He’s 20. He’s had sex with two different women so far: “It was OK,” he says, “But I didn’t feel confident, I wasn’t sure if they had an orgasm or if I’m doing everything right.”
He wants some advice right away—“Some coaching from someone who knows all about women and sex,” he says. Instead of seeing him myself, I send him to a colleague (Dr. S), thirty years younger than I am and female. While I generally think a therapist’s gender is irrelevant, I want this young man to have the experience of talking with a woman about sex.
While Dr. S is experienced and skillful, her femaleness and relaxation about sexuality just could be the most important aspect of the consultation. What she says will be accurate and relevant. But I don’t want to just give young men like this a fish, I want them to learn how to fish. So how is Justin going to have more sophisticated conversations as his sex life gets more complicated? How will he deal with unusual information when he meets a woman whose special thing he’s never encountered?
It makes me sad to think that people are having sex when they feel inhibited about talking with their partner. And this isn’t just the province of the young; plenty of couples married twenty years still don’t undress in front of each other, still fake orgasm, still can’t say “less teeth, please,” or “less fingernails, please,” or “I’d like way more licking before intercourse, please.”
When people in couples feel sexually inhibited, the frequency of the sex typically declines. But I see a lot of single people who are either hooking up or dating—periodically having sex with a new person. Apparently, many single people of all ages are choosing to have sex when they don’t know the person very well. Or don’t assume that the person will be gentle about a vulnerability.
And so we have the odd spectacle of people taking off their clothes and getting inside each other’s bodies when they don’t fully trust each other. It’s like eating dinner at a stranger’s house and insisting the host try every dish first, in case he’s poisoning you. Or refusing to go into the bank to withdraw some money because you’re afraid the tellers will laugh at how little money you’ve saved.
A few subcultures here in America insist that people be married before they have sex. Others subcultures have relented on the virginity thing as long as a couple is in love and seems “serious.” For better or worse, both of these milestones are stand-ins for time and trust.
But that’s neither necessary nor sufficient, depending on the situation. The real criterion for being ready for sex with someone shouldn’t be if you’re in love, or are married, or know someone a certain length of time.
It should be “Are you ready to talk about your discomfort with the size of your penis or your breasts?” It should be “Do you believe this person will be gentle and friendly if you lose your erection or don’t lubricate?” An even stronger metric would be “Do you have specific reasons to believe that if the sex or the relationship doesn’t work out, this person will behave well?”
In the past, cultures had surrogates for these levels of trust: marriage; years-long courtship; families who knew and respected each other; people coming from similar backgrounds with similar values.
But in many parts of the world, this is disappearing or is already gone. Young or older, many people feel more autonomy about when and with whom to be sexual. So shared values cannot be assumed, good character cannot be assumed, empathy and trust cannot be assumed.
More than ever, people now have to make a choice: wait to have sex with someone until you trust them, or have sex with someone before trust is established. Especially for people not entirely comfortable with their own sexuality, communication is easier in the first situation. It’s not a matter of morality. It’s a practical matter of how you make decisions.
From a practical perspective, everyone should understand how much trust contributes to a satisfying sexual experience and enjoyable sexual relationship. That used to be a standard cultural norm—trust someone before having sex with them. Now, a lot of people think it isn’t cool to want to trust a potential sex partner. So a few people have even created a sexual orientation (“demisexual”) that means “I need to trust someone to be aroused.” (JUST TO BE CLEAR: There is nothing wrong with needing to trust someone in order to be aroused.)
And so generation after generation of people now have sexual experiences (and a self-image) that are unnecessarily truncated—because it never occurred to them that trust, relaxation, and self-acceptance were crucial to enjoying sex. Sooner or later, we all discover we’re “demisexual”—which is simply another word for being human.