Scarleteen, sex ed for the real world

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johnbaseball17 asks:

I am 18 and my most recent ex is 19. I’ve never had intercourse, but had oral with 8 different girls. My recent ex-girlfriend had sex only 1 time with her ex-boyfriend, her only serious boyfriend before me. I left her this week because she has had sex. Actually, I’ve left all these girls because they weren’t virgins. I just want to find someone with equal life/sexual experience. In her eyes, I’m not Mr. Perfect either and have a lot of experience, too. Oral sex is still a significant sexual act in her opinion. She also considers the score even between us. I understand oral sex is serious enough to be a deal breaker.

She is the most compatible person I’ve ever been with. Also, she has treated me the best of any other girl. She wanted to marry me in the next few years. Do I have too much sexual experience to complain that my girlfriend is not a virgin? Would you call the score between our past sexual life experiences nearly equal? Am I wrong for leaving? What would you think if you found out your boyfriend/girlfriend had oral sex with 8 other people before you? I’m dying for your honest opinion on the above questions! Thanks a million times! I appreciate the help!

Sam W replies:

I'm going to answer your first question last.

What would I, personally, do if I found out my partner had engaged in oral sex (or any other kind of sex) a certain number of times? I'd figure their sexual past is theirs to judge as they please and would hope they thought the same way about my past.

I would want us to discuss our sexual histories, but my primary concerns in that would be if there are possible STI risks to be aware of, any activities that need to be avoided or managed in specific ways due to past abuse or assault, and I'd also just want to do that kind of sharing because that tends to be part of intimacy with a partner. So, I'm obviously not going to advocate complete disinterest in your partner's sexual history. However, I'd suggest any of us think about what interest we have in it is, and how much we're making something that isn't about us -- another person's past life -- about us.

But my (or anyone else's) reactions to a partner's past can't tell you what's right for you here. Your beliefs are what count here, beliefs that you are, by all means, entitled to hold. However, it sounds like you may be holding some of those beliefs partly because you have some unhelpful and even inaccurate frameworks around sex bouncing around in your head.

The biggest reason that a "scoring" model of sexual experience is unhelpful is because sex doesn't actually work that way. There isn't a committee off in a room somewhere deciding that penile/vaginal intercourse is worth 10 experience points, oral sex is only worth 1, and therefore your ex had a higher score than you. Sex acts do not have absolute values which, by extension, means that people cannot and do not have a universal sexual score that they can soundly compare to the scores of others.

The issues of the scoring model apply to the idea of virginity as well. Despite what many of us are led to believe, virginity is not a concrete, measurable item that is lost when you do a certain act. Instead, it's a social concept with a flexible and highly variable definition based on an individual's own values, experiences and ideas (sometimes including their ideas about experiences they, themselves, have not even had). While you are defining your ex as being not a virgin because of her experiences, there are plenty of people who would perceive you as not being a virgin, either. After all, you have both chosen to engage in sex -- oral sex is a kind of sex, just like intercourse is a kind of sex -- and again, there's no committee to decide these things, which means it's up to us, individually, to navigate and define them.

What this boils down to is that people get to decide for themselves what sequence of sexual activities they're comfortable with and what those activities do mean or have meant to them, uniquely. There are folks for whom intercourse, for example, is something they will do with any sexual partner, but oral sex is reserved for people with whom they have a certain type of connection. This progression can change depending on the partner they have at that moment, or changes in a whole range of circumstances.

Put another way, if there is a sound way of valuing or weighting different sexual activities, it's a value each person puts on each activity, for themselves, and about themselves, not a commonly held ranking list that everyone knows, understands, and agrees with, or that it's really fair for others to put on someone else.

Additionally, people have wildly varied experiences when it comes to sex. Even if you met a partner who had technically done the exact same things sexually that you had (and done them the same number of times), she may feel very differently about those experiences than you do, both in terms of what they meant and how they fit into her sexual past, present, and future. This fact alone means that the idea of someone having "equal" sexual experiences to you is something that isn't really ever going to happen: that person is always going to be a different person than you are, after all.

In spite of the improbability of meeting a partner with whom you are sexually "even" -- because that whole frame is just mighty problematic -- you are by no means the first person to want to do so. One of the most common reasons why people want their partner to be equally/less experienced than them is a concern that they won't measure up to that person's past lovers. Or, a worry that having more experience means their partner will be excellent in bed and make them feel inadequate. Sometimes, too, people just want to have certain things in common with someone else, and sexual experiences can be one of those things.

Having had more partners, or having done certain sex acts, does not automatically make someone a great lover, nor does it make someone without those experiences a lousy one. What makes one person ecstatic could leave another feeling totally bored.

Something I often tell people worried about measuring up to their partners previous lovers is that, while they've been sexual with others before, this is still their first time when it comes to being sexual with you. Whether you're the more or less experienced partner in a relationship (or if you're in a relationship where you view each other as fairly similar in your experience), it's good to remember that there is always going to be a learning curve when you're with someone new. Ultimately, communication, care and chemistry tend to be way bigger players in sexual pleasure than numbers are. When you're in that moment with a partner, neither of your pasts is likely to matter much, or tell you much about each other's sexual likes and dislikes. Instead of getting caught up in how your actions measure up, I say to focus on being in the moment with your partner and communicating with her about what feels good.

Getting back to your specific questions, I do want to point out that it is not just your emotions involved when you dump a girl because of her sexual past.

Her emotions are relevant here too, especially when you ask if what you did was wrong. You get to decide what's wrong or right for you, but your actions will always have an impact on anyone else they affect. That impact could be hugely different from the impact your actions have on you.

Women and girls, particularly, get a lot of negative (and false, and mixed) messages about their sexuality, and one of the most common of these is that they lose desirability every time they have a new partner.

For instance, that guys like an "easy" woman, but they'll never love one. That guys you see a future with won't want to stay with you because they won't be able to stop thinking about all the other men who've touched you. Whether you meant to or not, every time you left one of your partners because they didn't match your definition of virgin, you did reinforce those negative, and often hurtful, ideas. For some, if not all, of those girls, this might have made them wonder if they really are worth less as partners because they have had sex (spoiler alert: they aren't). These are ideas and thoughts that are not, by any means, representative of how most men think of or treat women, only some, but these messages have real power to leave women and girls feeling like crud, especially since they often can't win no matter what: you do one thing, you're a slut, something else and you're a prude. It can easily feel like no matter what sexual choices you make as a girl or woman, you lose.

So, be aware that the views you have and express about sex -- especially to people who have been vulnerable with you, like being sexual with you -- may mean that girls down the line might be reluctant to be honest with you about their experiences out of fear that you will judge them. A fear that is valid, since that has, in fact, been what you have done so far.

It might feel like I've just dropped a ton of blame on you: that wasn't my intention, though I do think it's important to see when we have likely been hurtful to others, or have been holding double standards,; to take responsibility for doing that, and then to hopefully figure out how to be less hurtful and less hypocritical as we move forward.

I want to stress that a lot of the unhelpful ideas we've been talking about are deeply ingrained in a lot of cultures, families and communities. For instance, having a score/scoring is one of the most common ways we talk about sex. Think about the "bases" metaphor, and how it implies that sex is a process in which you score (by getting to home base). The bases idea also helps reinforce the notion that certain sexual acts are somehow "more sex" than others. You start at first base, which is something "innocent" (like kissing), then proceed through the bases until you get to intercourse, which is seen as the final step and the step that really "counts" as sex. So, it makes sense that many of us grow up believing that we each have a score that depends on how many bases we've run (and how many times we've run them).

I think it can be helpful to consider some different ways of thinking about/talking about sex. I've included a link at the end of this answer that does just that, but for the moment let's keep with the baseball metaphor. Instead of people going from first to second and so on, try picturing a field more like this: some people run from first back to home, some have taken to bouncing from base to base in no particular order, some have settled quite contentedly onto second, and some are sitting in the stands because baseball really isn't their thing. And, just add some more complexity into the game, every player gets to decide what the significance of each base is for themselves. Because of this, keeping score becomes impossible and, ultimately, unnecessary. This may sound like total chaos, but it's a more accurate (although far from complete) picture of how human sexual interaction works.

All of this being said, if you want to find a partner who has not had sexual intercourse before, you are within your rights to do so. Everyone gets to have their own criteria for who they choose as partners.

(However, at the very least, if you are not telling the people you are dating you will only continue to date people you consider to be virgins until after they have given you head, I would hope we can agree that is a deeply shady way, at best, to go about having that criteria. It would be far, far more honest, respectful and considerate -- and maybe also less selfish and hypocritical, let's be frank -- to tell them about that criteria before you get at all sexual with them, or before you start seriously dating.)

Your most recent relationship does bring up another important point about this desire. It sounds like you had deep feelings for your ex, and even saw her as someone you wanted to spend your life with. But, you had difficulty reconciling this with your feelings around sexual experience and decided to end the relationship. Bear in mind that, if these beliefs are really important to you, they may well lead to you missing out on relationships like this that you would otherwise have gotten a lot out of. They may also hold you back from growing as a person and forming relationships of real quality and equality: in other words, you, not just the women you date, may be a lot better served by you challenging yourself around these ideas and double standards rather than continuing to hold unto them.

I think it might be useful, before dating anyone again, to ask yourself some big questions like: What do I find attractive in a partner? What aspects of a personality and a person do I most value in a partner? What am I looking for in a relationship? What do, and can, I bring to the table as a partner myself? How do I see the person I think of as my best self fitting together with someone else: who do I want them to be so we can both be our very best selves? Self-reflection like that may help you make sure that your focus on sexual history, should you stay focused on it, doesn't result in you finding someone with whom you are otherwise not really compatible.

In the end, it's also up to you to decide whether or not to try and patch things up with your ex. Before deciding, I'd consider if your views about the significance of sexual pasts have changed at all. Be honest with yourself about whether or not you would be happy and comfortable in the relationship (and the sex life): if you feel the same way, then trying again with her seems like nothing more than a way for her to get hurt again. Would you be able to treat your girlfriend with care and respect, including figuring out a way to make amends for breaking up with her the way you did, which likely hurt her a great deal? If the answer is leaning towards a no, then I'd say getting back together is not the best choice, especially for her, but also for you.

However, if you feel that you would be able to be respectful and comfortable (and happy, obviously) with your ex, then by all means you can reach out to her again and see how she feels. If you do, I don't recommend presenting it as coming back because you've "forgiven" her for her sexual past: there isn't anything for you to forgive. She didn't do anything to you, save having a life before you, a life which did not include you. In fact, it sounds like any forgiveness that would have to happen here would be about her being able to forgive you. Instead, I'd explain, if it is true, that you re-evaluated your reasons for leaving and decided that you wanted to try again, and ask how would she feel about giving the relationship another go.

Be prepared for the possibility that she doesn't want to give you a second chance. It can hurt very badly to have someone you care about dump you over your sexual past (or to have someone dump you, period), especially someone who had no apparent problem being sexual with you in ways that benefitted them. So, she may be reluctant to let you back into her life. If that's the case, then you can put all of this soul searching and info to good use the next time you meet another cool girl you want to be with, who also wants to be with you.

As a final thought to leave you with, it sounds like you were with someone who (by your own words) treated you wonderfully. I hope that you can put what I've said here to good use, so that when a girl is being wonderful, you can figure out how to bring and give your own wonderful right back.

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