Sex, Sixteen and the Brain: Why Waiting a Few Years is a Wise Course

young couple in love, teens in lovePatrick Pomfrey, Psy.D., is a doctor of clinical psychology in Fairfield, Iowa. If you’d like to submit a question, please email

Dear Dr. Pomfrey,
In February I turned 16. I get mostly A’s in school and I don’t get into trouble. I have been dating my boyfriend for almost four months and I think we are ready to “go all the way.” My mom freaked and said absolutely not under any circumstances, and to “revisit the subject” when I’m 18. This is not fair because she lost her virginity when she was 16! I’m confused and I don’t want to lose my boyfriend. What should I do?                        —Sixteen

Dear Good Life,
It is obvious that you are deeply conflicted about what course of action to take.

As a psychologist, typically, my task would be to provide you with a non-threatening, non-judgmental environment where you could explore your options and come to better understand your mind, emotions, and the choices you make. However, we don’t have that luxury. I have 686 words left to convey what could normally take several hours to talk about!

Sixteen, you are ultimately the one that will choose a course of action. You must decide. No adult can oversee you 24 hours a day. However, before you make a decision there are a few points I’d like you to consider.

First, consider your dilemma. Nature created you as a physical, sexual being. Sexual desire is natural. It’s one of the strongest forces nature placed in you. Continuation of our species depends upon sex drive. No wonder it’s so powerful! But nature also gave you a brain. In the front of your brain is an area called the frontal cortex. It’s involved in higher mental functioning such as moral reasoning, good decision making, impulse control, and understanding the consequences of action.  Basically, it’s what makes us different from cats! The bad news is your frontal cortex won’t be fully wired for several years to come.

So here’s your dilemma. Nature gave you a body that’s physically mature enough to have sexual relationships, but gave you a frontal cortex that can’t make a fully informed decision until you are about 20! This means you may not make the best decision now. However, well-meaning adults in your life who have gone through their teen years can offer insight and guidance that may save you a lot of heartache. If you have a counselor at your school, I would encourage you to start there. Choose adults you personally trust to give you straight honest answers.

It appears you do trust your mother. Most 16-year-olds don’t tell their mothers about their plan to have sex. If you trusted her enough to tell her, then why not trust her answer? Perhaps you have some sense that her answer is in your best interest, but you simply don’t like her response. Her answer seems unfair because of her history and also because you’re afraid you will lose your boyfriend. I’ll bet your mother regrets the decision she made at 16, before her frontal cortex was fully developed, because now that it is, she doesn’t want you to make the choice that she did.

Regarding your boyfriend, what I’m hearing you say is having sex will prevent you from losing him. This tells me that sex has become more important than the rest of your relationship. If this is true, it suggests having sex has more potential to end your relationship than to save it. Why? Because once the all-important sex is over, your relationship will not have a strong enough basis on its own to survive.

One way to look at this is to consider abstinence a “love filter.” It filters out those who just want sex from those who really love you. If you refuse to have sex with someone who says they love you and then they bolt, you’ve just filtered out someone who really didn’t love you.

Another point to consider—and I’m not going to give you the full lecture on pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease—but let me just say that either one of these could potentially change the way you live your life, for the worse. Hopefully you got all of that in sex education class, but if you still have questions you’ll find tons of material online.

And finally, the nature of action is that once you’ve done it, you can never take it back. You can always choose to do an action in the future, but you can never take back an action once it’s done. Choose wisely, with your future self in mind. During your whole life you will be faced with the challenge of choosing between the pleasant and the good. The pleasant without the good is short-lived and often leads to misery. The good, even if it’s not initially pleasant, will lead you to happiness and fulfillment.