The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life. Rose petals are strewn across the floor, candles flicker on every available surface bathing the room in a yellow glow, and soft music plays in the background as you and your partner (whom you love deeply and feel completely at ease with) fall gracefully onto the bed, effortlessly remove each other’s clothes, and proceed to make passionate, pleasurable (and, of course, protected) love.

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

No one finds themselves squirming to free a pinned armed, no one screams “ouch” because the other person has accidentally kneed them in the groin or sat on their hair, no one fears their upper lip is too sweaty or worries that the angle is unflattering to their stomach, thighs, or butt. At no point does anyone doubt that they are doing it right or utter the question “Is it all the way in?” Nobody farts. All moans are elegant (more song than grunt). And, everybody has an earthshattering orgasm.

Sound like your first time? We doubt it. People tend to put a lot of emphasis on the first time they have sex. It’s a rite of passage. It’s the first time a person risks pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It’s something almost everyone does eventually.

As Laura Carpenter (2001) explains: “Societal concerns about sexuality often crystalize around virginity loss, both because it is widely perceived as one of the most significant turning points in sexual life and because of the emphasis public health and policy professionals place on first coitus and sexual initiation”. It is also a sexual experience that most people remember years, even decades, later (which can’t be said of all sexual experiences).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

But is it really one of the most meaningful events in your life? Should it be? In this entry we explore our fascination with the first time and try to understand why societies put so much emphasis not just on this one event but on virginity itself. We also examine historical changes to these views about virginity and try to figure out how young people really feel about losing it.

Historical Views on Virginity
In many cultures virginity has historically been tied to purity and morality, especially for women. Virginity was, for example, crucial for a woman’s marriageability. Some traditions even required proof of premarital virginity — such as blood on the marriage sheets (Tsui and Nicoladis, 2004). While this remains true in some cultures today, the view of virginity in the United States has shifted considerably in modern history.

Carpenter (2001) provides a brief history of virginity in this country in which she explains that our views have always been rooted in Christian tradition. In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, the view of virginity as a source of, or proof of, a woman’s purity and morality held strong and loss of virginity was seen as an “irrevocable loss of innocence.”

Moreover, it was assumed that unmarried women were virgins. If a woman lost her virginity outside of marriage it might signify “the onset of moral corruption, madness, and even death”.

In the early 1900s, however, this view began to change. Though virginity was still seen as valuable to women, more young women were more willing to have sex outside of marriage — especially within the context of a relationship that was heading toward marriage. In fact, from the 1920s to the 1960s a pattern began to emerge in which young men and women had sex before marriage but with the person they planned to marry (Brumberg, 1997, as cited in Carpenter, 2001).

We think of the 1960s as the start of the sexual revolution and indeed things did start to change during that decade as more young people began engaging in premarital sex with multiple partners most of whom they were not planning on marrying. Women’s perception of their virginity shifted as well.

Rather than seeing it as something of value, they began to think of it more in the ways that men historically had — as something that was neutral at best and undesirable at worst (Carpenter, 2001). As these views changed, so did behaviors and women began to lose their virginity with similar frequency and at similar ages to men (Carpenter, 2001).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

The 1990s were also an interesting time for views on virginity. For many men and women, the idea of virginity as a stigma — something to get rid of — seemed prominent. Though it wasn’t released until the end of the decade, the movie American Pie which focuses on the efforts of a few boys to lose their virginity seems to epitomize this view.

At the same time, however, the Religious Right was arguing that we had strayed too far from modesty and chastity and that it was time to put the sexual revolution behind us and go back to the days when virginity was a virtue.

They put a lot of political capital into this and got the federal government to back “chastity” education through the Adolescent Family Life Act (AFLA) and then abstinence-only-until-marriage programs through both Title V and the Community-Based Abstinence Education (CBAE) funding streams. At their height, these programs received a total of $176 million per year (SIECUS, 2010a).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

Programs funded with this money were required to adhere to a strict definition of abstinence education which, among other things, told young people that sex was only appropriate in a mutually monogamous relationship in the context of marriage and that sex outside of marriage was likely to have harmful physical and psychological effects (SIECUS, 2010b).

Programs funded by these grants often focused heavily on the importance of virginity, suggested it was a precious gift that could only be given once, and implied that teenagers who were not virgins were somehow lacking in character. They also frequently exaggerated the consequences of premarital sex which could apparently cause everything from loss of reputation, to problems with your parents, to bad grades, to winding up in jail. At the same time, however, sex within marriage was said to have no risks at all (Kempner, 2001).

A number of these programs ended with young people signing virginity pledges in which they promised to remain abstinent until their wedding day. Some young people also participated in virginity pledge events — such as those sponsored by True Love Waits or the Silver Ring Thing. These events were often religious in nature with readings from the Bible and an ultimate pledge to God.

Certain virginity pledge ceremonies took on the feel of wedding ceremonies in which a young woman was given a ring — most often by her father — that symbolized their commitment to staying abstinent until marriage. That ring would then be removed by her father as part of her actual wedding ceremony (Kempner, 2003).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

Research on virginity pledges showed mixed results. Under certain circumstances they did help some young people delay sex for an average of 18 months. While far short of marriage, this could be considered a public health success as it represents a year and a half in which these kids had no risk of STIs or pregnancy. That said, the majority of pledgers (88%) did have sex before marriage and, in a disturbing finding, these young people were less likely than peers who hadn’t pledged, to use condoms or other contraception when they did become sexually active (Bearman and Brückner, 2001).

Despite this research, the media picked up on this renewed interest in virginity and suggested that young people were changing their tune and “staying pure.” A 1994 Newsweek article, entitled Virgin Cool, suggested: A lot of kids are putting off sex, and not because they can’t get a date. They’ve decided to wait, and they’re proud of their chastity, not embarrassed by it. Suddenly, virgin geek is giving way to virgin chic. (Ingrassia, 1994)

The data on teen sexual behavior does show some drop in sexual behavior throughout the 1990s. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began its Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) in 1991. The survey is designed to ask about all sorts of risk behavior from using alcohol and tobacco, to wearing seatbelts and bicycle helmets, to having sex.

In 1991, the first year of the study, 54.1% of high school students reported ever having had sex. This number dropped steadily over the next decade hitting a low of 45.6% in 2001. It has been unchanged ever since (Kann et al., 2014).

All of this is to say that in modern history, society has had some pretty conflicting views on virginity. These views impact how individuals feel about their own first time.

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

Individuals’ Views on Their Virginity
Laura Carpenter has done extensive work on individuals’ views of their virginity, publishing a number of articles and a book, Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences (2005). Carpenter identifies three common frames through which most young people view their virginity. The first harkens back to the understanding of virginity as holding intrinsic value, especially for women. This view uses the metaphor of virginity as a gift that one partner gives and the other partner takes.

She explains: Perceiving virginity as a very valuable gift, not least because of its nonrenewable nature, these women and men were concerned primarily with finding partners who would appreciate the worth of their gift and, more important, reciprocate with a gift of similar value (typically the recipient’s own virginity or increased commitment to the relationship).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

A second way that many people viewed their own virginity or more specifically their virginity loss was as part of a process. According to Carpenter, “These men and women believed that virginity loss, like social transitions in general, would increase their knowledge (about sexuality and themselves) and leave them feeling transformed” (2001).

Finally, some people viewed their virginity as a stigma or something they wished to get rid of as soon as possible. These young people, “typically emphasize the importance of not incurring additional stigmas, such as a reputation for sexual ineptitude, during the campaign to lose virginity” (Carpenter, 2001.

These frames are important not just because they help to highlight the various notions that society has of virginity, but because they directly impact how individuals feel about their first sexual experience as well subsequent ones. She writes: “Importantly, some metaphors for virginity loss are more conducive to emotional and physical well-being — before during and after virginity loss than others” (Carpenter, 2005).

In her 2001 study, Carpenter found that those who saw virginity as a gift were most likely to be proud of their virginity beforehand, to lose it to someone they were in a serious relationship with, and to use contraception when they did have sex for the first time. On the flip side, however, they were also more likely to feel ashamed of having lost their virginity especially if their partner failed to reciprocate the gift in some way, such as by becoming more committed to the relationship.

In contrast those who saw it as part of a process tended to be “best equipped to work through physically and emotionally negative experiences by
talking with their partners in ways that helped ensure more positive sexual experiences later on”.

Finally, those who saw virginity as a stigma were less likely to be honest with their partners about it in advance, therefore preventing open communication. Some of these young people were devastated when their status as a virgin was discovered by the partner. These respondents were most likely to lose their virginity to a temporary partner and least likely to use contraception when they did so. They were, however, typically satisfied by
whatever first experience they did have.

Though most studies on virginity and the first time are limited to heterosexual participants, Carpenter’s studies include some individuals who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual. She found that gay and lesbian respondents were much more likely to view virginity through the process frame (73% compared with 46% of heterosexuals).

She suggested that this was particularly true of gay and bisexual respondents in part because the process included both virginity loss and coming out (Carpenter, 2001). She also noted that while 54% of heterosexual respondents had seen virginity as a gift at least at some point in their lives this
was only true of 31% of their gay and lesbian counterparts (Carpenter, 2001).

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life
The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

Some other studies have determined that young women who first have sex with other women appear to enjoy greater control over the experience than women whose first partners are men (Brumberg, 1997 and Thompson, 1995, as cited in Carpenter, 2002).

How People Feel About Their First Time
Over the years, many researchers have asked individuals to consider how they felt about their first sexual experience either right away or in hindsight. The results suggest that pretty much no one had the candles and rose petals scene we described at the beginning or, even if they did, they didn’t enjoy it.

A 2010 study, for example, looked at data from almost 2000 college students around the United States to determine whether they experienced physiological and/or psychological satisfaction the first time they had intercourse. (This study, like most, was limited to heterosexual intercourse.)

The study also asked them about various emotions they felt at the time as well as relationship characteristics (Higgins et al., 2010). It found that the mean age of first intercourse was 16.6 and the majority of respondents were in a “committed love relationship” or a “steady dating relationship.” When asked about physiological satisfaction, only 17.3% reported being extremely satisfied, 22.8% were considerably satisfied, 1.9% were moderately satisfied, 16.9% were slightly satisfied, and 21% of all respondents said they were not at all physiologically satisfied by their first intercourse experiences.

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

These results, however, varied largely by gender with 42.7% of black men and 30.7% of non-Hispanic white men reporting being extremely satisfied compared with just 9.2% of black women and 6.5% of nonHispanic white women. The results at the opposite end of the spectrum were similar with only 8.0% of black men and 3.6% of non-Hispanic white men saying they were not at all physiologically satisfied compared with 34.4% of black women and 29.8% of non-Hispanic white women (Higgins et al., 2010). (Though the results are presented broken down by race, the authors note there was little racial variation.)

When it came to psychological satisfaction the numbers were very similar with 18.5% of the whole sample experiencing extreme satisfaction and 17.8% experiencing none. Everyone else fell somewhere in the middle. Women were also less likely than men to report psychological satisfaction though the numbers were not quite as striking as they were for physical satisfaction.

Among both men and women guilt was a somewhat common emotion with 20.6% of the sample saying they experienced extreme or considerable guilt and 13.2% saying they felt moderate guilt. Anxiety was even more common with 41.3% of all respondents reporting extreme or considerable anxiety and another 22.4% reporting moderate anxiety (Higgins et al., 2010).

The authors concluded that women still have a lot of ground to gain as men continue to be much more likely to be satisfied with their early sexual experiences (Higgins et al., 2010).

Higgins et al. note that their findings for men were similar to an earlier study of Canadian students conducted by Tsui and Nicola dis (2004) but they differed when it came to women. In that study, men were significantly more likely to report feeling physically satisfied after first intercourse (62% versus 35%) but there was almost no difference between the genders when it came to emotional satisfaction (56% for men and 54% for women).

Men and women also had similar overall assessments of the experience with 72% of men and 61% of women saying it was either perfect, very good, or good in contrast to 11% of men and 13% of women who thought it was bad or very bad (Tsui and Nicola dis, 2004). There were some notable differences between the genders, however, with 5% of men experiencing pain compared with 52% of women. In addition, 76% of men reported experiencing an orgasm compared with just 12% of women (Tsui and Nicola-dis, 2004).

In attempts to get young people to put off having sex we often caution them that bad things will happen after the first time — he’ll never want you again, she’ll leave you, you’ll regret it, you’ll get pregnant. In this study, however, most of the participants (87% of men and 89% of women) reported having sex with the same partner again, 83% of men and 86% of women reported staying as or becoming a couple after first sex, and none of them reported a pregnancy.

The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

Moreover, 76% of men and 72% of women said they had no regrets about the experience, and 63% of men and 65% of women said they had been the “right age” (Tsui and Nicoladis, 2004).

These positive results have not been found in other studies, specifically those of young men and women in the United States where regret is common and many seem to wish they had waited. For example, a study surveyed teenagers aged 12– 17 in the spring of 2001 and followed up again in 2002 and 2004.

The survey asked about their experience with intercourse and their feelings afterward with questions such as “Do you wish you had waited longer to have sex for the first time?” “Were you personally ready for sex? “Was your relationship at the right point to have sex?” and “Were you with the right person to share your first sexual experience?” (Martino et al., 2009).

The researchers found that 46% percent of respondents (61% of females and 39% of males) who first had sex after the initial survey in 2001 wished they had waited longer to have sex. Of teens who wished they had waited, 70% said they weren’t ready, 76% said their relationship was not in the right place, and 65% said they had not been with the right person (Martino et al., 2009).

These feelings are closely echoed by a periodic survey by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy that consistently finds close to 60% of young people wish they had waited (Albert, 2010).

This statistic gets a great deal of press attention and is often fodder for abstinenceonly-until-marriage proponents who want to use it as proof that we need to stress the importance of virginity until marriage. Whenever we see it, however, we wonder if some of this regret is superimposed onto the event in retrospect simply as a result of being asked “Do you wish you had waited?”

Is it possible that a teen wasn’t actively feeling regret but believed this to be the socially acceptable answer to an adult’s question? We don’t know but we do know that the mixed messages in our society tell teens — especially young women — that they should be interested in sex, act sexy, but stop short of actually wanting sex. We worry that these mixed messages also suggest that it is okay to have sex as long as you feel a little guilty about it afterward.

Education Ahead of Time
Perhaps instead of asking young people how they felt in retrospect, we should work to educate them about sexuality and first sexual experiences before they have them. We can tell them that it probably won’t be rose petals and candles, it’s usually awkward and messy and that’s okay.

We can tell them that it should feel good and that it’s okay to stop if it doesn’t and enjoy it if it does. (We can tell young women that while pain at first intercourse is not unusual, a little lubricant can go a long way toward eliminating it.)

We can tell them that it carries risks and they should be safe. And, we can tell them that while it is not the most important moment in their lives, it is one that they will undoubtedly remember better than many, if not most, other sexual experiences and as such they should be sure that they are ready, they have the right partner, and are in the right relationship. Because even if it’s not perfect (and trust us, it rarely is), we hope it is an experience that everyone is able to look back on fondly.

Thanks for Reading — The First Time You Have Sex Is One of the Best and Most Meaningful Events of Your Life

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