Teenagers and Sex: Are They Ready?

by Tim Hartnett, MFT, and Amy Cooper, PhD

“When should a person become sexually active?” a fellow counselor asked an audience of parents and middle school students. The question was meant to be rhetorical, a springboard from which to lecture on the subject, but a sixth grader spontaneously blurted out his answer. “Not until you are thirty.”

The young man was surprised when his comment received laughter and grateful applause from many of the parents in the room. Was he aware what a relief it would be for parents if all teenagers had this attitude? Does he know the agony parents suffer over teenage sexuality?

Many otherwise confident parents find themselves baffled about how to deal with teenage sex. Should we use a strong hand to protect our children from making serious mistakes? Or should we be non-judgmental, so that our kids will feel safe to talk to us about their sexual decisions? Maybe we should let sleeping dogs lie, and just hope that our kids won’t be sexual until they are ready.

What is the law?
The question of when a person is ready to have sex is one American society has not yet figured out. Even the law is ambivalent. The “age of consent” (when a person can legally engage in sexual activity) ranges from 14 to 18 in the United States. In each state the specific legal age depends upon many factors including the type of sexual activity and the age of the teenager’s sexual partner.

What is normal?
You might be tempted to ask what is the ‘normal’ age for people to start being sexually active. The data on this, however, also fails to settle our cultural ambivalence. Recent findings from The National Survey of Family Growth report that 46 percent of males and 47 percent of females, age fifteen to nineteen, claim to have had sex. With this relatively even split, you might conclude that it is both normal for teenagers to have sex and normal for them not to have sex.

What is right?
A family’s views on sex are likely to be derived not just from the law or norms of what other people do, but from their ethical or religious views. Values about sexuality vary considerably. Some hold the ‘sexually liberated’ view that sex is a healthy human pleasure to be enjoyed whenever it is safe and consensual. Others believe that sex is morally appropriate only for procreation and should only occur within a marriage. Given the differences, it is not surprising that there is much controversy about whether and how to provide sex education to teenagers. Most people’s values, however, fall somewhere between these poles. They respect that sexual readiness is a personal decision that depends on many factors. And most parents would agree that teenagers should not be having sex before they are ready.

What defines sexual readiness?
So how do you determine if and when a teenager is ready to be sexually active? We propose that the qualifications are not merely a matter of age. Having a certain number of birthdays does not prepare anyone for safe and successful sexual experiences. Rather, it is our preparation for the ethical, psychological, social, and physical aspects of sex that determines our readiness. Two teenagers of the same age may have very different degrees of psycho-social maturity. They may also have different access to sexual health information. These differences can determine whether their sexual activity is likely to be healthy or potentially disastrous.
A rational basis for determining sexual readiness must therefore take multiple considerations into account. We have outlined eight areas of concern below.

Consideration #1: Knowledge of Disease and Pregnancy Prevention
Responsible sex requires that participants know how to protect themselves from unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Some sexual activities do not pose a health or pregnancy risk. Others pose risks that can be mitigated. And some very common sexual activities court serious consequences. Being uninformed on these topics can result in crisis situations that may alter the trajectory of a young person’s life. Thus, having accurate and up-to-date information is an important prerequisite to becoming sexually active.

Consideration #2: Reflection on the Impact of Pregnancy or Disease
Knowing how to have sex safely does not insure that safe sex practices will be faithfully employed. Having sex responsibly requires that participants give serious thought to the possible consequences of sexual activity. A teen should consider, ‘What if your method of birth control fails?’ and ‘What if you are deceived by the information you get from a sexual partner?’ It is important to face the reality that sexual intercourse, for example, is never completely safe. ‘Is any level of risk worth taking at this point in my life?’

Consideration #3: Addressing Moral and Ethical Issues
The decision to be sexual or not can have a profound affect on a teen’s sense of identity. It can force a choice between competing sets of values. Family, church, and peers may all try to influence teens.  Only if your teenager is confident that their worth as a person is not based on whether they do or do not have sex, are they free to make their own decisions. Still, it is important to impress upon teens that people may shame them or judge them, whatever they decide. Ask them to consider how will they respond to such judgments?

Consideration #4: Self-Esteem and Decision Making
Sexual situations present very strong challenges to teens’ ability to make their own decisions and stay committed to those decisions. Both peer pressure and biological drives can exert a powerful influence. Responsible decisions about sex can only be consistently made if teenagers have the personal maturity to follow their own best thinking, in spite of what others may want them to do or what their body’s desire. Teenagers should consider what their limits are around being sexual? What pressures might affect their resolve to stick to their own decisions?

Consideration #5: Ability to Communicate Your Feelings
Creating positive sexual experiences for oneself requires that people be able to express their feelings. If teens are not yet comfortable talking about sex, then they are unlikely to be able to insure that their sexual experiences will be consensual and mutually satisfying. Is your teen able to speak candidly with the person they would consider having sex with?  How specific can they be about their needs and their limits?

Consideration #6:  Ability to Handle Relationship Dynamics
The dynamics of relationships are often very emotionally challenging.  Strong feelings of rejection, jealousy, and guilt can all be part of any teenage dating landscape.  The intensity of these feelings is often dramatically increased, however, when sex is involved.  Has your teenager thought about how they will feel if their relationship changes after having had sex?

Consideration #7: Knowledge of Sexual Anatomy and Functioning
Much of the traumas people report from their first sexual experiences are due to a lack of understanding about how to have sex in a mutually satisfying way.  The many unrealistic myths about sex that are portrayed in the media often set up young people for disappointment and humiliation.  Understanding how male and female bodies actually function is important background information for healthy sexual experiences.

Consideration #8: Making Sense of Childhood Sexual Experiences
Many teenagers have already had sexual experiences as children. Sometimes these experiences constituted abuse. Other situations may have been age-appropriate explorations (like playing ‘doctor’). They may have involved partners of either gender. Usually these sexual contacts occurred without thoughtful discussion. Thus, questions about the meaning of these experiences may linger. If so, these unresolved experiences might influence our readiness for new sexual encounters.  It might be helpful to talk about this with a counselor.

These considerations offer the basis for a more thoughtful answer to the question of sexual readiness. Some parents may use this outline to articulate why they believe their teenager is not ready for sex. Others may decide that their teenager is sufficiently prepared to justify supporting them to begin sexual relationships. When rational considerations determine sexual readiness, we can become less fixated on the idea that chronological age is the only pertinent factor.
This outline can also be used to discuss sexual readiness with a teenager. Talking with your teen about sex is a challenging task. Fortunately, there are many good books available on the subject. Parents who are not comfortable discussing the topic themselves, however, can still help their teens by finding an informed adult who can help. Much as we might like, not all teens are going to wait until they are thirty. They may need someone to talk to now.

Amy Cooper holds a doctorate in Human Sexuality from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality. She consults professionally with teens, adults, and couples on issues of sexuality, intimacy, and relationships. She can be reached via her website: www.LoveYourSexLife.com.

Tim Hartnett, MFT., is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice. He specializes in couples counseling and parent education.