With all of the sex we see on TV, hear about in songs, and read about on social media, it often seems like everyone is hooking up. If you aren’t, you might be feeling unsure or even alone, and it isn’t always easy to have an open conversation with others about that. Peer pressure from a partner or friends can feel intense. Even if no one says anything directly, all those suggestive photos on Instagram make it look like hooking up is part of being cool.
“Social media is definitely flooded with posts that make it appear like everyone is hooking up,” says Jessica Gulmi, clinic director at Crossroads: The Manhattan Young Adult Clinic, an organization that provides mental health support to young people. “But that doesn’t necessarily reflect how much it’s happening in reality.”
In fact, less than half of high school students—about 40 percent—have had sex, according to a 2017 U.S. government survey. But numbers aren’t always reassuring when it feels like, within your group of friends, you’re the odd person out. It’s natural to worry that you’ll lose your partner or friends, be called names, or be the subject of rumors if you don’t hook up. Here’s how to handle that tricky situation.
What Hooking Up Really Means
You may think of “hooking up” as sex. Another person may think of “hooking up” as making out while still fully clothed. Neither person is right or wrong. Similarly, some people think of “sex” as only sexual intercourse, while others include oral sex, anal sex, and hand jobs as part of their definition. Again, nobody is right or wrong about this. But it may help to keep this in mind when you hear others say they hooked up last night—what that means to them and to you could be two different things.
Handling Peer Pressure
Feeling pressured to do something you’re not sure you’re ready for is tough when it seems like there’s no one in your corner. Sharing your worries with a friend or trusted adult can ease that weight and make you realize you’re not alone. Tell them what is happening: who is pressuring you, how they are doing it, and why you feel caught in the situation. Verbalizing the specifics can sometimes give you a clearer sense of what’s going on, and friends can reassure you that you should only do what makes you comfortable.
One of the hard things about peer pressure is that during the moment itself, your thinking can be a little unclear. So it’s good to consider in advance all the reasons you do or don’t want to engage in certain physical activities. “Step back and think about the implications,” Gulmi says. Ask yourself: What will happen if I hook up with this person? How will I feel about myself after? How will I feel about them after? Are there any health risks I will worry about?
It might even help to come up with a specific sentence or two you can say when others pressure you—and practice saying it in front of the mirror. (“This feels amazing but I don’t want to go any further” or “I’m not ready to do this part, but there is something else I really want to try with you…”) That way when the time comes, you can be confident and not hesitate.
If the person you’re in a relationship with will not stop pressuring you, it’s time to re-evaluate the relationship. “Is this someone who has your shared values and respects where you are coming from?” Gulmi asks. “If they can’t respect your decision about something this important, think about what the relationship means for you in the future.” Also, remember that “sex is supposed to be fun and being pressured isn’t fun,” says Matt Lundquist, LCSW, psychotherapist and director of Tribeca Therapy, a Manhattan group psychotherapy practice.
Should You Hook Up?
Even if you decide you’re ready to hook up, it should be something you’ve taken a minute to think through. “Sexuality will be a part of your life forever and early sexual experiences can be formative in good and bad ways,” Lundquist says. “Check in with what’s important for you”—not anybody else.
Acknowledge to yourself that you chose to do this, and you will accept the results of that decision. And know that just because you decided to hook up this time doesn’t mean you have to make the same decision next time, or any time when you don’t feel ready or comfortable. Remember: Saying no to sex doesn’t make you weird or a loser. It makes you part of the majority of American teens who say the same thing.