young teenage couple

Many elements determine the joy—or woe—of sexual initiation

What does it mean to lose one’s virginity? For cisgender heterosexuals, it typically involves first vaginal intercourse. LGBT+ folks often have different definitions. But whatever meaning people attach to their “first time,” virginity loss is a rite of passage into sexual adulthood. What makes it feel good, bad, or mixed? A recent review of 23 studies by European and University of Wisconsin researchers sheds welcome new light. But before discussing this study, here’s some perspective.

A Clear Tilt Toward Sex-Negativity

It’s been more than 50 years, but I still recall my first time. It certainly wasn’t the best sex I’ve ever had, far from it. We were both young, nervous, and naive. She expected me to orchestrate things, but it was the blind leading the blind. I knew what went where, but had no idea of the importance of a slow pace, mutual coaching, whole-body sensual massage, or the fact that women’s pleasure organ is not the vagina, but the clitoris. I felt so flustered I had trouble climaxing, and my partner didn’t. In retrospect, I feel wistful about my first time. I wish we’d known more and fumbled less. But afterwards, I had no major regrets, and as far as I know, neither did she. We both wanted to have sex, and we did. Goodbye virginity—yay!

Except for first times that involve sexual assault—5 to 10 percent of young women—most first times are similar to mine—clueless, often inebriated mixtures of elements, some enjoyable, others not. That’s no surprise. Beyond inserting prong A into slot B, partner lovemaking is complicated, like playing sports. How many first-time baseball batters hit it out of the park? Unfortunately, a pervasive myth holds that when people fall in love (or lust), the magic of their mutual attraction confers instant sexual skills. On the contrary. It takes time, practice, and coaching to master the erotic dance—and ideally, sex education focused on pleasure.

But in the U.S., teen sex education usually emphasizes saying “no,” with possibly some information about contraceptives and prevention of sexual infections. Birth control and infection avoidance are important. But without instruction on sexual negotiation, erotic skills, and mutual pleasure, few first-timers are likely to experience great enjoyment.

Until the new review, almost all of the dozens of virginity-loss studies have focused on just one element of the experience, the partners’— especially the women’s—feelings of regret, guilt, and shame. This sex-negative tilt has resulted in major distortions:

• Belgian scientists asked 1,778 sexually active young people (age 16 to 20) how they felt about their first time. “Twenty percent expressed negative feelings.” Another 20 percent felt neutral. So apparently the rest—60 percent—had reasonably positive feelings about their first time. But the authors did not mention this. They focused only on the 20 percent who expressed regrets.

• European investigators surveyed 1,312 Bulgarian, French, Irish, and Scottish adolescents (average age 16). “One-fifth expressed negative feelings.” So presumably four-fifths—80 percent—had positive feelings. Again, no mention.

• Swiss researchers polled 7,142 Swiss young adults (average age 26). “One-third regretted their first experience.” Which suggests that two-thirds (67 percent) had few, if any regrets. But that went unremarked.

• Finally, researchers at universities in the U.S. and Canada amalgamated the findings of surveys from 1990 to 2019 that asked 6,430 young adults (average age 20) how they felt about the timing of their virginity loss. Almost two-thirds (63 percent) said they felt fine about it or wished they’d lost their virginity sooner. Only around one-third (37 percent) thought they should have waited. So what was the title of this study? “Perhaps It Was Too Soon: College Students’ Reflections on the Timing of Their Sexual Debuts.” The title totally misstated the findings.

Of course, any negativity around virginity loss is important and deserves sexological and public health attention. But positive feelings should also be mentioned, especially when substantial majorities of young people feel more positive than negative. Unfortunately, the research literature has largely ignored positive feelings about virginity loss.

Until now. The recent review of 23 studies shows that only a small fraction of first times generate just regret. Most involve ambivalence. Significantly, among the large majority who voiced mixed feelings, most rated their first times as overall more positive than negative.

What Makes First Times Feel Bad—Or Good

The recent review begins by reiterating my lament: “Most of the studies included in our review were more focused on characterizing lack of enjoyment than pleasure.”

These researchers recognized the multi-faceted nature of first times. “We discovered a high degree of complexity surrounding first sexual experiences. First times [included] positive, neutral, and negative feelings. Adverse [feelings] do not automatically negate pleasure. Rather, people’s first sexual experiences are complicated moments [usually involving] a range of feelings: embarrassment, guilt, pain, and regret—and intimacy, arousal, accomplishment, and pleasure.”

The review identified several elements that contribute to enjoyable, pleasurable virginity loss:

• Consent. First times feel best when both partners affirmatively agree they both want to be sexual together—no pressure, coercion, or threats of shaming for saying no.

• Age/maturity. The line of demarcation is around 16. First times before 16 usually involve less pleasure and more regret.

• Gender. Compared with young men, young women usually enjoy their first times less. Few young men understand the importance of the clitoris to women’s sexual fulfillment. Most young men climax before their partners have even warmed up to erotic enjoyment. And young women must contend with the hypocrisy of society’s double standard. For young men, virginity loss is an accomplishment worthy of celebration. But going all the way opens young women to nasty labeling: easy, loose, slut, tramp.

• The relationship. For all genders, compared with one-time hook-ups, virginity loss in the context of ongoing relationships usually involve greater pleasure.

• Sobriety. Few first timers are totally sober, but first times usually feel best when the partners are not blotto drunk or drug-impaired.

• Coaching. When partners feel able discuss their likes and dislikes, first times are usually more pleasurable.

• Sex-positive parents. First times usually feel best when the partners’ parents have discussed sexual decision-making with them. Sex-positive parents recognize the inevitability of teen sexual exploration, do their best to empower their children to say yes or no, and encourage contraception and sexual-infection prevention.

• Religiosity. Compared with secular young people, those who say they’re religious, usually report less first-time pleasure, unless it happens on their wedding night. (But fewer than 5 percent of Americans are virgins when they say, “I do.”)

• Playfulness. Rushed, pressured, all-genital sexual initiation doesn’t feel as good as leisurely, playful first times that include lots of whole-body caressing ahead of genital play.

• Afterglow. Compared with partners who “come and go,” those who savor post-coital feelings of relaxation, contentment, and closeness usually rate their first times as more pleasurable.

The Book to Read

Five decades ago, when I lost my virginity, there were no resources that empowered young people to enjoy becoming sexually active. Now there’s a fine sex guide aimed at young people, S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Guide to Get You Through Your Teens and Twenties by Heather Corinna.

Of course, even when young people check all the boxes above, they’re still likely to feel ambivalent about their first times—and many subsequent times as well. That’s unfortunate. But that’s life. It takes time, practice, and trial and error to learn how to negotiate the many issues involved in pleasurable lovemaking. Like playing sports, no one gets everything right the first time.

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.