Today is my birthday, woohoo!! I celebrate my birthday loud and proud because for me, getting older is an adventure that can only bring more opportunities for excitement, learning, and fun times. However, many people dread their birthdays because they do not want to be reminded of getting older. This might be because with age comes expectations of experience and achievement that can weigh heavy on an individual, especially if their experiences have been different than societal, family, or peer-group expectations.
By a certain age you should walk, talk, and poop in the potty. By a certain age you should read, write, and remember your telephone number. By a certain age you should have your period, start masturbating, and have a crush on someone. By a certain age you should have a boyfriend/girlfriend, lose your virginity, and have an orgasm. By a certain age you should have a job, be financially independent, and get married. By a certain age you should be happy and satisfied in life. By a certain age you should still be able to have sex. Lots of expectations! And if a birthday rolls around and you haven’t ‘done’ the thing that you’re supposed to do, that might make you dread your birthday.
And let’s be honest, most adults in the U.S. can remember how old they were for their many of their firsts…first kiss, first sexual encounter with another person, first act of intercourse, first orgasm, etc. And, lots of people stress out about their age when thinking about their experiences with sexual activity- I was too young, too old, I AM too old to not have done this yet, I can’t do this yet, why can’t I still do this at my age. Which brings up a question that is frequently asked by young people, parents, educators, politicians, judges…How old should someone be when they have sex?
My answer will always be- it’s different for everyone, and each person needs to decide for him/herself when it is appropriate for them. Many people put some sort of age marker on sexual activity- for example, it’s ok to have sex once you’re 18. (Or once you’re married.) I find several things problematic with someone else defining when it’s ok to have sex (sex being a broad term encompassing many sexual activities and not just intercourse):
- that person probably won’t be there when the sex happens.
- everyone is different.
- defining someone else’s boundaries establishes expectations of achievement that can actually encourage someone to engage in activities before they are ready.
- in theory, attaching ages to experiences makes people hate their birthdays.
So how does an educator respond to this classic question, At what age should someone have sex?
- You can describe the variety of experiences that other people have. “Some people wait to have sex until they get married. Some people have sex when they are in a committed relationship. The average age someone has sex for the first time in the U.S. is 18. People have sex well into their ‘old’ age.”
- You can help identify ways an individual will know they are (or are not) ready to engage in sex. “How would someone know if they are interested in having sex? What are some reasons not to have sex? How might the law affect someone’s decision, especially laws about age of consent?”
- You can help someone understand their own values about sexual activity. “What do you think are important parameters for having sex? Are any of those based on age?”
- You can say, “It is really up to each and every person to determine whether sex is appropriate for them at that age. If they aren’t able to make that informed decision yet, that’s a good indicator that sexual activity is not appropriate.”
- NOTE: Decisions about sexual activity may be different for individuals who are developmentally disabled. So I ask this question to professionals in that field, how does this ‘you decide’ philosophy work with that population?
These responses are designed to encourage developing individualized ideas about a deeply personal decision. Avoid placing hard and fast rules and expectations because that takes the power away from the individual. We want people to be able to think on their own and feel comfortable with their decisions after their experiences. And in my opinion, people shouldn’t hate their birthdays (but that is totally up to you!).