“Mom, What’s the Right Age to Start Having Sex?”

“Mom, what’s the right age to start having sex?”

That was exactly the question I wasn’t expecting, sitting with my 13-year-old son and my husband in a restaurant overlooking the Hudson, sipping a cocktail, waiting for our food to arrive. I didn’t have a statement prepared. But the boy wanted an answer, and he wanted it in numerical form. Immediately.

The lapsed Catholic deep within me yelled, “When you’re married!”

The Jewish mother closer to the surface had a more practical idea. “When you finish medical school!”

“What do you think?” I asked him.

He said his girlfriend thought 17 was the right age, but that one of the neighborhood boys had done it at 14. I cringed. “That’s too young!” I said. He agreed.

“But why is it too young? And what is the right age?”

I looked to my husband for help, but he was as caught off guard as I was.

A response was expected. Now.

“There is no right age,” I told him. “It’s not a question of age. It’s about being ready.”

Did I really think I was going to get away with that? Maybe for three seconds.

“So how are you supposed to know when you’re ready?”

“I have no idea” was honest, but unsatisfying. “Let me think about it” would have sounded suspicious in this case, as if I needed time to invent some arbitrary, adult reasons why fourteen-year-olds were too young for sex. I took a long drink and a deep breath, and by the grace of God, or maybe the cocktail, the answer came to me fully formed, in three parts, all at once.

“You’re ready to have sex when you can do the three following things,” I pronounced.

Three? Did I have three? Was three enough? Maybe I could only think of two? Never say no in an improv. Go with three.

“One. You’re ready to have sex when you can look your girlfriend straight in the eye and have an honest conversation about birth control. Ummm…you know what that is right?”

Eyeroll. Yes, he knew.

“Two,” I continued. “You’re ready to have sex when you understand that consent doesn’t mean your girlfriend saying, ‘Well, I guess so…’ or ‘If you really want to…’ or ‘I don’t care…’ or ‘Whatever.’ Consent means you’re not having sex until your girlfriend says, ‘Oh, HELL yes!’” Here, I banged both fists on the table. My husband cringed and glanced apologetically at nearby diners.

“Mom!” the boy whispered. “Keep it down!”

(To the best of my knowledge, no one asked to have what I was having.)

when harry met sally 300x159 Ill Have What Shes Having (but only if shes good looking)

“Three,” I concluded, when Item #3 sauntered into my brain at the last possible second. “You’re ready to have sex when you’re willing to learn everything you can to make the experience as good for her as it for you.” The horrified lapsed Catholic began tabulating the number of mortal sins contained in this one impromptu speech. “And that’s why fourteen is too young and why you’ll still be too young for many years. Because most teenage boys are so interested in their own pleasure that they don’t even consider the pleasure of the girl. They have no idea how to make it good for her. All they want is to get off.  And as long as that’s why someone wants to have sex, he’s still too young.”

I finished my drink, spent and terrified. What had I said? Was I right? Was he too young for all that? What had I forgotten? Too late, I realized that I had said nothing about love or commitment. Those are fuzzy terms for a 13-year-old, and if I wasn’t going to give him an age, I had to be as concrete as possible. Still, how could I have failed to mention love?



By the time dinner arrived, I was unsure whether I had just won “Most Embarrassing Parent in History,” “Least Appropriate Hudson Valley Restaurant Guest, Spring of 2014,” or just, and not for the first time, “Worst Mother Ever.”


But I’ve had a few months to think about it, and now I believe I said, miraculously, all the right things. When I told this story to a few friends at work, a long-married father of two said, “Damn! Does that mean I’m still not ready for sex?” That made me wonder, and not just about his wife. Maybe a lot of men hadn’t heard the right messages when they were young.

What made me sure, though, is thinking about my daughter. If I knew that every boy and man she will ever date had an embarrassing parent who taught him that responsibility for birth control is not just for girls, that consent must be enthusiastic or it isn’t consent, and that mutual pleasure, not just his, is the aim of any intimate encounter, then I would worry a lot less about her and her friends than I do.

It was rough question. I hope I’m ready for the next one.

About Julie Goldberg

Julie Goldberg has lived a life entirely too entangled with books. She is a school librarian, former English teacher, compulsive reader, occasional jazz singer and the author of Lily in the Light of Halfmoon. You can email her at perfectwhole@gmail.com and follow her on Twitter @juliegoldberg.
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10 Responses to “Mom, What’s the Right Age to Start Having Sex?”

  1. fransiweinstein says:

    I probably would have had a coronary. Or started rolling all over the floor with nervous laughter. You did marvelously well. And in all seriousness, I think it’s great he asked you. He obviously feels he can talk to you about anything and that speaks volumes.

  2. Ruth Hansen says:

    Love it!

    Date: Fri, 8 Aug 2014 04:03:11 +0000 To: mezzobird69@hotmail.com

  3. Larry says:

    Julie, I’ll do what you did & answer with minimal advanced thought. So here goes.

    First, a question: do you mean sex for pleasure & nothing else? Then I have nothing to say. But if you mean sex as more than that, then everything Julie said and also this. For girls, if you are thinking about sex so that he’ll be closer to you, DON’T DO IT. For boys, if you aren’t already emotionally bonded to her, DON’T DO IT. For girls, sex can create a bond or deepen it. For boys, sex can deepen a bond but doesn’t create one. On the contrary, if what drives a boy is desire instead of love – if his happiness doesn’t depend on hers – then sex can satisfy the desire and end it. The girl can feel betrayed that he has moved away from her instead of toward her. The boy can feel betrayed that the girl is demanding things that he didn’t offer.

    A few more thoughts. First, if you are thinking about sex with someone you wouldn’t think about marrying, that’s a clue that it is about pleasure and not emotional commitment. Second, living together is not “practice” for marriage, because marriage isn’t primarily about inhabiting the same dwelling or the same bed – it’s about an “in good times and bad” commitment to each other. And finally, I once read a letter from a formerly promiscuous man who said that he had discovered commitment & it was great – even the sex was better! So maybe viewing sex as a fun way to reinforce pair bonding works better even when measured in pleasure.

    • Larry says:

      Here’s one extra thought that I wouldn’t try explaining to a kid. Kipling wrote a poem called “The Ladies” about a British soldier’s amrous adventures, with the description of each woman ending “I learned about women from ‘er”. The last is a lovely English girl he met on the boat home who fell in love with him — but he liked her well enough to marry nher instead of seducing her. This doesn’t bring him the happiness he expected:

      I’ve taken my fun where I’ve found it,
      An’ now I must pay for my fun,
      For the more you ‘ave known o’ the others
      The less will you settle to one;
      An’ the end of it’s sittin’ and thinking’,
      An’ dreamin’ Hell-fires to see;
      So be warned by my lot (which I know you will not),
      An’ learn about women from me!

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Larry. I don’t agree that sex is always one way for boys and always another way for girls, but I know that those tendencies are there in many. We all, at any age, must be careful with one another’s hearts, and sex and romance are situations in which we are often at our most reckless with each other’s feelings.

    • Larry says:

      Hi, Julie, I’d go farther & say that there is little if anything that is always one way for girls and always one way for boys. I once would have said “genitals”, but even in that there are complications and exceptions.

      But some things are extremely common patterns. This is one that many girls (and boys!) seem unaware of , which can lead to disaster. It’s not just a matter of being careful with each others’ hearts. This is an issue where unconscious emotional assumptions on each side can lead to what feels like betrayal — all because girls assume that boys experience sex the way they do, and vice versa. Don’t we always assume (if we don’t know better) that others experience things the way we do?

      Also, I wrote in the context of boys & girls who want more than just pleasure out of sex. That rules out all of the cases where the girl doesn’t care whether the boy feels a bond to her. It also rules out boys who only want pleasure — but it’s typical for boys to be less emotionally self-aware than girls. It’s easy & common for boys (and men) to confuse desire for love, or for the girl wanting things she may not even be aware the boy thinks she wants. And that leads to many dark things. For those of good will, a word to the wise can save hearts & lives.

      Peace & joy, Larry

  5. Based on some of the comments I’ve seen on Facebook posts about this essay, I feel the need to clarify.

    A few have criticized the lack of discussion of feelings in this post. I see why. I even wrote that I couldn’t believe I’d had this conversation without mentioning the word love. I certainly see why it made some parents uncomfortable.

    But my 13 (now 14)-year-old boy–and perhaps he is not the only one–is a concrete sort of person. I didn’t have any time to think when this conversation took place, but I know that he understands behaviors better than feelings. I also think it’s a human tendency to try to talk ourselves into whatever feelings we believe we’re supposed to have. If my answer had been something about only having sex with someone he “really loved,” for example, I think that many people (and again, I’m trying to avoid gender and age stereotypes here) who thought that there might be sex waiting for them at the end of deciding that they “really loved” someone would discover that they really did love that person. Because sex.

    But if you look underneath the prerequisites for sex I’ve laid out above, I think you’ll find that they require a lot of soft emotions. From the first, the question about sex took place in the context of a monogamous relationship (“your girlfriend”). To discuss birth control (and, as I neglected to mention, STIs) requires trust and honesty. To make sure that both people are fully, enthusiastically consenting from start to finish requires listening, respect, and self-control. And finally, to make sure that the sexual experience is pleasurable for both people requires even more communication, trust, empathy, and at least some degree of affection.

    This is why I said, “And that’s why fourteen is too young and why you’ll still be too young for many years.” I think some people missed that sentence and thought I was condoning, or even advocating, sex between 14-year-olds. In my long professional experience with adolescents, I don’t think many in early-to-mid adolescence are capable of the conversations they would have to have in this scenario. Some, perhaps. But not many.

    I kind of hope he waits til after medical school.

    • Larry says:

      Good pints. FWIW, my response about “emotional bonded” and “commitment to each other” was an attempt to express the “feelings” part in a way that might be concrete enough for a 14 year old to grasp — or at least grasp that there is something real there that he doesn’t understand yet. But my experience with 14 year olds is long past and mine may not be typical. We found that our oldest would accept mysterious rules with pretty good grace if we reminded him of a past time he didn’t understand our reasons for a rule but figured it out later.

      Anyway, I entirely agree with you that talking about “being in love” can send entirely the wrong message — that being in love is sufficient to have sex in a physically & emotionally safe way. And that talking openly about consent & birth control requires a level of honesty that helps ensure that safety. A lot of adult men would no doubt have trouble with talking explicitly about those issues, perhaps including your male colleague. And that’s not gender stereotyping– that’s speaking from personal experience. I don’t presume to speak about women’s experiences unless I’m quoting a woman (my wife in this case).

      Enjoy, Larry

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