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Emotional checklist for first-time sexual experiences: ‘Liking someone is not enough’

Ask Roe: Crucial factors for young adults of consenting age to keep in mind while dating or thinking about having sex

A lot of sex education that young people receive in schools is based on the physical aspects of sex – the anatomy, biology and physical acts, and also the risks, including unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmissible infections (STIs). But making sure your relationship and/or your sex life is emotionally safe is vital too. Dating, falling in love and having sex are like a lot of things in life – when entered into with self-awareness, empathy, respect, clear communication, good judgment and solid information, they can be glorious, empowering and beneficial.

When entered into recklessly, callously, selfishly or without safeguards or boundaries, people can get hurt. In Ireland the legal age of consent is 17. For teenagers and young adults over the age of consent who are considering their first sexual experiences, here are some emotional checklist items to keep in mind.

Liking Someone is Not Enough

Something I would love to go back and drill into my own head as an older teenager (and a person in my early 20s. And mid-20s. And late 20s), is that liking someone is not enough. Attraction and chemistry are not good indicators of whether someone is right for you; what matters is how they treat you, and whether you are compatible. Sometimes we can be so attracted to someone or love the idea of them so much that we overlook the fact that they don’t treat us or other people well.


We might ignore the fact that they have a mean streak or that they don’t make us laugh, or that underneath their perfect looks they’re actually not that interesting. Prioritise people who make you feel safe, comfortable, respected, appreciated, and who make you smile. A good litmus test for whether someone is a good match for you is simply to ask yourself whether you’d like to be their friend. If anything sexual or romantic was off the table, would you still genuinely enjoy their company? Are they kind, interesting, and do they make you feel like the best version of yourself? If not, enjoy looking at them but find someone more suitable to be with.

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Know the risks of a situation

Most teenagers will get information in schools about the basic risks of sex, covering contraception, STIs, and pregnancy. But it’s also important to be aware of emotional risks when dating or having sex and to try to make choices that are emotionally healthy, safe and respectful – for both people involved. Some situations that could be emotionally risky are getting involved with someone who is already in a relationship; dating someone who is emotionally unavailable or doesn’t treat you well; dating a friends’ ex or crush without discussing it with them first; or dating someone who has ideas about relationships that don’t feel empowering for you.

Some situations that could feel safe for you but emotionally hurtful for the other person could be using someone you don’t really care about for attention, validation or sex; being with someone who is much younger, less assertive or less experienced than you; not telling a romantic or sexual partner important information about your sexual health or involvement with other people; or asking someone to do something sexual such as send sexually explicit photos or engage in sexual activity without considering the risks for them, or whether it would feel good for them.

A real sign of maturity is being self-aware and realistic about our needs, boundaries and readiness in emotional and sexual situations

Some of these actions are inconsiderate and disrespectful, and others are abusive. Remaining aware of and discussing emotional risks for everyone is vital for your own safety, and that of your partners.

Move on your own timeline

There can be a lot of pressure to have a relationship by a certain age or to engage in sexual activity at a certain time or because other people are doing so. Ignore all of this noise. People are different, and they meet the right people for themselves at different times, which means there are no timelines on when you “should” date, fall in love or have sex. The only “right” time is when you feel ready, and have met someone who makes the experience feel fun, enjoyable, safe and respectful.

There’s an unfortunate myth that sees being “ready for sex” as a sign of maturity or a shortcut to being an adult, and because being seen as “mature” can feel like a seal of approval, a lot of young people can feel under pressure to have sex to prove something. This isn’t just unfortunate, it’s also totally backwards – a real sign of maturity is being self-aware and realistic about our needs, boundaries and readiness in emotional and sexual situations. This is why it’s so important to never have sex before you feel ready, and to be really wary of people who put pressure on you to do anything you don’t want to do to prove yourself as “more mature”. They’re likely deeply immature themselves, or trying to manipulate you, so steer clear.

Also remember that “readiness” doesn’t mean your desire for something needs to be cumulative, or that it needs to escalate. You may be ready for one emotional or sexual scenario at 19 and not be ready for that scenario or a different scenario at 29, or 39 – not because you’re somehow less mature, but because your context, emotions and desires change. Not being ready for something doesn’t mean you’re emotionally immature, it means you’re self-aware, responsible and able to take care of yourself.

If you aren’t able to openly discuss what you would like to try, what your boundaries are, and what precautions or safety measure you might need to take, then you’re just not ready

Take time to think about what you want

Before having any form of sexual activity, particularly for the first time or with someone new, take some time alone to think and then with the other person to talk about what you need to think about, know and consider so you can be sure you feel emotionally ready and sure about your decision. While we can’t control everything about sex and relationships, we can anticipate and manage both the risks and realities to help us make the best decision for ourselves. Think about what you want from a sexual encounter, and what possible emotional, physical, and sexual outcomes could be possible, and how you feel about them. Some questions you could ask yourself include:

  • Do I want to have this type of sex for myself, physically and emotionally?
  • Do I and this person know how each other feels, and do our desires and our care for each other feel in alignment?
  • Do I want to do this activity at this time, in this setting, with this person – and do they want to do it with me, like this?
  • Do I know the potential physical or health risks of this activity, and have we discussed and accounted for them?
  • Have I considered what possible emotional changes or outcomes might occur from engaging in this activity, and do I feel prepared for them – and does my partner seem prepared for them?
  • Does this person make me feel safe and respected, are they a good communicator, do I trust them, and are they invested in my comfort, safety and enjoyment?
  • How would I and my partner like to feel after this, and what can we do to aim for that?

It can also help to have a checklist of things you’re not hoping sexual activity will do. Make sure you’re not doing anything sexual to try to make someone like you or be nicer to you, to prove that you’re “mature”, to keep up with your peers, or to make you seem cool or give you a form of social status.

Talk about sex before having it

When dating, romance or sexual activity is new, it can all feel overwhelming and risky, and embarrassment or discomfort can mean you want to avoid talking about it. But learning how to talk about sex and feel comfortable talking about it long before you have it is really important. Movies and pop culture might show people having sex that is spontaneous, silent and telepathic, but in real life communicating about sex – particularly if you’re engaging in activities for the first time or with a new partner – is vital.

If you or your partner aren’t able to openly discuss what you would like to try, what your boundaries are, and what precautions or safety measure you might need to take, then you’re just not ready. If you can’t talk about this before doing anything, it’s unlikely that in the heat of the moment you’ll be able to clearly communicate what feels good for you or what might feel bad, that you want to stop or slow down, or you that you will be clearly checking in with your partner about how they’re doing. Clear communication is the basis of consent, which should always be enthusiastic, risk-informed, ongoing and given freely.