide to let your sex life go dormant until you feel you’re better prepared. This isn’t like deciding between Wii and Xbox. It’s a serious, consequential decision. While you can reduce the long-term physical and emotional risk of sexual activity by taking careful precautions, you cannot eliminate it. Sex is never risk-free in any way, shape or form.
Next, you need to clearly define “sex.” I realize this brings back uncomfortable news clips of a certain president and his intern, but it’s important for you to set your own boundaries on exactly what constitutes sexual activity versus abstinence. Will you kiss? Will there be touching — if so where and how? If this seems too personal to consider or discuss, then you need to wait until you’re mature enough to proceed. In all things sexual, avoiding a choice is making one — usually one you’ll regret. Once you have this figured out, be crystal-clear with any partners very early in the relationship. Of course you’ll lose some dating options, but you may well gain a sense of purpose in your sexual development that will serve you a lot better in adulthood than 14 ex-partners from your teen years.
Abstinence is one of those odd situations where you have to work harder to not do something than to do it. A healthy sexual appetite is a normal part of adolescence and young adulthood. Going against that is like standing up in a rushing river: You have to use a lot of energy to resist the current. In order to compete with sex, you need other activities that involve healthy excitement and risk taking. Fortunately the myth that the world is so boring it demands we have sex is ridiculous. You can learn rock climbing or survival training. I’ve even heard of places that allow you to race cars on a closed track. It’s obviously better if you can share your activities with your partner, allowing you to build intimacy without having to end up violating your agreement.
Samantha: I admit that my response to this is very personal and something I wouldn’t normally share. However, I can’t answer your question with facts or statistics. I can only tell you what I know. I’ve been dating the same guy for nearly a year and 10 months, and we are abstinent. We have chosen not to have sex at least until college, and maybe not even then. It’s not a religious decision. It’s a decision we made because we don’t feel we’re ready yet.
Because we’ve been exclusive with each other for so long, people ask me if we’ve had sex and are often surprised when I say no. They ask me if he’s pressured me. I explain that he agrees that we are not ready. I applaud you for also finding someone who not only respects your decision but actually agrees with you.
These reactions can make you feel as though you’re doing something wrong, like maybe you should be having sex. Instead of explaining why you don’t, try just listening. You can probably think of a counterpoint for everything someone says, and that’s fine, but keep your arguments to yourself. People who feel a need to argue with you may actually be questioning their own choice, and they may feel a need to defend it to you and to themselves.
If outside pressure doesn’t get to you, great! But no matter how you and your boyfriend feel about abstinence, there is still pressure within your relationship to have sex. You’re dating because you’re attracted to each other, emotionally and physically. As Wes points out, it’s human nature to want to express that and make the other person happy.
Having solid boundaries will allow you to make your behavior consistent with your values and beliefs. I recommend you each separately decide what your limits are, then make a pact: Don’t do anything that you have not verbally agreed to in advance. This way, you won’t be questioning what you want while your hormones are going crazy. If you want to change those boundaries, that’s fine but talk about it first, not in the heat of the moment.
Talking about sex (whether you are having it or not) can be pretty awkward. Stick to whatever you think is right for you and don’t let others’ opinions or unclear boundaries keep you from sticking to your promise to each other and to yourself.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. 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.