(This is part 3 in my series, “What I Want My Teenage Daughters to Know about Sex.” Click here to read it from the beginning.)
Yes, you heard me right: Getting married has nothing to do with getting pregnant, and getting pregnant has only a passing connection to sex.
You might think then that I want you to have wanton intercourse with boys far and wide. And it is true that some people do just that. And some of them say they’re happy with that lifestyle. And I believe them. (Many of them also say that they’re unhappy about the way society demonizes them— but more about that next week.)
But that’s not exactly what I said. What I said was: much of what society has told you about marriage and teen pregnancy is misinformation, and I don’t want you to rely on it.
However, sex does go along with marriage.
Wait until you’re 18, and maybe married
It’s pretty obvious that sex does go along with marriage. A person will usually have sex with his marriage partner. And will usually have sex only with his marriage partner, or at least only admit to having sex with his marriage partner.
I’m fairly sympathetic to the idea that you might want to wait until you’re married before you have sex. That’s because sex can be quite intimate, and in modern society marriage is an expression of intimacy.
I certainly think you should wait until you’re 18 to decide to have sex. This has nothing to do with the dangers of sex itself, but because of the way our culture and our legal system react to minors having sex. The way people react can emotionally scar, or even ruin lives, even if the sex itself doesn’t. As I pointed out before, sex is risky, and our otherwise progressive legal code includes some pretty puritanical laws regarding sex, at least if one of you is younger than 16. Even if you or your partner is 16 or 17, you could theoretically get into legal trouble for “corruption of a minor.” But once you’re 18, you’re legally an “adult”; you can sign contracts, join the military, and legally consent to the risks of sex, all without anyone else’s permission.
(This is in the state of Massachusetts. Other states have different laws. But all states recognize you as an “adult” when you turn 18. At 18, the only thing you apparently aren’t “old enough” to do is to buy alcohol. But you can still always come over to our house for a glass of wine, if you want.)
On top of that, our society really doesn’t offer much support for 16 and 17 year olds who want to have sex. And your particular sub-culture definitely doesn’t. In some cultures, this would not be an issue. In some cultures, young people are encouraged to begin having sex as soon as they hit puberty. But those cultures (or at least the ones I’m thinking of) also have other traditions and conventions that protect teens and teach them how to experiment with sex without getting hurt. We don’t have that here.
So you should absolutely, unquestionably, unequivocally wait until both you and your partner are at least 16 years old. And I think you should also wait until you’re at least 18, because you’ll be able to make better decisions then. And if you want to wait until you’re married, I fully support you and think that’s a great idea.
However, I freely admit to you, many people do have premarital and even extramarital sex, and they do so ethically, and many of them live happy and healthy lives.
What is an “ethical” sexual relationship?
Here’s another area in which I’m risking the rage of religious conservatives on my keppy. But I believe you need a sexual ethic that will bear the weight of 21st-century life. I’m not sure precisely what this ethic looks like, but I do know at least some of its components.
Always insist on informed consent. That is, make sure you have consent of your partner and that you have given consent. This means you always ask, and you always communicate, first. Sexual coercion is not necessarily violent; it is often simply manipulative. Always ask, always confirm, always communicate; never assume, never manipulate, never ignore your partners reservations or doubts. Never assume that you have consent simply because you’re married. Never have sex with someone who is too drunk to drive. Never have sex with someone who is too young to legally give consent. Never have sex with someone over whom you have power or authority.
Follow through on your promises. This basic rule of ethical behavior includes our promises of monogamy and fidelity. About 1 out of every 5 married people have had an affair. That’s cheating. If you find yourself wanting to have an affair, at the very least talk about it with your partner first. Realize that he may react very negatively, and you may have a lot of busybody friends who might think you’re nuts or evil (if it were any of their business), but at least you will have behaved ethically.
Tell the truth. That doesn’t mean you have to tell your partner everything that comes into your head. But do tell him what he needs to know, and don’t lie to him or mislead him about what you think or feel.
Own your own shit. Your feelings are your feelings, and your responsibility. Ultimately, you and only you can know your own needs and be responsible for getting them met.
Ask for what you want. You may not get what you want, but you’ll have a much lower chance of getting it if you don’t ask. And know the difference between a request and a demand. A bad feeling on your part does not automatically translate into a demand on mine.
Give what you can. Consider your partner’s emotional needs, and freely give him what he asks for if you can. I believe this is the essence of love.
Set appropriate boundaries. Your body, your rules. (And his body, his rules, too.) You and only you have control over your own body. You and only you know your needs, feelings, and thoughts. Therefore, you and only you can communicate with your partner, come to an adequate understanding with your partner, and offer him the same respect as you expect from him.
Assume good intentions. Some of the disagreements you will have will actually be misunderstandings. When we’re keyed up or tired, we tend to take things the wrong way, and this is especially true in a serious relationship. “You always hurt the one you love” is not just a 1950’s pop song.
Fight fair. Be slow to take things personally: the world does not revolve around you. Don’t tell your spouse what’s wrong with him: you are not his psychotherapist. “You know what the problem with you is?” Don’t do that. Instead, focus on expressing your own thoughts and feelings. Don’t hit below the belt; don’t dig up old wounds, old hurts that you can blame on the other person: this fight is about today, not about what happened in the past.
Foster communication. Always know that you can discuss issues with the other person. Don’t judge each other. Never shout, just to get in the last word, and then storm out of the room, because that cuts off communication.
Love unconditionally. Never put strings on your love. Instead, make your relationship safe enough to talk about anything you need to, no matter how outlandish. Unconditional love is the First Amendment of marriage.
Communication is especially important in this day and age, because many people assume a host of unwritten rules surrounding issues on which not everyone agrees:
- thinking about others as sexual beings, and being attracted to other people (even if you don’t act on it)
- looking at porn
- talking about sex to others
- a “duty” to have sex (especially, some guys assume that their women have a duty to “perform”)
- submission and dominance – who is the “head” of the house
- a supposed right to control your partner’s sexual expression
- even sex or romance with others – not everyone agrees on where the limits are
I’ll talk about myths regarding some of these issues, next week.