What does it mean to be “ready” for sex? Does it just mean that I know how to be safe?

Great question! We agree with you—the idea of being “ready for sex” is confusing. Ultimately, only you can decide when and whether, with whom, and under what circumstances you want to have sex. Below, we break down some things to think about and questions to ask yourself.

First though, we want to remind you that sex isn’t just intercourse! Often when people say “sex,” they mean penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex (also called intercourse). But PIV sex is far from the only type of sex! Oral sex (blow jobs, going down on, eating out), anal sex and manual sex (fingering, hand jobs) are all “real sex.” Many people (especially people with clitorises) enjoy these other types of sex just as much or more than PIV sex. So is masturbation (touching yourself for sexual pleasure), though it doesn’t carry the same risks that sex with another person can have. Lots of people (of all genders!) masturbate before they’re ready to have partnered sex.

Here are some things to think about.

Remember that there is no shame in wanting to have sex! There’s a lot of stigma attached to sex, but it’s a very normal part of being human for many people (but not everyone). Sex should (and is meant to) feel good—if it didn’t, people would have mostly stopped having it a long time ago.

But sex is also powerful. Sex can be powerful in a good way when you and your partner feel safe and comfortable and know how to protect yourselves. However, it can also be powerful in a bad way—for example, if someone pressures or coerces their partner into having sex (see below for more on consent) or has sex when they don’t want to. This can have serious, lasting consequences.

Do you or your family have values when it comes to sex? Some people don’t want to have sex outside of marriage (or maybe a committed relationship) for religious or personal reasons. What are your values when it comes to sex, and are you living those values?

Are you comfortable with sex? Say the word sex out loud. How do you feel? Embarrassed? Awkward? Neutral? Excited? If you feel uncomfortable, that might be a sign that you should hold off. Feeling comfortable with sex is important so you can talk about STIs (sexually transmitted infections, sometimes called STDs or sexually transmitted diseases), birth control (if you’re thinking of PIV sex), boundaries, and more.

You’re right that a big part of being ready for sex is knowing how to have safer sex. This means:

  • Understanding STI risks for different kinds of sex. For example, did you know you can get STIs from oral sex?
  • Knowing how to prevent the spread of STIs. Do you understand how to use condoms and/or other barrier methods? Do you have condoms/barrier methods or know how to get them? Do you feel comfortable talking about them with your partner?
  • Are you or your partner using birth control (if you’re thinking of having PIV sex)? Have you talked about it?
  • Have you been tested for STIs (not just HIV)? Do you feel comfortable talking to your partner about getting tested?

It’s also important to think about the emotional side of sex.

What do you want and expect out of sex? Be honest with yourself. Do you think having sex will make your partner commit to you? Or are you just curious? Or do you want to have sex for the intimacy?

Be honest with yourself about what you expect, what you want, and how you’ll feel if reality doesn’t quite match. Are you and your partner on the same page? Do you feel comfortable talking to them about the emotional parts of sex?

We talk more about being emotionally “ready” for sex here. Go through the questions by yourself, and consider talking through them with your partner!

Consent is one of the most important parts of sex.

Ask yourself: Do I understand the importance of consent? Do I understand how to ask for consent and check in with my partner? Do I know what my own boundaries are and am I confident that I’ll respect my partner’s boundaries?

People feel ready to have sex at very different points in their lives. Less than half of all high school students in the United States have had sex, so if you’re not ready for sex right now, you’re definitely not alone! Plus, saying yes to sex once doesn’t mean that you have to keep saying yes. You may feel ready for sex now, but not at other points in your life. Your answers to these questions will probably change. All of this is normal and ok!

If you have more questions about being sexually healthy or need birth control, STI testing or treatment, or other health services, you can make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center. We provide free, confidential, non-judgmental health care to 10-22 year olds in NYC. You’ll be welcome here.

If you’ve experienced sexual assault or abuse or had other negative experiences with sex or physical touch, sex may be especially complicated for you. Know that you are not alone, and that what happened was not your fault. If you haven’t already, talk to someone you trust about what happened. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-4673 to talk to a trained adult who can help you. If you live in NYC, you can make an appointment at the Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center to talk to a therapist—no judgment, no charge.