Excerpt from Changing Bodies, Changing Lives, by Ruth Bell and other co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” together with members of the Teen Book Project

Changing Bodies, Changing Lives (cover, 1998)Many people think you aren’t sexual until you actually start having sexual activity with another person. Watch any naked baby and you’ll see this isn’t true. Babies explore their bodies all the time; they love to be held and stroked; and they often play with their genitals, when they can find them. From the beginning, we are all sexual.

Being sexual can mean having sexy thoughts or feelings, loving to be touched and hugged, enjoying the way other people’s bodies look, touching your own body in places that feel particularly good, making up romantic or sexy stories in your head, feeling very attracted to another person, kissing and caressing someone you like. All these things are part of your sexuality.


The physical changes of puberty often bring strong sexual feelings. You may find yourself thinking more about sex, getting sexually aroused more easily, and even, at times, feeling totally preoccupied with sex. Some teens say they feel as if their whole body is on fire with sexual energy and excitement. Thirteen-year-old Dominic said:

Every time I catch sight of my neighbor, I get a hard-on. She is completely gorgeous. I am totally in love with her.

Of course many teens get busy or excited about sports or school or music or a job or something else and their lives and don’t think about sex very much. Sex may just not be on your mind right now. That doesn’t mean you aren’t sexual. It just means that right now you are putting your energy into other things.

Because how we feel about is so individual, this section makes no assumptions. You may have been taught that sex before marriage is wrong. You may have been taught that sex before marriage is natural. You may be amazed that some fourteen-year-olds are having intercourse, or amazed that some eighteen-year-olds aren’t interested. You may be attracted to people of the opposite sex or people of your same sex or both. You may have friends who say you’re immature if you don’t have sex, and you may have friends who say people who “do it” are taking too much of a risk. You may be excited about reading this chapter on sex, or you may feel a little shocked and even worried that it will make you feel that you “ought” to be doing something that you don’t feel ready to do.

The teenagers who contributed to this book all had different feelings about sex too. Some things they say will feel familiar to you; some things may feel unfamiliar. It’s all okay. What’s important is to go at your own pace and not let anyone pressure you into doing what you don’t want to or feel ready to do.

We hope you will be very careful about sex. Sexually transmitted disease (STD) has become epidemic among teenagers, and some STDs — like HIV/AIDS, venereal warts, and herpes — currently have no cure. More and more teenagers are saying no to sex for that reason. Many have told us that they don’t think it’s worth risking their health or their future plans by having sex too soon or too casually. We hope that whenever and however you choose to act on your sexuality, you will treat yourself and your partner with thoughtfulness and respect, and that you will always try to protect yourself from unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease (see Chapters 11 and 9).

A group of high school students in Boston wanted us to be careful that this book didn’t pressure teens to act on their sexuality. Here’s what they said:

In your book you should say something about not having sex early. Say it’s okay to have sexual feelings, to get horny or excited, and not to go out and do it… If you don’t have sex with somebody, you don’t have to worry about getting pregnant!… You don’t have to worry about what you’re supposed to do, or if you’re doing the right thing to please your partner… If you have a partner and you build into it instead of rushing into it, what you do eels a lot nicer. If you rush into it, you feel like a piece of shit afterwards… If you waited, you wouldn’t have to worry, Did I do this right? Did I do that right? Was I being used? Should it have happened?… If you’re worried about it at all, then it isn’t time to do… The slower the better.

Aaron, a seventeen-year-old senior, put it this way: “If you’re in doubt, wait!” The problem is that sexual feelings can be so intense and confusing, its often difficult to be perfectly “sure” and “decided” about what you want to do. It could happen that only after trying something do you realize that you wish you hadn’t. If this happens, you can stop and not do it again until you are ready. Just because you’ve done something once doesn’t mean you’re going to want to or have to do it again. People make mistakes in sex. Some mistakes are just part of growing up. In fact, a lot of what we learn about sex comes from making mistakes.

Some mistakes in sex are irreversible, as fifteen-year-old Johanna discovered when she found out she was pregnant:

I told Noah I wasn’t using birth control, but he said, “Oh, don’t worry, I know what to do.” How could I have let him talk me into doing it? I was so stupid, but he kept saying, “Don’t you love me?”

Lots of voices live inside our heads telling us “Do this” or “Don’t do this.” Your parents, friends, school, government, and religious leaders all have something to say about sex, and their views shape how you think. But when the moment comes, you are the one who has to decide what to do and what not to do; if you are in a relationship, ideally, you will decide together. We hope this chapter will provide the information you need to make decisions that are right for you.
At any point in the following section, we may be talking about something you don’t believe is right or something you haven’t done or experienced. Maybe you will someday. Maybe you won’t. Don’t feel you have to experience everything now. The beauty of sex and lovemaking is that we are always learning more about it, even as adults, so there’s plenty of time. Allison, a Seventeen-year-old girlfriend the West Coast, emphasized that point. She said:

I have at least fifty, maybe even sixty more years of being sexual, and I’m sure I don’t have to worry about doing everything this minute.

Whatever you decide, we encourage you to be respectful of yourself and others. This means

  • Not letting yourself be rushed into anything.
  • Not rushing anyone else into anything.
  • Not feeling you have to prove how cool or mature you are by the amount of sexual experience you have.
  • Never having sex with a and you don’t know very well.
  • Learning from your mistakes.
  • Not letting drugs or alcohol make your decisions about sex for you.
  • Taking responsibility for your actions, which means using protection to avoid unwanted pregnancies and STDs.
Learning about Sex

Much of what we learn about sex isn’t told to us directly. We learn by watching and listening to what goes on around us. Karen, a fifteen-year-old from California, said:

I remember taking showers with my brothers all the time, so I always knew how boys looked naked. Then when I got in about the sixth grade and I started knowing about sex, and we had those sex ed movies, I’d think to myself, Oh yeah, that’s like my brothers.

Lots of children go beyond Karen and do “research” on their own. Polly is from New York:

There was this one girl in my grammar school class — her name was Nancy — that me and my girlfriends used to play doctor with, and she was always the patient. We would make her take her pants off and we’d pretend to stick her with things, like giving her a needle, you know, and we’d go up to this room we have in our attic where we knew we could be private. Even now I can remember it being sort of thrilling to me that she would take her pants off.

Like Polly, you may have played games that let you do some early exploring of bodies and sexual feelings. Eighteen-year-old Jeff remembers:

I was always experimenting with sex, ever since I was really little. Like even at nursery school, it made no difference to me whether it was with a boy or a girl, we’d roll around together and feel each other and get naked together. It was no big thing, just fun. And of course it felt good. My mother wasn’t too crazy about it, though. She kept asking me why didn’t I go out and play or ride my bike or something. She let me know she didn’t think it was too cool to be doing what I was doing.

Indirectly, Jeff’s morn was teaching Jeff something about sex. Maybe because of her reaction, a question entered his head: “Is what I’m doing okay?” Colleen’s mother was more direct:

My mother came into my room and found me masturbating one day when I was ten, and she couldn’t handle it at all. “Don’t do that. It’s wrong. You’ll hurt yourself.” I was terrified, and for years whenever I masturbated I felt this shame.

Colleen’s mother had probably been taught that masturbation was wrong, and she was worried that Colleen was doing something that might hurt her. It’s also possible that she just wasn’t ready to think of her daughter as a sexual being. (For more information about masturbation, see page 96.)

Parents teach us about sex by their attitudes. Do they answer our questions about sex? Are they visibly embarrassed whenever the subject comes up? We learn from how they act with each other and how they feel about their own sexuality. Are they openly affectionate in front of their children? Are they very private about any display of sexual feeling? If your parents talk freely and in a relaxed way about their feelings for each other, that might make you more relaxed with sex. Or perhaps you find it embarrassing and think you’re not ready to act like that. If they are very private, you may feel private about your sexuality too. Or you may have the opposite reaction and decide to be more open about your feelings.

We also learn by how our parents handle nudity. If nakedness is not allowed in your house, you may grow up feeling your body is something to hide. If bathroom doors are always shut and locked, you may learn that body functions are to be kept private. If people in your family walk around naked or carry on conversations in the bathroom or take baths together, you may grow up feeling that naked bodies are okay.

None of this is to say that one way is right and the other way is wrong, only that we all bring different attitudes to our sexual relationships based on what we are used to and grew up with, and it’s good to remember that not everyone thinks the same way you do.

People also learn about sex (as we mentioned in the Changing Bodies chapter) through books, movies, magazines, TV, jokes, advertising, locker room conversations, and friends. These sources often provide inaccurate information, and they can make sex seem like one big exploitation, where people just use each other to feel good or show off. If you only had movies and TV teaching you about sex, you would probably think that everyone feels sexy all the time and that people come on to one another all the time, but this is a very different message from the one you might be getting at home or in a sex-ed class at school. So it’s confusing. How do you know what’s right for you? How can you sort through all the attitudes and messages to find the one that speaks to your heart?

It may not be until you first start having a boyfriend or a girlfriend that you learn how you really feel about sex. Whenever that time comes, the more you know about your own sexuality and the facts of how your body works, the better able you will be to make good decisions, which is the goal.

Feeling Bad About Sex

Along with the pleasure and joy our sexuality can bring, many of us find we feel bad or guilty about what we are doing.

Feeling private about sex is different. Many people feel private — or shy sometimes — about sexual activity, no matter how old they are. There is a natural mystery surrounding sex between two people and no amount of sex education will ever take that away.

Sometimes, however, we fee guilty as well as private about sex. Lots of teens we met talk about feeling “dirty” or “sleazy” because of some sexual experience they’ve had. In many instances, it was because they ended up doing something before they felt ready to do it. That’s what happened to Trish, a sixteen-year-old from Missouri:

I felt dirty, I really felt dirty. I felt that I had deceived my mother in a way too, because she had always told me, ‘”Wait until you’re sure, wait till you’re sure.” And I wasn’t sure. I just did it because everyone else was doing it. And it didn’t feel good, and I didn’t like it, and I thought it sucked all around.

Fifteen-year-old Amory said he feels guilty about masturbating. “I always wonder, Am I the only pervert, or is everyone doing this?” And Cedric, a seventeen-year-old from Providence, Rhode Island, said, “When I had my first wet dream, I was really excited about it, but I felt guilty at being so excited.” Several girls spoke of feeling some shame when they started their periods. Other teens said they felt guilty about the sexual images that were often on their minds.

Our culture is mixed-up about sex, so it’s no wonder we are too. On the one hand, signs of sex are everywhere, from advertising to porno movies to MTV to fashion. On the other hand, our families, social groups, and religious institutions often have strict rules discouraging or forbidding many aspects of our sexuality. Things like masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, and sex outside of marriage are forbidden by some religions that teach that sex is only for procreating children and that any other kind of sexual enjoyment is sinful.

Our sexuality is part of being human. When we are made to feel guilty about sex, we may carry that guilt with us throughout our lives. Young men may have problems controlling themselves in sexual situations; young women may have a hard time enjoying lovemaking. It’s not easy to let yourself go and feel all the pleasure if some part of you is saying, “I shouldn’t be doing this.” A couple may have trouble talking openly with each other about sex because they feel they “shouldn’t” be having sex at all. Many teenagers say that they “forget” to use safe-sex protection because of that. They don’t want to plan ahead and bring protection, because that means admitting to themselves that they are having sex. Feeling guilty, then, makes them risk pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease.

Some of you, as young children and teens, may have had a parent or sibling or relative or someone else force you or manipulate you to perform sexual acts with him or her. This is called sexual abuse, and it happens to millions of people. Because of having been sexually abused, many teens have feelings of anger and fear and guilt associated with sex that interfere with their ability to be able to enjoy their sexuality or feel comfortable in sexual relationships. You will hear from teens who have experienced sexual abuse and are finding ways to heal from the emotional pain of their experiences in the section on Sexual Abuse, beginning on page 227. In the Resource section on page 241, you will find books and organizations to which you can turn for support and information.

There’s a lot to consider when you’re deciding whether or not to have a sexual relationship, and feeling bad about your sexuality only makes it harder to be clear. We hope you will care for yourself enough to take your time and get to know your true feelings. We hope you will take care of your friends enough to respect their decisions to do the same.

Read more excerpts from “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives”

Excerpt from “Changing Bodies, Changing Lives” by Ruth Bell and other co-authors of “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” together with members of the Teen Book Project. Three Rivers Press: 1998. © Ruth Bell.