Published in partnership with Scarleteen
I’m 14, and my boyfriend wants me to give him dry sex, I am very uneasy about this because I’ve been sexually abused before, what should I tell him?
Heather Corinna replies:
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I think you just said two things you could tell him right there.
“I am very uneasy about this,” or “I am very uneasy about this because I have been sexually abused.” Whichever you feel most comfortable with, both of those things are fine things to say, things I think we should be able to say with anyone we’re very intimate with or thinking about being very intimate with.
You can follow them up with what your uneasiness means for you in terms of your answer. Do you want to decline his invitation to engaging in dry sex? If so, then you say you feel uneasy, and follow that up with saying no, you don’t want to do that now. You don’t have to explain any more than that if you don’t want to or don’t feel comfortable explaining more. That right there – or heck, just “No,” all by itself — should always be enough for anyone who actually cares about you and respects you to just accept and know that’s how it is, just like if you invited someone to come to a party you were having and they said no. If we extend an invitation to someone for something, whether it’s having sex or going out for coffee, we always need to know they may decline that invitation, and if and when they do, we always need to be okay with that and accept it.
Or, maybe you do want to explore this kind of sex with him, but need certain things to feel safe and good about it, like more time dating and getting to know one another, more time to build communication skills and trust, a certain kind of commitment, or time with him or even just with yourself to feel comfortable enough telling him about the abuse you survived. If it’s like that, and you don’t want to outrightly say no, but need things you don’t have now or yet to say yes, then you can tell him what those things are that you need first. If getting to those things is going to take some time, he should respect that and allow you that time without pressure.
One thing you might need is for sex of any kind with him, be it dry sex or something else, to be about something you both really, really want to do and share, rather than something he wants you to “give” him for him.
Catch the big difference there? Sex with a partner that’s really about more than one person isn’t about giving someone something: it’s about doing, sharing and co-creating something together, where, if you want to stick with the idea of give/get, both people are giving and both people are getting. It’s also ideally about both people wanting something as much for themselves as for the other person, not about one person wanting something that is only or mostly for themselves and one person not really wanting something at all who just does that thing to give the other person what they want.
We’ve got a word for sex that’s only or mostly about one person: masturbation. If and when someone (including you!) wants sex that’s really just for them and only or mostly about what they want, that’s not the right time and space to have sex with someone else. That’s the time and space to have sex alone, with our own two hands (or whatever else we want to that isn’t another being). Then sex gets to be all about us and only for us, no problem. One really good earmark of someone’s maturity around sex and sexual relationships is when they are able to recognize when what they want is masturbation — sex only for themselves — and when it’s sex with a partner — where everything needs to be about everyone involved very mutually, not just or mostly themselves.
I also want to let you know, just in case you don’t, that even if you hadn’t been sexually abused in the past, and either felt uneasy for others reasons, or didn’t feel uneasy at all, but just were not interested in this, it’d be okay to say no.
Just because someone wants something sexual doesn’t ever, ever mean someone else is obligated to give it to them, even if and when two people are in a relationship together that already has included and does include sex. A sexual or romantic relationship isn’t about anyone agreeing to always do sexual things with someone. Rather, when sex is part of our relationship, or we agree to be in a sexual relationship, all that means is that sex CAN be part of that relationship, at whatever times it — whatever kind of sex we’re talking about — is what both people want, feel ready for and feel good about.
People don’t always feel hungry at the same time or want to eat at the same times. That’s okay: people can eat together when they both want to at the same time, and eat separately when they don’t. Sometimes one person wants to see a movie, but the other person isn’t in the mood at all, so they don’t want to go. That’s okay: one person can see a movie while the other person stays home.In some partnerships, one person can want to have kids at a given time when another doesn’t. That’s okay. People can wait until that’s what they both want, and if they never want the same things, part ways and seek out others who DO want the same things. Just like with those things, the same goes with sex. Sure, sometimes we might make some compromises, like if one person really, really wants to do something, and the other only kind of does, but feels okay giving it a go to see if it’s something they enjoy. But we need to always make sure that the compromises we’re making involve a reasonable amount of give on both sides, and don’t involve compromising ourselves or the things we know we really want or need to be and feel safe and okay and whole.
Whether people have survived abuse or not, these things are important in healthy sexual relationships or other sexual interactions. If your boyfriend hasn’t been sexually abused, I’m betting there are some things he might feel uneasy about or not want to do sexually a partner might want himself. Just because someone hasn’t been abused doesn’t mean they’ll feel comfortable with anything and everything sexual, or that they will always be in the mood to do something sexual when a partner is. I’m betting it’s also important to him that with anything sexual, it’s about him and what he wants, not just about what you do. I’m betting that he wants to feel he has the room and the right to say no to things and have you respect that. These are things everyone should have and that people need to have for sex to be most likely to be positive and beneficial, rather than negative or harmful.
However, it’s pretty common for survivors of sexual abuse or assault to need some real time and support in healing from assault, and to make sure that we’re only in relationships and situations that are sound for us in the place we’re at with that healing, and as survivors. For instance, while we certainly don’t always have to tell someone we survived assault if we don’t want to, when we’re brand new to consensual sex or new to asserting ourselves sexually, it’s usually a good idea to be sure any partners we’re with are people who have the maturity to understand that we can need some extra things other people might not, and who truly have the capacity to be open to those things or provide them. For example, getting triggered — being reminded in some way of abuse or assault and then having a reaction to those memories or feelings — is something that can happen when you get sexual as a survivor. When that happens, you might need some extra care, and your partner will sometimes need to be able to not only stop sex very quickly, but switch from being in a sexual headspace to one that’s about caring for you in other ways in that moment. They’ll need the maturity and self-esteem to not take that personally or freak out. Not every partner is going to have those things, especially during stages of life when people can be pretty centered in their own headspace and find it challenging to really understand, feel and work with someone else’s.
As well, it can be super-extra important for survivors to avoid anyone who we feel in any way obligated to be sexual with. That can really stand in the way of our overall healing, and in constructing a sexuality and sex life that’s healthy. One of the things sexual abuse can sometimes leave us wit is a feeling that our sexual value to others is our only value or that our sexuality or bodies don’t totally belong to us. Over time, and with help, we can usually get through those feelings and know they’re not true, but when abuse was recent or we haven’t gotten far in healing, it’s often harder not to believe those kinds of things. So, we’re usually really not helped by any people, relationships or dynamics that make those things seem more true rather than less true.
Again, it’s not like those things aren’t important with everyone, not just survivors. They are important for everyone. But for people who have been harmed sexually, and who are working on healing, dynamics like that can potentially make some extra hardships or hurt for us when we’re already working so hard to recover from hardships or hurt we have already been through. They can also can hold us back in our process of healing and make it all take longer or be more challenging, which is the last thing anyone wants or needs. healing takes long enough and is often challenging enough as it is.
So, I’d just check in with yourself right now about a couple things. The first thing to think about is if you feel ready to have any kind of sexual relationship at all yet and if that’s something you really want now or any time soon.
There’s no right answer to that, just what you feel you want and need and feel is best for you. If that’s not something you want or not something you feel ready for, your best bet is to try not to put yourself in the position where someone thinks sex is what you want or has any expectation of sex. No one needs that kind of pressure, after all, and it’s usually best for both people who want and need very different things to just opt out right at the start rather than to enter into a relationship where they’re probably just going to make each other miserable struggling around such a big difference.
If you want to still date and have romantic relationships, you can still have those, you just want to be clear to people you’re dating that for right now, that doesn’t include any kind of sex with you. You, like everyone else, get to have these limits and boundaries if you need them, just like you, like everyone else, get to have limits and boundaries if and when you do choose to be in a sexual relationship.
When you put your limits out there clearly from the start (or at the point when it seems like you and someone else might be thinking about or considering some kind of sex), the people who do want that can seek out someone else who does, and you can avoid being in the position to have to feel at all pressured or obligated to do anything you don’t want to or that doesn’t feel right for you. Being assertive and straightforward like that also can help you identify people to date who are good choices for you right now: people who are just fine with that, or who even don’t want to get involved with sex right now for their own reasons. That’s good for your healing process, but it also makes dating a lot more fun. Knowing you’re pretty much on the same page with that other person can make it much easier to feel relaxed and safe and to enjoy dating, rather than having it be something that stresses you out or makes you feel crummy.
If you are going to choose to get involved in a relationship that is sexual in any way, or that you think you might choose to make sexual at some point, then the next thing to just evaluate is who you’re with, and if they seem to you like the kind of person you feel you can feel safe and be safe with at this stage in your life.
For instance, when we feel safe, even if we’re still working on our assertiveness or self-esteem, we should feel pretty able to just say no to things we don’t want without worrying the other person won’t respect that or will react badly. We should also feel like we’re not obligated to be sexual with that person and feel sure they don’t think we are, either. We should — and once more, this is ideal for everyone, anyway, not just abuse survivors — be sure anyone we are with sexually, or think we might get sexual with is someone who understands how important it is for sex to be about something that’s really mutual, just as much about what we want as it is about what they want.
So, even in terms of dating this person right now, I’d take some time to think about all of that, and consider what you think this person’s capabilities and abilities are in this respect. If you’re iffy about any of these things, they are certainly things you can talk about together, and things you can talk about without disclosing your abuse, too, if you don’t feel ready for that yet. It’s also always okay to kind of back things up in a relationship: if you feel like, for example, his asking for this kind or other kinds of sex has happened too fast or too soon, you can always ask to slow everything down to the kind of pace that you feel comfortable with.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had any counseling around your abuse, but if you haven’t, I encourage you to seek it out. There are lots of things good counseling can help us with when surviving and healing from abuse, and that includes helping us to learn skills and tools to navigate sexual and other intimate relationships. If you had a hard time with the things I asked you to think about up there, that’s something else a counselor could help you think about and make decisions with. If you haven’t had any professional help in healing like that, and you’re interested, you can always drop a line to us here and we can help you find that for yourself.
One last thing? While we’re not always going to feel comfortable disclosing previous sexual abuse with people just because it is something we’re usually very vulnerable around, and often want to keep private from people we don’t know we can trust, I hope you know that having been abused is nothing for you to feel ashamed about, or keep to yourself out of the idea that it’s something shameful about you. It’s not. You didn’t do anything to anyone: someone else chose to hurt you.
A lot of us in the world have been hurt or harmed in some way. That doesn’t make us anything but human, and vulnerable to harm and hurt like all human beings can be. It doesn’t mean we’re broken, or damaged goods or sullied or any of the other negative things we can feel like we are, partly because abuse can make us feel that way for a while, and partly because some people who are ignorant about trauma and abuse say things like that (often not realizing they’re acting or sounding a whole lot like the people who abused us).
So, I hope that if you feel uneasy with any kind of sex, or sex with this person because of your abuse, it’s about where you’re at in your healing process or with still developing trust in this relationship, but NOT about any feelings or ideas that being abused means that, when it’s the right time and situation for you, you can’t be sexual in the ways that you truly want to be just like everyone else. Because you can. The main trick to that is just making your healing and other self-care a priority, and making yourself as a person whose own sexual wants and boundaries matter a priority. That absolutely includes nixing anything you don’t feel very, very good about doing sexually, not just for or with someone else, but for and with yourself.
Here are a few more links that might give you some extra help:
- Driver’s Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- Ready or Not? The Scarleteen Sex Readiness Checklist
- Safer Sex…for Your Heart
- Yes, No, Maybe So: A Sexual Inventory Stocklist
- Reciprocity, Reloaded
- Whoa, There! How to Slow Down When You’re Moving Too Fast
- Sound Counsel: About In-Person Counseling & Therapy