Rethinking Intimacy

Taking care of yourself means more than getting the right amount of sleep and eating the right foods. It also means upholding your personal and social values, taking time to reflect on the connection between your emotional and physical state. Your self-esteem has a lot to do with how you treat your body. Knowing how to value yourself requires self-exploration and knowledge. It involves more than having sexual and reproductive freedom. It means taking responsibility for them, too, as well as achieving a sense of comfort and fulfillment in your gender role. It also includes participating, or refusing participation, in sexual behaviors to be consistent with an evolving value system that takes into account your individuality and not some other person or group’s expectations.

Postponing sexual activity does not mean sacrificing passion and intimacy from your relationships. It simply means you value yourself enough to recognize and creatively explore the options you have in relating to your partner. It means taking the time for you and your partner to measure carefully your mutual investment in an ongoing intimate relationship. Ultimately, it means taking advantage of the many choices you have for expressing closeness toward your partner, while upholding your value system, being as tender and bold—but more thoughtful—in your approach to intimacy. Just because you have had sex in previous relationships, or even a current one, doesn’t mean you are obligated now if you are reassessing your approach to relationships.

There are sound reasons for postponing sex (including oral, anal and vaginal sex) in a developing relationship. AIDS is on the rise, and the surest method of avoiding HIV infection is to not have sex.

Other sexually transmitted infections, previously thought to be under control, are at epidemic proportions. In Georgia alone, over one million individuals have had an STI in the last year. The majority occurred in people ages 25 and under. Some sexually transmitted infections pose lingering health problems—even if treated—including:

  • Genital warts (caused by the human papilloma virus) have been linked to the development of cervical cancer in young women and, less frequently, penile cancer in men.
  • Chlamydia or gonorrhea can lead to infertility in women. Additionally, they have been linked to a rise in ectopic pregnancies and pelvic inflammatory disease (PID).
  • Genital herpes, presently incurable and recurrent in men and women, has been linked to increased risk of HIV transmission due to lesion outbreaks in the genital area.

Having control over when you become pregnant is another reason to consider other sexual options. Sex without intercourse is the only absolute method of contraception. Although condoms, IUDs, diaphragms, foam, and the pill all provide various levels of prevention against unintended pregnancy, most are not foolproof. For those seeking intimacy without the potential issue of unintended pregnancy, postponing vaginal sex is a sound choice.

Being comfortable with your physical and emotional expression in the presence of another and being comfortable with your partner’s self-expression, takes trust and confidence on your part. This trust takes time, effort and a thoughtful consideration of what the relationship is all about before involving sexual activity. Being sexually active is too important and personal a decision to let someone else, alcohol or drugs, loneliness or depression, peer pressure, previous sexual behavior, an ultimatum, or fear of rejection decide for you.

If you are experiencing any kind of fear or apprehension about sexual activity, plan ahead: don’t let sex just “happen.” Plot your own script. Because no matter what you read in novels, see in videos, or watch at the movies, great romance doesn’t just spontaneously ignite. It takes patience and creativity. It is planned ahead. After all, someone had to write those chapters, plot that script, and shoot that scene.

Deciding whether you are willing to wait for the person you deserve and want in a healthy relationship is a vital consideration that requires self-reflection. How much time and energy are you willing to commit to a relationship? It could just be a sign of how much you value yourself and, therefore, your relationships.

Minimal Commitment

  • You practice safer sex haphazardly, either because you don’t think to practice it or because it is a source of dispute between you and your partner.
  • You seek your partner’s approval at the expense of your own self-image or good feelings about yourself.
  • Your decisions regarding sexual partners are more often than not based on the influence of alcohol or drugs.
  • You consistently devalue yourself in the relationship, taking great pains to impress your partner, but also assuming guilt for conflicts between you and your partner.
  • Sex is something you do within your relationship because you think it will fix the problems or make you better liked.

Uncertain or Developing Commitment

  • Asserting your emotional needs or feelings, even the negative ones, is not a source of friction, even if you may still be hesitant or awkward about broaching them. Remember, you’re much more likely to have a satisfying experience if the relationship is comfortable to you before you have sex.
  • You feel neither pressured or uncomfortable with your level of physical intimacy thus far. If you do, slow down and go through the stages of physical intimacy at a pace that feels right to you.
  • You have discussed what each of you expects from sexual involvement. This is important because our society tends to equate sexual attractiveness with likeability. Intercourse may not be an act of love for someone so much as an affirmation of femininity or masculinity. Therefore, it is important to clarify each of your expectations.
  • Your physical relationship is handled by you and your partner alone, and doesn’t hinge on your peers’ approval or disapproval.
  • You feel like the relationship you are presently involved in and your partner’s personal traits are meeting your expectations thus far. If not, you are considering what is wrong and whether you are able to talk to your partner about these issues. It is important at this point to consider how you would like to be treated and whether you are willing to settle for anything less as you look for someone to share a relationship with.

Valued Commitment

  • You are able to communicate your wants and needs frankly with your partner, able to work through conflicts amicably without being coerced into opinions and behavior out of line with your value system.
  • Your sexual needs and requested forms of safer sex protection are respected by your partner and conscientiously used. Declining sex with your partner doesn’t threaten your relationship.
  • You are able to attain closeness and approval from your partner without the expense of your good feelings or positive self-image.
  • You like yourself for being yourself in the relationship.
  • You don’t feel self-conscious being with your partner. Your partner meets your expectations of the kind of person you would like to see yourself with.

Making the decision to postpone sexual activity takes time and personal resolve, especially if you are in the process of rethinking your values. It may be just as difficult in the age of AIDS to accept the fact that having casual relations isn’t a safe option anymore. It is important that you make your own decision about your intimate relationships and not let the expectations of others, or resentment at the perceived limitations imposed by AIDS and other STIs, pressure and anger you.

Some aspects to consider in safeguarding your decision are:

  • Communication. It is important in any relationship, even if it is initially awkward and embarrassing, to let your partner know where you stand. Clearly express your expectations about the relationship. Telling someone “I’m attracted to you, but I’m not ready to have sex with you right now,” will prevent misunderstanding and disappointment. By telling your partner how you feel about sex, whether you are ready or not, you may prevent a misunderstanding or bad feelings. If your partner rejects you as a result of your stance, then the relationship probably didn’t have a firm foundation to begin with.
  • Assert Your Feelings. Reaffirm your position and clarify it to others. Disregard your peers’ challenges toward your stand. Though they may try to make you uncomfortable with it, they are not the ones involved in your relationship. Your values need not conform to another’s in order to work effectively for you and your partner.
  • The Best Decision for you will depend on how you feel. If you are struggling with the decision whether to be sexually active, you may find it helpful to explore conflicting feelings by talking with trusted friends, healthcare counselors and your partner. A well-informed and carefully thought-out decision can lead to attitudes, feelings and behaviors that give you and your partner a greater sense of trust, confidence and fulfillment in your relationship.

If you are resolute in your decision to postpone sex, but are feeling pressured, the following troubleshooting responses could help you out of awkward or intimidating situations:

Line: Come on, everyone’s doing it!
Response: If everyone’s doing it, then it should be easy to find someone else.

Line: I’m glad I’m on the pill, just in case we hit it off tonight.
Response: I’m glad you’re glad, but I’m not interested in sex tonight.

Line: If you’re on the pill (or other contraceptive) then there is nothing to worry about.
Response: There are always STIs and most importantly, that’s how I feel.

Line: I just bought you dinner, etc.
Response: You’re right. You bought dinner—not me.

Line: You had sex with ________, why not me?
Response: What does my relationship with ________ have to do with us?

Line: Everyone else is having sex, what’s your sexual hang-up?
Response: Why does my not wanting to be with you mean that I have a hang-up?

Line: I really want you.
Response: I’m turned on too, but I’m just not ready to have sex with you.

Line: I think I am in love with you.
Response: I am not ready to have sex yet, but if I was, you’d be the person I would want.

Line: You owe it to me. You get me all worked up and then you say no.
Response: I’m sorry you feel that way but I enjoy kissing you; I’m just not ready to have sex with you.

Line: My roommate’s away tonight, maybe we’ll have time to be by ourselves.
Response: I enjoy your company, but I’m not looking for a lover.

Delaying sexual activity doesn’t mean foregoing the physical and emotional satisfaction so necessary in close, intimate relationships. It does mean rethinking your expectations—reshaping them, not lowering them—to meet your and your partner’s needs. It means recognizing your self-worth and recognizing the choices you have in expressing your closeness to someone. With all the effort you put into improving your quality of life in other ways, you owe it to yourself to explore alternative expressions of intimacy.