Taking control of your sexual health can be messy, weird and exciting—and it’s made even more complicated because we live in a sex negative culture with little real sex education.
Sexual health includes a lot of different parts. I want to talk about an important part of sex and sexual health that even comprehensive sex education usually ignores: pleasure. Here are 5 important things you should understand.
1. Sexuality is a constant exploration.
Sexuality is a big, complex thing made of lots of moving parts—who you’re attracted to, what turns you on, what you’re curious about, what your boundaries are, and more. Just like how your taste in food changes over time, your sexuality will change—it’s a constant work in progress. Give yourself permission to explore this new way to think about yourself and your body.
This means getting to know your body as a source of pleasure. Figure out what feels good: When/If you touch yourself, where does touch feel good? What movements and pressure? What do you think about when you’re turned on?
The things that turn you on can have just as much to do with context as where and how you’re being touched. Some people find it hard to enjoy sex when they’re stressed out, or don’t trust the person they’re with. Figuring out what you need to really experience pleasure is an important part of exploring your sexuality.
Of course, many people have complicated relationships with their bodies and with sex.
You may struggle with body image, disability, gender dysphoria, or shame surrounding sex and sexuality. You may be a survivor of abuse or sexual assault. There is NO reason for you to feel pressure to start having sex (by yourself or with a partner), or exploring your sexuality before you’re 100% ready. If you’re having a hard time dealing with what you’re feeling or what you’ve been through, consider talking to a therapist. They can help you work through it.
2. Pleasure is different for every body.
Porn, movies and TV shows usually depict a narrow range of body types, sex acts, relationships and sexualities. But the reality is the opposite. Your sexuality is as unique as you. There’s NO reason to feel embarrassed for what does or doesn’t make you aroused (or turned on). Some people might like having their hips touched, nipples rubbed, ears sucked, or feet massaged—and some people hate these things. Every body is different and that’s not only ok, but kind of amazing!
Penis in vagina (PIV) sex is often depicted as the (ahem) crème de la crème of sex. As a result, many people with clitorises feel embarrassed or confused when they can’t come from PIV. In addition, LGBTQ individuals are left out of the equation entirely. But the majority of clitoris-havers can’t or rarely has an orgasm (or comes) from PIV sex alone! They often need direct clitoral stimulation. That can be from a vibrator or other toy, fingers, a tongue, or something else.
People’s fantasies and interests are just as varied as their bodies. If you have a fantasy or interest that you think is “weird,” it’s probably not. After all, people are into all sorts of things. The important thing is that sex is completely consensual, and leaves you and your partner feeling safe and healthy.
However, keep in mind that having sex in certain situations is risky or illegal—for example, having sex in public or with a teacher, paying for sex, or having sex with someone very young.
3. Don’t be afraid to communicate.
Communication is a REALLY important part of sexual health—and not only because you need to talk about condoms, STIs, and birth control. It’s also important to talk about what you (and your partner) like and what you’re curious about. Openly communicating also helps you set boundaries and learn what your partner’s boundaries are. Figure out what you DON’T want to do, and tell your partner. Ask your partner what their “hard no’s” are.
Ignoring a partner’s boundaries, pressuring a partner, or making them feel bad about the boundaries they’ve set are all NOT ok. In some cases, this could even be sexual assault. Never assume that a partner is ok with something just because they haven’t said “no.” Consent has to be explicit and enthusiastic.
4. If sex isn’t for you, that’s ok.
5. It’s good to ask questions.
Understanding your body and sexuality can help you become comfortable with them, which is an important part of pleasure for many people. It’s very normal to be curious about sex (and also to not be curious!). If you have questions about sex, sexuality, or your body, ask! Talk to someone you trust. If you feel comfortable talking to one of your parents, that’s great. If not, you can talk to a healthcare provider, another family member (like an aunt, cousin or sibling), or a friend. However, keep in mind that there’s a lot of misinformation out there. Scarleteen.com is a great resource for inclusive, comprehensive sex education (and so is the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center Health Hub and blog).
If you’re 10-22 years old and live in NYC, you can come to the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center for free, confidential health care, including sexual health and mental health services.
A version of this article was originally published in September, 2017 and is based on an interview with Danielle Platt, MD, an Adolescent Medicine Fellow at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. Danielle completed her residency in pediatrics at Jacobi Medical Center/Einstein School of Medicine after receiving her MD from the Sackler School of Medicine at Tel Aviv University and a Bachelor’s in Women’s Studies from the University of Michigan. Her particular areas of interest include sex education, sexual assault/intimate partner violence prevention and awareness, and improving physician competency in recognizing, treating, and empowering survivors of childhood/adolescent trauma.
The Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center is located in New York City. It provides comprehensive, confidential, integrated, judgment-free health care at no charge to over 12,000 young people every year. This column is not intended to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion, treatment or services to you or to any other individual, only general information for education purposes only.