Sexual Decision Making

Sexual decisions can impact all areas of a youth’s life and all areas of a youth’s life can impact their sexual decisions. Supportive adults can help youth develop the skills and knowledge needed to make healthy decisions that are right for them. 

Youth are more able to make sexual decisions that are right for themselves when:
  • They are provided with objective, factual, and up to date information.
  • They have the opportunity to develop values and practice skills.

ALEX’S STORY…

I’m trying to put on a happy face, but I’m worried Taylor’s gonna break up with me. She says she’s sick of waiting for me to have sex, that we’ve been together long enough, that I did it with Jae so why not her? I guess that’s fair. But, that was a long time ago. I didn’t even like it. If someone really loves you, won’t they wait? What if time’s up? Maybe I should just get drunk and get it over with. I should probably like it now I’m older, right? I don’t know why I’m waiting anyway.

Life circumstances impact decisions about sex.

For example, some street involved or high risk youth have sex:
  • Because they had sex with someone before and think they have to again.
  • To feel safe.
  • To avoid conflict.
  • To keep a relationship.
  • For money, drugs or a place to sleep.

Healthy sex is about choice.

People have the right to choose to:
  • Have sex or not.
  • Set personal boundaries and limits.
  • Make sexual decisions sober.
  • Talk to a partner about limits and safety.

Good to know

 Although people have the right to choose sex, sometimes that choice is taken away. Youth who are in an abusive relationships may be involved in a situation where setting a sexual limit, suggesting condoms or using birth control could put their safety at risk. For more information on relationships, click here.

Ready for Sex?

Being “ready for sex” is more than about feeling sexually aroused and having a person to have sex with. Sexual readiness is about physical, emotional, and relationship readiness.

Here are some questions about emotional, social and physical readiness that can be useful for people to ask themselves when making sexual decisions. Keep in mind that the answers provide insight about sexual readiness, not a definitive answer as to whether or not someone should have sex:

Questions about the body

  • Are you healthy enough to have sex?
  • Do you have an STI?  Does your partner?  Have you been tested?
  • Have you talked about and accessed STI protection?
  • If pregnancy is a concern, have you talked about and accessed contraception?
  • Are you sober?  Are they?
  • Can you handle an STI or pregnancy?

Questions about emotions and values

  • Do you really want to have sex?
  •  Do you have a positive self-image and good self-esteem?
  • What do you think are the right reasons to have sex?
  • What are your personal and family values about this activity?
  • How does this activity fit with your religious and cultural values?
  •  How will you feel the next day?

Questions about relationships

  • Are you feeling pressured to have sex?
  • Is everyone able to set, communicate and respect boundaries?
  • Is there mutual trust, respect and care?
  • Do you share similar values and goals about sex?
  • How will this affect your relationship with this person? Will this affect your other relationships?
  • Is this activity legal?

To help youth make their own healthy decisions, service providers can:

  • Provide up to date and factual information.
  • Provide opportunities to build and practice skills and consider values.
  • Offer resources.
  • Ask questions.
  • Avoid implying what youth “should” do.
  • Recognize that having sex may be a healthy choice for some clients.

Tip

To make sure you are supporting youth make their own decisions based on their values and circumstance, supportive adults might find it useful to do their own values check first. You can do a values check here.

Media and Sexual Decision Making

Youth make decisions about social media, sexting and pornography. In turn, social media, sexting and pornography influence their sexual decision making. It’s important to teach youth how to critically analyze media and understand how it influences their decisions.

Social Media

is any online, digital or mobile communication platform where users communicate with other users.

Sexting

is when people send or receive sexual pictures, messages or videos by cell phone or mobile device.

Pornography

is sexually explicit media showing genitals or sexual activity with the purpose of sexually arousing the viewer.

Good to know

Social media, sexting and pornography may have legal considerations such as:1,2
  • When people under 18 take or send nude pictures of themselves, it can be considered child pornography.
  • If they send it someone under the age of 18, it can be considered providing children access to porn.
  • Police may lay charges for cyberbullying harassment, hate speech and sharing sexual pictures of someone without their consent.

Many youth use digital media, including porn, sexting and social media. Teaching media literacy can help youth make healthy media and sexual decisions. Media literacy includes understanding that:

  • It’s normal to be curious about sexuality and to explore and express your sexuality.
  • It’s important to set the same boundaries, communicate and treat other people the same way in the digital world as in the real world.
  • What you do or see on the internet is public, even if you are alone and it feels private it can be seen and saved by others. 
  • What you do on the internet is permanent; even if you think you have deleted it or it seems to disappear, it’s stored in the computer memory and a server.
  • Even if you’re embarrassed or think you’ll get in trouble, tell a trusted adult if you see or read something on the internet or social media that upsets you.
  • Real-life people aren’t like porn characters or social media celebrities.
  • Sex cannot feel like porn looks because porn is fantasy story, told by actors playing roles and told using special effects and editing.
  • Porn shows sexual fantasy. Sexual fantasy is fantasy because it’s not things that people usually do or like.

Tips for talking to youth about media literacy can be found here.

Good to know

Youth use of pornography, especially by those without strong media and porn literacy may: 1,2
  • Impact self-image.
  • Increase risky sexual behaviors.
  • Cause people to see girls and women as sex objects and men as sexual aggressors.
  • Lead to unrealistic or unhealthy attitudes and expectations about sex, relationships, bodies, and gender roles.
  • Change how the brain and body work together for sex.

Consent and Decision Making

Sexual activity without consent is sexual assault.

Youth may need adult support and modelling to ensure they understand consent and are able to set, communicate and respect sexual limits.

Good to know


In terms of consent laws, sexual activity means any sexual contact including hugging, kissing, touching and oral, anal, vaginal or hand sex. Consent is also needed before someone shows another person sexual images or words. 

Tip


It is important to use gender neutral language when discussing consent and sexual assault because people of any gender can be sexually assaulted and people of any gender can be perpetrators of sexual assault.

Consent is:

  • Needed for every sexual activity, every time.
  • Everyone understanding what they are consenting to.
  • Checking in with partners and accepting that people can change their mind at any time.

People cannot give consent:3

  • if they’re high or drunk.
  • if they’ve been forced, threatened, bribed, intimidated, or offered rewards to do something sexual.
  • through someone else.
To learn more about consent laws in Canada, go to:  https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Alberta/Pages/understanding-consent-for-sex.aspx
Youth need specific, concrete and practical information about consent.

For example, you can:

  • clearly explain what consent looks like in terms of language, body language, eye contact and non-verbal cues
  • support youth to come up with scripts on how to respond to confusing messages like “I like and respect you. We can’t do this until I’m sure I understand what you are ok with”

Youth may come up with many “what if” scenarios when discussing consent, seemingly looking for loopholes to consent laws. This is especially common when consent is talked about only in relation to laws and punishment for breaking laws. It can be useful to focus on the positive, affirming aspects of consent such as fun and satisfaction. 

To see a video that explains consent and many of these “what if,” scenarios through metaphor, click here.

Not all youth have the cognitive ability to understand metaphor, so clear, simple discussion of consent will still be needed when discussing consent.

Good to know


If a youth under 18 is able to understand the treatment, consequences of treatment and consequences of not having treatment, they access many medical services, like birth control, STI testing and treatment and abortion, without parent permission. 

Substance Use and Sexual Decision Making

Substance use can impair all areas of decision making and can lead to unhealthy sexual decisions. Youth need support understanding substance use and it’s impact on sexuality and sexual decision making.

Risk taking is a normal part of adolescent development.

The pleasure centre of the brain develops before the judgement centre, the result is increased teen risk taking. Healthy risks result in personal growth, increased self esteem and growing independence. Unhealthy risks can result in harm to self or others. For some youth, adolescent risk taking results in using substances. Using substances can impair the development of the judgement centre of the brain, further increasing high-risk behaviors. E.g. a significant number of youth report they used drugs or alcohol before they had sex the last time.

Tip

Because of legalization and marketing, some youth believe marijuana isn’t harmful. Sharing research-based information about it can challenge assumptions and support youth with decision making.4

Because substances affect youth differently than adults, youth may experience more serious, longer-lasting or even permanent effects from use. 

Substance use may result in:5
  • Reduced communication skills which impact the ability to set and understand sexual boundaries.
  • Decreased fine motor skills and coordination which may impact correct condom use.
  • Poor memory which may impact the ability to take the birth control pill at the right time.
  • Sex at an early age and/or unprotected sex.
  • Multiple sexual partners.
  • Changes in sexual arousal, sexual function and sensation.

Good to know

 Despite what some youth believe, Viagra and similar products do not increase the sex drive or improve erections in those without cardiovascular disease. When taken by a person that was not prescribed the medication, or when taken by a person in a way other than prescribed, these medications can cause serious injury or even death.6

Good to know

Alcohol and street drugs do not change how hormonal birth control works, but clients who use substances may find it difficult to use those products correctly. For example, for birth control pills to work properly, they need to be taken about the same time every day. This is not always realistic for some users.

1Quadara, A., El-Murr, A., & Latham, J. (2020). The effects of pornography on children and young people. Research summary – December 2017. Retrieved from, https://aifs.gov.au/publications/effects-pornography-children-and-young-people-snapshot 
2Owens, E. W., Behun, R. J., Manning, J. C., & Reid, R. C. (2012). The impact of internet pornography on adolescents: a review of the research. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 19(1-2), 99-122.
3MyHealth.Alberta.ca. (2019). Understanding consent for sex: What it means for you. Retrieved from,
https://myhealth.alberta.ca/Alberta/Pages/understanding-consent-for-sex.aspx
4DrugFreeKidsCanada.org. (2020). Cannabis is often one of the first drugs a teen is offered. Retrieved from, https://www.drugfreekidscanada.org/prevention/drug-info/cannabis/  
5CDC. (2018). Substance use and sexual risk behaviors among youth. Retrieved from, https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/substance-use/pdf/dash-substance-use-fact-sheet.pdf
6 Pfizer. (2015). How does Viagra work? Retrieved from https://www.viagra.com/learning/how-does-viagra-work