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How to be human: are you experienced?

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Leah Reich was one of the first internet advice columnists. Her column "Ask Leah" ran on IGN, where she gave advice to gamers for two and a half years. During the day, Leah is Slack’s user researcher, but her views here do not represent her employer. How to be Human runs every other Sunday. You can write to her at askleah@theverge.com and read more How to be Human here.

Hi Leah,

I know that you’re the one that usually writes the long answers, but hear me out.

I was raised in an Islamic country that is not fond of relationships before marriage. (Islam prohibits and totally forbids the acts of sex before marriage and drinking alcohol and getting high). The country that I've been raised in hasn’t been very religious, as there are many people my age in relationships, but I've never been in a relationship myself. I've also been raised by my parents that I should not smoke or drink, so I'm basically straight edge at the moment.

I would like to think that I’m special. That I am different. The society I live in is very malleable right now. But I wasn’t in the loop so I missed a lot of stuff. I am basically a naive 16-year-old teenager.

A few years ago, a new girl came to my school. I've never been able to make friends outside of school so all my groups have been from school or friends of school friends. When this girl first came, I felt an instant connection. Although I did not contact her or speak to her, I just felt the connection. A year later, the school organized a camp. We bonded on the trip and we talked about deep subjects. She was depressed and was self-harming and smoking to relieve the pain. She always said that she was hanging out with the wrong group who introduced her to all these things. I kept her spirit up and eventually helped her out of her depression. We became best friends who can talk about any topic. We used to spend nights in chat windows talking about everything.

A year passed. I grew to like her as more than a friend. She was funny and energetic and fun. It grew difficult to talk to her face to face, but behind the chat window, it was great. I tried to tell her that I liked her, gave her hints, but ultimately I failed to say it.

One day, another friend of mine asked me if there's anything going on between us. I hesitantly told him no. He then proceeded to tell me that when she came to school, he learned that she had a crush on me. My mind suddenly kept racing with questions like: Does she like me now? What do I tell her? Is it finally the moment I tell her that I like her? I simply did not know. I asked her later if she had a crush on me in one of the chats, as if I didn't know. She said yes and that she liked me and found me funny. I told her that I felt the same way. But then we didn't know what to do, she said that it's funny / weird at the same time and we agreed to stay friends. (I still had feelings for her but didn't know how to react since I've never been into a relationship.) Since then, our friendship has been kinda mixed up for me. We were both deep friends but also liked to flirt as jokes (or not), and I was weirdly accepting of it, so I tried to bury my feeling for her.

On New Year's Eve 2016, we spent the night until 6AM talking about anything and everything. Eventually we started talking about... sex. Sex was the ultimate fantasy that I've dreamt of every waking moment since I hit puberty. I was regularly watching porn and it kept that urge probably (not) contained. She told me that she knows a friend who thinks she is bisexual. She said that her friend was experienced in relationships and has done sexual acts before. I tried to ask what kind of acts, and she said mostly non-penetration stuff like oral, dry humping, grinding, and groping. From the way she was defending this girl, I thought maybe she was talking about herself, but I was in denial. Later in the conversation she admitted to being that very friend and that she was alI what she said her “friend” was. I went full panic attack! I knew she smoked and drank, which was probably okay for me and I’m okay with it, but her being sexual was new to innocent little me who didn’t come close to any of that stuff. “She’s been with other people! She had done X, Y, and Z! Holy shit!” I couldn’t believe it! I had to have some time to deal with it which I eventually did (not really… I don’t know).

We often had these hiccups where we didn’t talk because of some unwanted drama. I often felt jealous of her, like she belonged to me (which makes it sound like she’s an object, but I felt protective). When she went out with other people, I used to wish I’d be the only one with her.

Fast forward another few months in 2016. We had another trip and whenever I saw her I was in awe. I decided that I should tell her that I deeply like her. I went to her tell her that I really like her and just wanted to get it out of my chest (again). She didn’t react. I froze and was heartbroken. She didn’t know what to say. I didn't know what to say.

After that, I lied to her and told her that it was just a phase and that we can return to being friends again. We didn’t talk for weeks and weeks after what happened just in time for the new school year. We agreed that we wanted to become friends again and become close again. We took baby steps until we got there.

When we were still doing baby steps, we met up to genuinely talk like we used to. We sat on a beach and kept talking about everything as always. She told me that she sometimes felt jealous of me in the same way I described above. After this point, we went out as usual. We talked about stuff but it wasn't an official “date.” The line between being friends and being more is blurred. She says that nobody knows that much stuff about her and she considers me a really close friend. I do not know what to do. What does she think of me? How should I react now? Should I try and tell her for the third time now or will it be more complicated and would ruin things even more?

Sincerely,
Confused.

Hey Confused,

One of the best parts about writing this column is that I’m reminded on a weekly basis how much people have in common, regardless of who they are or where they live — and regardless of what so many people would like to believe. This isn’t to say you’re not special or different. It’s just that your letter could have been written by almost anyone who’s ever written to me. That you were raised in an Islamic country (and I assume are Muslim) is helpful to know, but most of what you describe could easily have taken place in countless high schools around the world. It might sound silly, but I’m more grateful than usual for this reminder, and for how almost universal your letter is. To be a teenager is to be a teenager, and to be a human is to be a human.

I know you think you’re naive and innocent, and that everyone else is somehow “in the know.” So I’m going to let you in on a little secret: You’re not and they’re not. You are absolutely, 100 percent a normal 16-year-old dude. Sure, there are other 16-year-old guys out there who have had sex. Girls, too. But there are tons of people your age — and truthfully, plenty of people in their twenties, thirties, and beyond — who don’t have much experience with relationships and sex. Or even any experience at all. And honestly, having sex doesn’t necessarily make you any more clued in.

Why do I think this is important to point out? Because all of us, every last human being, look at other people and assume things about them. We assume based on all sorts of things, which can include experience, or prejudice and bias, or our own insecurities and fears. Many of these things are based in how we were raised, in cultural expectations, in our families, communities, religions, and so forth. Sex, as you know well, is a central issue in religion and religious societies. It’s even an issue in societies that are more socially permissive — you tell me your country isn’t very religious right now but rather seems socially malleable, with many young, unmarried people in relationships. But religion and tradition still informs aspects of life there, and attitudes about sex are still complicated by norms and mores.

This is true in the United States, too, and in countless other places. I think this is at the heart of what’s going on with you and your friend. You, like so many guys I’ve known and heard from, are feeling a lot of conflicting emotions. You like this girl so much! She might like you? Who knows! But also you’re thinking about sex every waking moment. Your brain is flooded with hormones, so that’s making it tougher to think straight. Again, this is totally normal, not only because you’re a teenager, but because you’re human. Believe me, hormones are no joke!

But sex isn’t just about hormones. It’s also about emotions, expectations, preconceived notions, lessons you maybe don’t realize you’ve learned. When I read through all the pieces of your letter, I think about the ways in which a variety of messages about sex, love, and relationships embed themselves in the brain. Specifically the adolescent brain, which is even more malleable than your society! You, like many teenagers in your country and like many teenagers I’ve known, are swimming in messages from parents, religious leaders, teachers, politicians, friends, athletes, actors and porn stars. We’re bombarded by ideas, often conflicting ones, and we’re ruled as much by social expectations as we are our own desires. It’s why people feel shame — shame because they’re still virgins, shame because they aren’t, shame because they want to have sex with the “wrong” type of person, shame because they enjoy sex too much, shame because they don’t enjoy it at all. Sex is a natural function of the human body, and desire is a natural emotion. Humans love to try and control nature, but controlling anything is a good way to break and sometimes even destroy it.

Anyway! This is why I’m focusing on sex, even though I know you have a lot of deep, very real non-sexual feelings for your friend. Your parents raised you to not drink or smoke, yet your friend doing those things didn’t seem to bother you much. But sex! You’re still kind of freaked out about your friend and her sexual experience. And not in a “oh man, I’m out of the loop” way. In the “I think she’s defending herself” way. In the “she’s been with other people” way.

One of the toughest parts about being a human is breaking out of seeing things from your own perspective. Your perspective is a very reasonable one, and it’s the only one you’ve known your whole life. But just as I want you to remember that lots of people you think are experienced or in-the-know probably aren’t (or at least not as much as you think they are), I want you to try and remember how your friend feels.

There is, unfortunately, a big difference in attitude around sexually active men and sexually active women. Not just in Islamic societies but in plenty of others too. It’s true here, and the judgment comes from secular corners as well as from religious ones. Your friend was probably scared to tell you all those things because she’s a teenager, which as you know is a world fraught with hormonal landmines and intense emotional weather and a lot of mean behavior at the hands of other teenagers (and adults too). But more than that, she was (is) scared as a teenage girl. Being sexually active and adventurous have different implications for women, like being labeled a slut, or being viewed as “used goods.” You can sense that, can’t you? You know she was defending herself, and you know you feel a little weird about her being experienced, in a way you wouldn’t if it were a guy friend telling you. I mean, yes you’re “innocent,” but you watch porn. It’s not the sex itself, it’s that a girl you really like and wish were yours is having sex.

(I know she’s not having penetrative vaginal sex, but see, that’s another way in which tradition dictates our ideas about sex and sexuality. There has long been value in a woman’s innocence and virginity, so that’s what we use to define OFFICIAL-DOING-IT-SEX. It’s very difficult to let those ideas go!)

She’s had problems with depression and self harming (I hope she’s doing better), and she’s sexually active but seems ashamed of it. I remember being a teenager and exploring like your friend but feeling so many conflicting emotions. I liked it but also thought fooling around would get guys to like me and be my boyfriend. But that didn’t work. So I wonder too if she is afraid you are judging her, because you don’t want her to be experienced. And if somehow you’ll only want to date her because she’s “wild.” If dating you means that it’ll end up being only about “SEX: THE ULTIMATE FANTASY” and she’ll lose her friend.

I wish I could talk to her, too, but I can only talk to you, her friend, the guy who truly cares about her. One thing I think is special about you is that you’re a little bit aware of how you’re feeling. You know you’re still weirded out by what she told you. You know you want her all to yourself, and there’s a little part that probably wishes you could have all of her to yourself, including the experiences she’s already had with others. You know you feel like your lack of experience with relationships somehow puts you at a disadvantage, like you’re not on even ground. All of this shines through to me in your letter.

So my advice to you, Confused, is to be honest with yourself about those feelings. Try and relax a little about her experiences. Be incredibly gentle about the things you know about her that no one else does. She really trusts you, and that vulnerability is scary. Let her know your friendship is a real, solid, safe place. Find a way to be honest with her too, maybe by telling her that you want to not be weird about stuff she tells you, because you like her so much and have these jealousies she can probably sense. Don’t lie to her! If you can’t be her friend because you like her too much, be real about that. Respect her trust and honesty by being honest and vulnerable too.

I bet this sounds like an awful lot for a 16-year-old, but you know what? You can handle it! I totally believe you can. Love and sex and relationships are often complicated by feelings and repercussions, so it’s important to be able to handle them in a kind, careful way. Maybe the two of you will always be just friends. Maybe you’ll experience a new kind of innocence, the goofy blissful exploratory fooling around with someone you like. Maybe the two of you will drift apart. But maybe too you won’t always be so worried about your experience or whether someone you like has a higher “number” than you do. People don’t magically appear in our lives as freshly-hatched adults with no prior human contact. You like this girl because of who she is, and her experiences helped make her that person.

It seems like she’s always liked you, but both of you are navigating your own lack of experience. You agreed to be friends when you both admitted to liking one another, and maybe you both felt rejected. People handle rejection differently. You buried your feelings, she possibly acted out on hers. You’re both inexperienced in many things, so you’re both going to fumble through communicating and learning together, whether as friends or more.

The main difference between the time you spend with her now and a real “date” is there would be fooling around. Maybe she can sense that pressure and doesn’t want this friendship to be like others she’s described as “wrong” and full of bad influences. Or maybe she froze last time you told her because she was scared of another round of “well, neither of us know what to do.” I know it feels incredibly urgent to tell her your feelings again right now, but give it a little bit of time. You’ve just gotten back to being close. She trusts you enough that I think she’ll tell you when she’s ready to talk about those feelings again. And if you find it too hard to just be her friend without exploring the possibility of something more, you need to trust her enough to tell her, too.

Lx