It takes a lot of courage to raise your hand and ask a question in a classroom full of your peers. That is never more true than when you are a student in a sex education class. I have taught sex education in many contexts — from talking about casual consent with my 8-year-old cousin to discussing birth control options with high school students to figuring out how to teach queer sex education via Zoom during the pandemic. Sex education can and should take many forms, but through my experience in every type of sex education, anonymous questions have remained the best way to gauge understanding and see what students are really wondering about how to navigate various sexual health-related situations.
One of the most common and interesting questions I get in the classroom: How do you know when you are ready to have sex? The short answer is that every person has their own timeline, and that nothing has to be set in stone. If you feel like you might not want to have sex, but think that you should, you are likely not ready to. Conversely, if there is something in your gut that is telling you that you are ready, listen! You know your body best, and your body knows you. However, there is a lot more to unpack with this question.
Sex can mean so many different things. Within sexual health contexts, sex can include anal, oral, vaginal and other types of sex. Personally, I like to think about sex as any sexual activity that is meant to be pleasurable or have orgasm as the goal. That being said, regardless of how you define sex for yourself, you may feel ready for one type of sex but not another. That is completely normal, but it can be difficult to communicate that with a sexual partner. We can sometimes let ourselves do things we don’t actually want to do because it seems easier in the moment than actually communicating our desires. The prevalence of hook-up culture in college makes it easy for consent to go assumed and unsaid, which is a recipe for miscommunication and crossed boundaries. Someone's identities and past experiences also inform how they view and give consent, which can further complicate the matter. It is important to know what types of sex we are comfortable engaging in before a sexual encounter and that we feel confident communicating those wants to our sexual partners. If you are ever in a situation where you don’t know either of those things for certain, you might not be ready to have any type of sex at that moment with that person.
However, people often do have sex when they are not ready. A study of about 3,000 sexually active individuals in England found that 39.7% of women and 26.5% of men did not feel that their first sexual encounter “occurred at the ‘right time.’” You may have had conversations with your friends that echo similar sentiments about their “first time.” I think our culture encourages young people to have sex before they are equipped with the information and communication skills they need to feel truly ready. Combined with the current state of sex education in the United States, there are multiple factors to blame regarding the lack of information young people receive about sex. There will always be an element of learning by doing when it comes to sex, but that does not mean you can’t feel ready beforehand. Sex is not something you can prepare for like an exam, but the best thing you can do for yourself is to get in tune with your feelings and make sure you can express them comfortably — before, during and after a sexual experience. Everyone’s journey to feeling ready for sex is unique; the most important factor is that you don’t feel pressured by outside influences.
If you have questions about sex or relationships that could be discussed in a future column, please submit questions to an anonymous form at https://tinyurl.com/BDHsexcolumn. Anusha Gupta ’25 can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send responses to this opinion to email@example.com and other op-eds to firstname.lastname@example.org.