Sex and Self-Respect (or, The Art of Being a Woman)
This is a blog post about saying No. It was written a few years ago when I had an advice column. It is even more relevant today, with so many people talking, finally, about CONSENT in the mainstream. Scroll all the way to the bottom to get a copy of my free guide: UN-SLUT-SHAME YOURSELF.
I am a 16 year old girl and sexually active, and have had sex with a couple of guys. But recently I’ve been feeling really down and bad about myself for not controlling myself more. I feel like I’m losing respect for myself and so are others. I just want to know how to maintain my self respect and confidence and how to control my body more. I almost want to recreate myself, have a fresh start.
Learning to Love
Dear Learning to Love,
Good for you for writing this letter, and I applaud you for your vision of knowing that you want to be both confident and self-respecting. This is not always an easy task, not ever, and especially not when you are 16. But it does get easier over time, especially if you start now.
In your letter you say, “I feel like I’m losing respect for myself and so are others.” I hear two things here: first, that you feel bad about some decisions you made, and second, that someone else is making you feel bad about decisions you’ve made. I encourage you to examine your relationship with whoever is “losing respect” for you. Women and girls are often shamed over their sexuality and sexual choices in our society, and it is an exhausting race to the finish line where the imagined “respect” award awaits. It is important to surround yourself with friends who understand your process and can be supportive of you while not judging or shaming you. Brené Brown talks about this extensively in her work. (If you have not yet discovered her, go explore her now! Here is a list of quotes that I encourage you to read through, and also, this clip will be beneficial to watch. Please watch it. I was very glad when I did.)
Brené’s work will help you cope with the world of shame, which unfortunately is a big part of the world of female sexuality. When women become sexually active, they begin navigating not only the world of safe sex and good choices, but also the world of oppressive shame that surrounds them. Please know that you are not alone, and that many, many other girls your age are in the exact same boat. As you continue to grow, you will learn to form allies in this area. Something that changed my life very much when I was 18 was that I met another girl who could relate to and empathize with my own sexual path. She and I both found tremendous relief (and safety) in each other because we could share our stories and understand them without judgement. It was freeing and exhilarating to us both, and very essential as teenagers. To this day, she remains one of my very best friends.
Now, moving on. You also say, “I just want to know how to maintain my self respect and confidence and how to control my body more.” And what I hear in this is that by controlling your body more (and being 100% in control of your choices), you feel like you will be able to maintain your self respect and confidence. Perhaps by sleeping with multiple partners, you’ve ended up feeling badly about yourself. (Remember: you are not alone in this feeling.)
The answer to this is simple, but it is not easy: You must learn to Say No.
Saying No to sex does not start, actually, with the sex itself. It starts much earlier than that. And this is the important part. You must decide for yourself and commit to yourself. If you are going to hang out with a potential partner, you decide before you even leave your house. Say it out loud to yourself: I am not going to have sex tonight. And then, be ready for the steps that this will involve. Saying No and avoiding sex is a series of actions, not just saying a few words. Based on my own experiences and what I’ve learned in the past two decades, here are some tips to make this all easier.
Don’t take your clothes off. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you will “Say No” after you are completely naked with a naked, horny young man next to you. The pressure is too great for you both. It is much easier to Say No in the beginning, when your clothes are still on. It’s simpler. “I don’t want to take off my shirt.” “I don’t want to take off my pants.” And so on. The rest is implied. If you don’t want to have sex, do not take your pants off under any circumstances. This alone will completely change your interactions. And again, you commit to yourself. You will likely be pressured to take off your clothes. Even your own body and desires will want you to do it. So you have to be totally committed and own your choices. No one else will do it for you.
Create a “guideline” for how many dates you want to go on before you sleep with someone. Be old fashioned about it. 3 dates, 5 dates, 10 dates. And what is a date? Maybe have a guideline where you won’t sleep with anyone who hasn’t bought you dinner and/or flowers. Maybe you want to make sure these guys give you something before you sleep with them. What exactly is it that makes you feel respected around sex? Aside from these material things, there are other factors that make women feel valued: does he listen to you? Does has ask you questions? Is he interested in what you love to do and how you feel about things? Likewise, you can ask yourself things about him: do you like how he treats people? How does he act around his friends? Do you share any common ground with him? And so on. In valuing ourselves, we must also surround ourselves with people we value. Write any rules and desires you come up within your journal so you can remember and read over them when you need a reminder.
The decision to be sexually intimate with another person is a decision to be extremely vulnerable with them. Supporting yourself in your vulnerability will give you more clarity and power in the decisions you make. If you have a girlfriend who you can trust, and who doesn’t shame you for your sexual choices (even for your bad choices), use her as a resource. Tell her where your weaknesses are and ask for advice and help. If you don’t have a friend like this, I encourage you to consider finding a safe adult to talk to about these things. You will have to be discerning, as many people, adults and peers alike, will probably be slightly shameful (again, society has encouraged this). But keep looking for that person who is not. They are out there. A great option is to go to Planned Parenthood and talk to one of the staff members there. They will provide excellent support for your physical and emotional health, as well as offer you additional resources. Saying No is a long, hard process of education, self-esteem building, and confidence. You can begin to gather all of these things from your community, and away from the bedroom.
Finally, in your letter, you also say that “I almost want to recreate myself, have a fresh start.” I cannot tell you how much I know this feeling. I understand it so well. Let me tell you what: you are not your bad decisions. You are not who you sleep with. You are not how many people you sleep with, or have slept with. You are none of these things. You are you and your sweet heart. Your fresh start is offered to you each morning you wake up. We all get an opportunity to begin again each day. I used to have a boyfriend who would always say to me “don’t be sorry, just don’t do it,” when I’d apologize for doing something lame. That really struck me the first time he said it. Because essentially he was saying that what was in the past really didn’t matter. Only what I chose to do next. And there’s a lot of freedom and forgiveness in that.
I hope that in this letter i have provided at least some small glimmer of something that helps you. This topic is very close to my heart. I was also a sexually active teenager who struggled with major guilt over some of my choices. I was shamed by lots of people, but mostly by young men and boys who drew power from shaming women. You will encounter these kinds of men over and over again. Kick them to the curb as soon as you can. Eventually you will start to recognize and choose men who don’t do this. However, you must guard yourself. This is one of the hardest tasks given to girls your age. The only person who can protect your inner self, your sexuality, and your heart, is you. There are no knights and princes anymore, and even if there were, I’m still not sure they would protect us. You are on your own, and that’s a big burden to bear. But you are valuable.
Another thing to remember is that you are the gift. You choose who you give yourself to. It is not a compliment when someone wants to have sex with you. I wish someone had told me that when I was younger. Now that you are sexually active, you will spend a lot of time and energy learning how to maneuver attention and pressure from men. Let them flatter you, but don’t put too much meaning on it. You are the pot of gold and the rainbow. By learning to Say No, you lose nothing and gain everything.
To wrap this all up: Learn to Say No by supporting yourself with loving peers or adults, being honest with yourself, and staying committed to your agreements that you’ve made with yourself. Saying No also has a snowball effect. The more you do it, the easier it gets. So once you get through that first time, the road will just get easier.
Learning to Say No will make you feel much more empowered about the times you decide to Say Yes.