Young Adults Make Better Sexual Health Decisions When They Understand Their Own Feelings

In the summer of 2015, I was honored to be asked to contribute to a new interactive online resource for young adults, Student Sexual Health 101.

As an office practitioner who spends most of his time counseling individuals and couples, I appreciated the chance to bring the knowledge I’ve gained over the past 25+ years about sexual health and sexual feelings to a wider audience online.  Especially since the target audience of Student Sexual Health 101 are young people just getting started learning about their sexuality.

I was pleased to have this opportunity to help young adults make some of their first and most important decisions — such as when to start being sexual with a partner.  And especially happy to join my distinguished sexual health colleagues Dr Marty Klein (author of Sexual Intelligence and many other books) and Dr Aline Zolbrod (author of Sex Smart and Sex Talk) who also contributed content for this project.

Here are the initial questions and answers with the writers and editors of Student Sexual Health 101 that eventually led to my part of the site’s content:

SH101:  What ARE the essential questions to consider when you are deciding whether to be intimate?
SNYDER:   First off, you don’t just want to have physical intimacy.  You want to have GOOD physical intimacy.
How to tell when it’s good? The concept is simple:  It’s good if it makes you feel good about yourself.
Sounds pretty basic, huh?
Well it would be, if sexual feelings were simple.  But they’re usually not.
Sex can produce many confusing feelings:
   Feeling turned on (good).
   Feeling grown up (good).
   Feeling you’ve left childhood behind forever (mixed).
   Knowing it has to be very private (mixed).
   Feeling guilty over having to hide some of the details from your family (bad).
   Fear of pregnancy or disease (bad).
The emotions of sex can get very confusing very fast.
My advice: Think about the physically intimate things you’ve already done together with your partner so far–
Have they left you feeling good about yourself?
If so, then you may be ready to go further.
But take it bit by bit, and at each step keep asking yourself, “Is this making me feel good or not?”
Remember, there’s no hurry. Sex should never be hurried. You have your whole life to be physically intimate.
If there are too many bad feelings, then don’t rush it. Instead, you may want to tell your partner, “I’m not ready for that yet.”
SH101:  High school is often a confusing time when it’s often hard to know what we want for ourselves. How can teens figure out their desires, wants, and needs about physical intimacy?
SNYDER:  People have physical intimacy for a wide variety of reasons — and often for more than one reason.
You’ll never be able to consider all the reasons in enough detail to make a decision.
Instead, it’s usually best to rely on your feelings. Pay close attention to how the physical intimacy you’ve had so far is making you feel. Some high school students (particularly women) dissociate during sex: They don’t really feel anything emotionally at all. It’s as if their body is present, but their feelings are absent.
If this is happening to you, then you may want to stop having sex until you’re ready to be 100% there.
Like any other intoxicating substance, sexual excitement can impair your judgment.
Most people when they’re turned on tend to lose a few IQ points.
So it’s best to consider your feelings before you make decisions about physical intimacy.
That way, you’re taking charge of your own sexual health.
SH101:   Some students have grown up in circumstances where they experienced emotional abuse, alcoholism, mental illness, physical or sexual abuse. What should a student do if they have these family issues and want to be intimate?
SNYDER:   Sometimes a young person’s ’emotional foundation’ may not yet be as strong as it needs to be for physical intimacy — due to past experiences of abuse, neglect, or other issues. Sometimes your mind or body may give you a sign that something isn’t quite right, and that you may not yet be ready. Some of the more common ‘signs’ include depression, feeling physically unwell, trouble sleeping or concentrating, anxiety attacks, or “dissociation” – feeling numb or that you’re not completely present.
If this happens, or if you just have a gut feeling that you’re not ready, then sometimes the most self-respecting thing to do is to tell your partner, “I’m very attracted to you, but I’m just not emotionally ready yet to be physical with you.” That takes courage to say. People tend to admire courage, so your partner’s reaction might be more positive than you expected.
SH101:  Is there something more a young person can do to determine whether or not they are doing it for the right reasons and not just because they are looking for comfort or acceptance?
SNYDER:   If you’re just doing it for comfort or acceptance, then usually it will give you a kind of icky feeling that says “I don’t really feel like me when I’m doing this.” What you want instead is a feeling of “yes, this is me. I feel good here with my partner. This is making me feel good about myself.”
SH101:  When students feel pressure from peers to be intimate with someone, what are some ways to deal with the pressure?
SNYDER:  Tell them, “I’m very attracted to him, and I feel he loves me, but we’re just taking our time. It feels really good to just follow our own feelings, rather than just do what everyone else is doing.”
© Stephen Snyder MD 2015   New York City

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