Age Doesn't Determine Whether A Person Is Ready For Sex. Here's What Does

Image by Yaroslav Danylchenko / Stocksy

First-time sex has a lot of logistics attached to it—like where it happened, when it happened, and who it happened with. For most of us, it's the "when" that holds a ton of weight. As a society, we tend to place so much importance on how old we were when we first shared that intimate moment with someone else. We rarely even consider if we were mentally, emotionally, and physically ready to do it. Now, new research shows your age really isn't the only thing that matters when it comes to sexual readiness; there's much more in-depth criteria that includes physical, emotional, and psychosocial well-being.

A study published in the journal BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health questioned 2,825 people between ages 17 and 24 about their first sexual experience, including the nature of their relationship with the person they had their first sex with, both of their ages, and how much sexual experience their partner had. The researchers also asked about their socioeconomic status, their education level, family structure, ethnicity, and how and when they'd been taught about sex.

What does it mean to be "ready" for sex?

Rather than focusing on age as a key factor, the researchers used four distinct points to gauge how ready each person was based on the World Health Organization's standards for sexual health. WHO defines sexual health as "a state of physical, emotional, mental and social well-being in relation to sexuality," which includes a "positive and respectful approach to sexuality and sexual relationships, as well as the possibility of having pleasurable and safe sexual experiences, free of coercion, discrimination, and violence."

Only those who met all four criteria were considered "sexually competent"—that is, ready to have sex—at the time they first did it.

"The concept of 'sexual competence' represents an alternative approach to timing of first sexual intercourse, considering the contextual attributes of the event, rather than simply age at occurrence," the researchers wrote in the paper. "This departs from the traditional framing of all sexual activity among teenagers as problematic, and recognises that young age alone does not threaten sexual health, any more than older age safeguards it."

Here are the four main criteria:

1. Contraceptive use

Are you using birth control of some sort? A person who isn't willing and prepared to use contraception during sex is not mature enough to be having sex. That's why researchers included it as such a major point, especially for those doing it for the first time. Of those surveyed, most people did use reliable contraception, but around one in 10 did not.

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2. Autonomy

Are you having sex because you truly want to do it, or does it have to do with peer pressure or drunkenness? Sex should always be on your own accord and not because it's something everyone else around you is doing.

3. Consent

Here's a crucial one: Did both parties verbally and physically agree to have sex? If not, neither party was ready to do the deed—one person was forced into it and experienced sexual assault, and the other person assaulted someone, which is the furthest thing from sexual competence. The researchers excluded instances of forced sex from their study, but they noted that almost one in five women had reported not being in charge of the decision to have sex for the first time.

4. The "right" timing

Do you feel like this is the "right time"? Participants reported whether they personally felt like they'd picked the appropriate time in their lives to start having sex. Though the study didn't specify, there are many personal reasons why it is or isn't a good time to start having sex; they weren't ready to have sex—you might be struggling with stress or insecurity and don't want to complicate it by introducing intimacy in your life, or you might be very erotically charged and have a lot of free time, so why not? Other factors like finding a partner they feel attracted to and comfortable with could factor into this question.

More women than men felt their first sexual experience did not happen at the right time—40 percent versus 27 percent, respectively. This was the most commonly reported negative feature of first-time sex.

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Looking beyond age.

Together, these four factors were used to determine whether a person was "ready for sex." And based on this definition, the study's findings revealed just how many young people become sexually active "under circumstances that are arguably incompatible with sexual health, defined in its broad sense, encompassing both physical and psychosocial wellbeing."

Overall, 52 percent of women and about 44 percent of men weren't deemed "ready for sex," based on these criteria. There was indeed some correlation between age and sexual health, but 22 percent of women and 36 percent of men who'd had sex for the first time at a fairly young age—between ages 13 and 14—actually were deemed sexually competent nonetheless, at least according to these four factors.

"Although age at first intercourse was associated with sexual competence, it did not explain all of the variability in sexual competence—at no age did the prevalence of sexual competence approach zero or 100 percent," the researchers wrote. "This finding supports the proposition that chronological age may be an overly simplistic indicator of the nature of first intercourse."

Aside from the young, there were a few other groups of people who were more likely to be not ready for sex when they first had it—people who were less educated, those who grew up in economically depressed areas, and black women, for example. These factors point to deeper societal issues, whereas some others dealt more with interpersonal relationships. People who were in unstable relationships during their first sexual encounter, people who didn't know their partner's level of sexual experience at the time, and people who mostly got their sexual information from their friends also tended be less ready for sex according to the four criteria.

As these findings show, being young doesn't necessarily mean you're automatically threatening your health by having sex, nor does being an adult mean you automatically know how to protect yourself. (For example, one survey last year found more than 65 percent of adults have had sex without a condom, and 29 percent said they have unprotected sex every single time. Yikes!) There are plenty of other psychological and contextual factors that go into determining whether someone is ready, and our instinct to view all sex between young people as dangerous misses the real point.

The truth is, the "sexual competence" criteria laid out above are true for sex at any point in your life—whether it's your first or umpteenth time doing it. The number is irrelevant; it's the emotional capacity to make the right decision for your own and your partner's well-being every time that really matters in the long run.

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