Do you remember the first time you had sex? Before it happened, how anxious were you? In the moment, how pleasurable was the experience? And afterward, how guilty did you feel?
The answers, it turns out, depend a lot on your gender.
First intercourse is of interest to sex and gender researchers for several reasons. First, sexual initiation is a cultural "rite of passage." Understanding it is part of understanding the culture. Moreover, “firsts” in general tend to matter in life. One’s introduction into a new realm of experience and behavior may shape one’s trajectory thereafter. Sexual initiation is no exception. As I described in a previous column, age of first intercourse has been linked in the literature to future sexual health, satisfaction, and adaptation.
Studying first intercourse may also improve our understanding of the differences and similarities in the sexual experiences of men and women, which in turn can help shed light on some of the fundamental processes of sex, and society.
The researcher Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University has just published what appears to be the largest study ever of the first intercourse experience as reflected in the recollections of young college students. Sprecher has collected data on more than 5,700 participants, spanning 23 years, looking specifically at gender differences in pleasure, anxiety, and guilt—variables shown in previous research to factor heavily in people’s first intercourse experiences.
The large sample, and the fact that the data were collected over three successive decades using the same measures, allowed the researcher to home in on two interesting questions:
- Are there robust differences between men and women in the experience of first intercourse?
- Have the emotional reactions of men and women to first intercourse changed over the last 20-some years?
Taken together, the answers to these questions may help shed further light on the "nature vs. nurture" question regarding sexuality. To that end, robust and persistent differences between the sexes may hint at genetically-shaped causes, since biological change processes tend to be slow and plodding. (The average height difference between the sexes, for example, has remained persistent over the last 100 years, attesting to a strong genetic contribution.) On the other hand, marked and rapid changes tend to suggest the influence of fast-paced cultural forces. (Higher-education enrollment patterns for men and women have changed dramatically in the last 100 years, for example, owing primarily to societal change.)
So what did Sprecher find? Comparing the men and women in her sample (on a scale of 1=not at all to 7=a great deal), Sprecher found robust, statistically significant differences between men and women on all three outcomes for which she surveyed: Overall, men experienced more pleasure (4.9) than women (3.1). But men also reported more anxiety (5.8 vs. 4.9), while women experienced more guilt than men (3.8 to 2.7).
Looking at change over time, Sprecher found several interesting trends:
- Regarding pleasure, men’s levels remained steady (at roughly 5.0), but women’s ratings of pleasure in first sex have increased steadily over the years. Still, for the most recently measured cohort, men’s average pleasure at first sex (4.9) remains markedly higher than women’s (3.3). (Both sexes, one may note, are not quite ecstatic about the experience.)
- Regarding guilt, the results showed that women are experiencing less guilt now than in the past at first intercourse. Still, they feel more guilt than men, and their most recent average score for guilt (3.5) is higher than their most recent average score for pleasure on the same scale (3.3).
- Regarding anxiety, men and women appear to have converged slowly—women’s anxiety has increased over the years, while men’s has decreased. For both men and women, anxiety (5.4 and 5 respectively) has been, and remains, consistently higher than either pleasure or guilt.
What are we to make of these findings?
One conclusion is that first sexual encounters are fraught—but that is not entirely news. Anxiety and guilt attend many otherwise valued (childrearing) and pleasurable (eating ice cream) human activities. In fact, a measure of ambivalence appears to be an inherent feature of our emotional hardware, not a bug in the software, across a broad spectrum of social activities and interactions. Our anxieties and fascinations are intimately entangled. Emotional pain lurks regularly at the edge of our deepest pleasures, at once interloper and facilitator.
In addition, the rise in pleasure and decrease in guilt for women over time may be viewed as a positive trend, reflecting, as the author suggests, the easing of societal pressure on female sexual expression. But, in the absence of context, one may just as well take the opposite view, concluding that these changes, insufficient as they are to close the gender gap, reflect the tenacity of society’s trenchant hostility toward female sexual expression.
And what of nature/nurture? Well, that the graphs have moved over the last 20 years seems to suggest social influence. Then again, the fact that the differences between the sexes have remained substantial overall may suggest that built-in biology remains at the controls. The author opts for the latter conclusion, arguing that the gender differences in emotional reactions, particularly pleasure, are large and robust enough to suggest genetic causes.
Sprecher further speculates, intriguingly, that the results—particularly regarding pleasure, where men have remained stable while women showed marked change—may provide evidence for the idea of "erotic plasticity," proposed by Roy Baumeister. According this concept, female sexuality is more flexible, pliable, and responsive to societal circumstances than male sexuality, which tends to be narrower and more rigidly constrained.
But before jumping to conclusions, it is useful to remember that these data, while intriguing, relied on retrospective self-reports, which are notoriously vulnerable to distortion. How you remember feeling and how you actually felt at the time are not necessarily one and the same. Moreover, the data were obtained from a rather homogenous group of people (American college students). The folly of trying to infer general laws from the preferences of American college students is obvious, and has been commented on quite extensively in the psychological and popular literature.
It is also problematic to assume, as Sprecher does, that the same score on the same scale means the same thing for different groups. The meaning of experience is never context-free. Two people may rate an experience as positive, but if one of them expected it to be negative, whereas the other had their positive expectation confirmed, then their similar ratings denote very different experiences. As Jerome Kagan writes in his book, Three Seductive Ideas, “The meaning of the word ‘anxious’ is not like the adjective ‘blue-eyed,’ for its meaning can vary when applied to people…who have lived under dissimilar circumstances” (p.16).
What’s more, first sex as a rite of passage is a social construct, and it morphs in meaning as society changes. Psychological research has difficulty making sense of this slippery terrain. For example, divorce (another social construct, and a rite of passage of sorts) has been examined closely for decades, and trends have been documented. All the while, however, the meaning of divorce has been undergoing constant change. Thus, what we speak of when we speak of divorce now is not the same thing that we used to speak about when we spoke about divorce in years past. Likewise, the meaning of "first intercourse" may have changed in such a way as to render a comparison between past and present ratings less than meaningful.
Finally, on a more down-to-earth level, it remains unclear whether any of these documented differences between the sexes in the experience of first intercourse denote meaningfully different outcomes in the lives of participants. Large attitudinal differences between people do not automatically translate into predictable and significant differences in lifestyle or life outcome. People earning $50,000 per year may feel good or bad about that, but it won’t change the fact that they all likely fly economy and have mortgages. Likewise, men and women experience first intercourse differently, but research has yet to reveal whether (and how) these differences factor meaningfully in their future lives—sexual and otherwise.
Until it does, you may conduct your own personal research project by comparing your answers to the question that opened this article with the following, closing question: Do you remember the last time you had sex? Before it happened, how anxious were you? In the moment, how pleasurable was the experience? And afterward, how guilty did you feel?