The First Time
Early sexual experiences can be life-changing or anticlimactic. They can serve as opportunities for growth or leave painful, long-lingering impressions. Four experts share what they have learned.
By February 13, 2020 - last reviewed on March 6, 2020published
Before And After
What individual characteristics predict about the first time—and what those moments spell for youths’ future.
Most of us don’t remember every time we had sex, but we remember the first time. Firsts are often etched deep into memory, and they weigh heavily in the formation of our overall impressions; hence the enlarged mark of childhood on our adult lives or the importance of the first date in a relationship. We remember our first sexual experience because it was first. But we also remember it because it was sex. Sex is a major existential concern and a prime motivational force. Thus, it tends to resonate deep and wide in our minds.
First sex is significant both personally and socially. And it connects in potentially important ways to both the person one is prior to sexual initiation and to the life one will live afterward.
In the human sexuality class I’ve taught at my university for the past 20 years, I’ve heard many students describe their own reasons for starting to have sex. One told of being ridiculed by his girlfriend for his hesitancy to “go all the way,” until he succumbed. A different student told of feeling like she was “behind” her friends and wanting to “catch up” with the norm of the group. Another spoke of wanting to impress his friends by being the first among them to have had sex. The importance of social influence has emerged with clarity.
Research has suggested that peers’ characteristics may in some ways predict individual sexual outcomes better than an individual’s own characteristics. For example, in an analysis of 90,000 adolescents published in 1999, Peter Bearman and Hannah Brückner of Columbia University found that regardless of her individual characteristics, a girl with high-risk male friends was at greater pregnancy risk, while one with low-risk female friends was at a lower risk.
To be sure, however, peers are not the whole story. Parental involvement plays a role, as does partner availability (particularly for men), the neighborhood context, and temperament. People who are risk-takers in nonsexual realms, for example, may be more likely to take sexual risks as well. Research indicates that escalating adolescent violence and substance use are predictive of early sexual initiation.
Research has also documented a correlation between the level of adolescents’ intelligence and scholastic achievement and their age of sexual debut. Intelligent, good students tend to wait. Why? Not easy to know. Maybe high-achievers are more inclined to delay sex because of the inherent risks. Alternately, they may spend too much time in the library to find a partner. Perhaps underlying factors in their family background influence both their intellectual abilities and their sexual behaviors.
Girls who grow up without a father present, research has found, tend to have sex earlier. The reasons for this finding, too, are not fully understood. The father’s absence may directly affect the behavior of girls. Or it may alter an aspect of the family’s situation—like financial status—which in turn may cause shifts in girls’ behavior. In addition, it is possible that the father’s departure is an expression of his genetic temperament—impulsiveness, say—which he has bequeathed to his daughter, and her early sexual debut is an expression of this shared temperament.
First Sex and the Future
Beyond the decision to have sex and its determinants, another question looms: Can the timing and nature of sexual debut predict important life outcomes? It is easy to imagine how the details of one’s first time might have implications for later encounters. If you had your first sexual encounter with a loving and considerate partner, the experience may radiate into your future sexual life in the form of higher sexual confidence or more positive expectations. Conversely, if your parents caught you red-handed in the middle of the act and went berserk, shame could color your future sexual relations. But what does the research on this subject tell us?
Studies suggest that sex at a young age (under age 15 in the United States) is associated with a higher level of risk for future delinquency as well as for such health difficulties as unplanned pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. Of course, many people wait until the end of the teen years (or longer) to start having sex.
In 2012, Paige Harden, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin, released a study involving multiyear data from more than 1,600 pairs of siblings. Harden divided the participants into three groups: the early group, who first had sex prior to age 15, those who became active between ages 15 and 19, and the late group, who waited until after age 19. Participants in the late group earned more money, acquired more education, had fewer partners, and reported less dissatisfaction with their relationships. Of course, this does not mean everyone who waits to have sex will marry well or even marry at all: The percentage of married or cohabiting people in the late group was lower than in the others.
It is tempting to jump to causal conclusions and assume that something about the timing of sex itself affects future outcomes. But it is also possible that the apparent differences between late-starters and others are caused not by the sexual event but by other, co-occurring factors. For example, a 2019 review of the literature by Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University and her colleagues found that girls’ “sexual competence” (in short, their level of maturity and preparedness) at debut predicted later sexual health and wellness outcomes better than the timing of debut.
It is also possible that those young men and women who choose to delay sex share some past influences or certain traits that make it easier for them to manage their arousal states, resist temptation, and delay gratification. These kinds of executive-function abilities tend to predict health and success in many areas of life. Perhaps late sexual bloomers share a weaker sex drive and thus are able to decide things more coolly and rationally in youth and beyond. Or, perhaps those who wait are highly selective. Selective people may not be the first to bite the apple, and they may not bite the most apples, but they might be more likely to get a ripe, delicious one.
A Need for Clarity
A few years ago, I decided to include a storytelling activity in my human sexuality class. Students are asked to tell a 5-minute story that has to do with sexuality, broadly defined. The story has to be true, something they have experienced or witnessed. The activity is optional, but we work hard in class to create an atmosphere of openness and trust. I encourage them to challenge themselves to face their fears and share their stories and life lessons with their peers. Most opt in.
Over the years, I’ve noticed certain themes around which most stories tend to cluster. Sexual gaffes and blunders born of inexperience, anxiety, or excitement are common: A student who took the term blowjob literally and blew air on a partner’s penis; another who broke his nose making a sex tape. Stories of embarrassing encounters with parents are also a staple: having to explain a large box of lube that arrived at the parents’ address; sex in the kitchen interrupted by a shotgun-wielding father. Tales of sexual derring-do and experimentation of all sorts are quite common (sex on the beach, it turns out, is often a bad idea, as is a threesome in a car), as are stories of young love and heartbreak.
Recently, however, I noticed another theme emerging: one of ominous discomfort, of intimidation and dread, and of unwanted sexual contact. Storytellers made repeated mention of the awkward feeling of not knowing what to do when an encounter turns overtly and expressly sexual, often abruptly, often for the first time. Many of the women spoke of deciding to “go along” with demands or requests for sex in order to “get it over with,” or out of pity, peer pressure, or just an inability to form and articulate, in real time, an adequate response to the situation.
It seems evident in stories like these that we have not yet developed a vocabulary, or the requisite socialization processes, to help young people navigate these moments when the question of sex is raised between two (or more) people. We have not developed a clear social script. Young people enter a realm of confusion and crossed signals, one rife with the potential for misunderstanding and failure. Much of life is learning from such experiences. Yet the way we are initiated into the world of sex may in some nontrivial way influence our whole journey.
For many, the event may be traumatic. Harvard researcher Laura Hawks and her colleagues, in a recent cross-sectional study of 13,310 American women ages 18 to 44, found that 6.5 percent reported forced sexual initiation, with the average age at the time being 15.6 years. These encounters uniquely predicted increased risk of a host of adverse outcomes, including unwanted first pregnancy or abortion, endometriosis, and pelvic inflammatory disease, as well as illicit drug use and difficulty completing tasks due to a physical or mental health condition.
The picture emerging from such data is grim. In my view, it appears that our cultural milieu—in which looking sexy is valued, but being sexual is devalued; in which sexual images and words are used to sell things, distract, scare, or get people off, but not to educate or enlighten—may be introducing young people into a rather harsh sexual sphere.
A good sexual initiation, one that takes place consensually between sufficiently mature and well-prepared partners, may help set the tone for a more positive, pleasurable, and healthy future, sexual and otherwise. Likewise, a sexual debut that’s coerced, premature, or painful could spell trouble down the road. Thus, we would be wise to invest in facilitating the former and discouraging the latter. How can that be done? One part of the answer no doubt resides in honest sex education and communication. Growing up, most of my students seem to have experienced neither.
On the first day of classes I inform students of my guiding principles for the class: Sex is an essential, normal, and natural part of being. Like all worthwhile life endeavours, sex carries real risks. Life itself, after all, is a chronic and terminal condition. Yet at the core, sex is also a promise—of deep intimacy, of pleasure and ecstasy, of adventure, discovery, and renewal; it’s how we give, and were given, life. To manage the risks and fulfill the promise of sex, we must seek not to deceive, oppress, or scare each other but rather to inform, understand, and enlighten. My commitment is to engage that challenge together with them. I think that our youths are owed this kind of commitment from the culture as a whole.
A Letter To the Young Woman Beginning To Explore Her Sexuality
Reflections and advice for entering a brave new world.
Dear Young Woman,
Sex tends to be hard to talk about because we get locked into notions of good and bad, right and wrong, especially when it comes to the sex lives of young people. As you begin to explore this rich aspect of what it means to be alive, I want to offer some thoughts based on my 20 years as a relationship educator and therapist.
The first thing I want to say is that virginity is overrated. Virginity simply describes whether or not someone has experienced penis-in-vagina intercourse, positing this sex act as the end-all-be-all. If you are gay, you may never experience this type of sex, and if you’re straight, this may not end up being your favorite type of sex. I have spoken to young people who feel ashamed that they lost their virginity too early and others who are embarrassed that they still “have their V-card.” Whenever we find ourselves walking a line between too soon and too late, we know that our focus has become too narrow. The complexity of sex cannot be captured by this word. Feminist author Jessica Valenti has proposed that we define loss of virginity as the first time you have an orgasm with a partner—a definition I like much better.
Next, you should know that you are a pioneer. You belong to one of the first generations of human beings to come of age in the era of 24/7, free-streaming pornography, and we have yet to figure out what that means. I doubt your school’s sex education curriculum included “porn literacy”—information about how to be an informed consumer of erotic materials. I hope you have trusted adults in your life who can offer you support and answer your questions, but the stats don’t look good. Harvard’s School of Education interviewed more than 3,000 young adults (ages 18 to 25) and found that 70 percent of them craved more information from their parents about the emotional aspects of a romantic relationship, and 65 percent wished they had received more guidance about love, sex, and dating at school.
The bottom line is that real-life sex looks very little like porn sex. A wonderful sexual experience is the co-creation of partners who are doing two things at once: mindfully paying attention to what’s happening within them while being empathically attuned to how their partner is doing. Great sex isn’t a performance. It is an improvisation, a creative endeavor, an expression of aliveness.
You do not need to look or sound like a porn actor, and you don’t need to do what they are doing. Research indicates that more “extreme” sex acts (for example, choking, powerful thrusting, and “facials”) have become more common in real life in the era of free-streaming porn. Kink will always be available for you to explore, but it is a realm that requires education, care, and lots of communication. Only layer in power play and the merger of pain and pleasure if and when you feel curious, not to impress a partner or prove yourself.
Your safety matters. You deserve a partner who talks with you about minimizing the risk of sexually transmitted infections and unintended pregnancy (if you’re engaging in sex that can result in conception). Pressure, humiliation, and control are all relationship red flags.
Your pleasure also matters. The orgasm gap between women and men is well established, and it exists in large part because men have been taught to be assertive and women to be passive. If your partner is another woman, you are more likely to have an orgasm, but if your partner is a guy, it is incumbent on both of you to ensure that your pleasure is central. Either way, you deserve a partner who is collaborative and patient so that you can take your time figuring out what feels good for you.
If you don’t know much about your body and how it works, you are far from alone. Research has found that when shown a diagram of the external female genitalia, only half of college-age women (and only a quarter of college-age men) were able to accurately identify 80 percent of the anatomy. Many women find that masturbation is an empowering and effective route to understanding how they experience pleasure. Remember that pleasure and orgasm are not the same thing. You can have a pleasurable sexual experience without having an orgasm, and because an orgasm is an involuntary muscle contraction, you can have an orgasm without the experience of pleasure.
Your sexuality is an essential part of who you are as a human being, and it is yours to express in ways that elevate, expand, and heal you. Your sexual self will evolve and change as you do, so stay open to learning and growing. Your sexuality belongs to you.
The Road Less Traveled
How young sexual minorities make sense of their earliest experiences.
“I had no idea that it was a sexual thing, but I knew it was something that I wasn’t supposed to talk about,” Jake recalls about encounters with a male friend at age 7. Valerie remembers touching her female cousins’ genitals at age 8—“I knew I’d get in trouble if adults found out.”
Similar to most young adults, Jake and Valerie told me that they experienced their sexuality from an early age. Yet, unlike straight peers, but similar to many other sexual minorities, they grew up feeling “different” from friends, partly because they were captivated by the genitals and hearts of same-sex others. Seldom did they find their burgeoning homoerotic infatuations, erotic urges, and sexual behaviors upsetting, however, because all felt so natural and exciting.
But as these attractions intensify during adolescence, they assume new meanings and weighty implications. The road to self-discovery involves paradoxical feelings: desires that are ever more compelling and yet considered by others to be unquestionably wrong.
After 5-year-old José Luis and a male friend were discovered sexually “voyaging” in a day-care closet, their teacher scolded them, explaining the difference between “good touch” and “bad touch.” For good measure, she sprayed them with a water bottle. Later on, having been properly schooled and chastised, an adolescent José Luis understood the prohibition against genital grinding while wrestling with his friend Miguel and thus told no one. As Jake and Valerie vaguely recognized in childhood and José Luis more vividly in adolescence, though sexuality was a blast, it was best concealed from adults to avoid being shamed or punished.
With the dramatic infusion of pubertal hormones that strengthen sexual and romantic longings, it becomes increasingly difficult to deny the presence and possible consequence of same-sex eroticism. Complications arise when peers are the object of desire and friendships become muddied with sexual or romantic yearnings. As same-sex crushes deepen over time, sexual-minority youths may fear negative social repercussions and thus exert tremendous energy monitoring and controlling what they say and do. Although roughly 10 percent of straight-identified youth have same-sex encounters, homoerotic youths pursue such interactions with greater regularity and zeal, deriving greater physical and emotional satisfaction from them.
Most same-sex-oriented adolescents are not without heterosexual experiences. Their motivations vary, but may include experimentation, pleasure, pressure from a dating partner, and genuine heteroerotic interest. Such activities may also be attempts to spark heteroerotic attractions and diminish the homoerotic. These endeavors usually fail, except for those who are more sexually fluid, possess dual attractions, or are aroused more by the person than by their sexual characteristics. Such individuals tend to take longer to reach sexual milestones, perhaps because they require more time to reconcile indistinct or opposing attractions or they face greater disbelief from those who challenge the veracity of their attractions.
Whereas previous generations of sexual-minority youths tended to discover or confirm their sexual orientation through their first sexual encounters, it is my impression that same-sex-attracted youths in Gen Z (roughly, those born between the mid-1990s and 2010) are more likely to recognize their sexuality without the physical “proof” of sex by talking with friends, developing romantic liaisons, and finding support online. Early sexual experiences likely serve less as a test and more as an expression of sexual orientation. This shift is probably the result of the widespread visibility of alternative sexualities in social media and popular entertainment. In this, contemporary sexual-minority youth are similar to straight youth, who seldom engage in sex as the basis for confirming their straight identity.
Many of these transformations are the result of living in an era in which many consider traditional identity labels such as lesbian, gay, and bisexual passé. Rather, sexual-minority youths embrace such identities as pansexual—sexual attraction regardless of the person’s gender expression, gender identity, or biological sex. They insist sexual attraction and behavior aren’t things that can be easily categorized or understood. Labels are considered limiting, maybe even meaningless, as they ponder whether to blend into mainstream society or fight to restructure modern sexual discourse.
For many Gen Z youths, the mere construction of sexual identities reifies labels across time and place and exaggerates the differences between them and their friends. Demonstrating a sense of empowerment heretofore unseen among sexual minorities, they contend that since mainstream straight youth are not required to assume a sexual identity, neither should they.
Step By Step
A host of sexual experiences usually precede intercourse—and for some, they may be even more meaningful.
Concerned adults—parents, educators, health care providers—are highly attuned to signs that a child or adolescent is developing sexual interest in others or attracting it. Early jokes about “puppy love” and first crushes are quickly replaced with a long list of new rules once children start puberty. Girls are taught to sit with their knees together, avoid roughhousing with the boys in their lives, be discreet about menstruation, and guard against boys’ and men’s attempts to pressure them into sex.
Boys, on the other hand, are mostly taught “Don’t get a girl pregnant.” Adults in their lives are concerned primarily about penile-vaginal intercourse because of pregnancy worries, while rarely considering the wide range of solo and partnered sexual experiences that occur long before first intercourse.
Few people leap from having zero partnered sexual experience straight to advanced intimate forms such as intercourse. National data show that adolescents experience a fairly consistent progression of sexual activities, from hand holding to kissing to breast and chest contact to genital contact—including, eventually, sexual intercourse. These scripts are common across genders and ethnic groups, and are typically preceded by milestones such as spending time with the partner in a group and telling others that they are a couple.
What is fascinating about this work is that earlier partnered sexual experiences tend to be more memorable and formative in many respects than later ones. Anecdotally, I find people remember their first kiss in greater detail and typically with fonder recall than their first intercourse. Research in my lab shows that they typically describe first intimate kisses as involving a profound mix of emotions—primarily positive (excitement) but also negative (nervousness)—etched clearly in memory.
These early partnered sexual experiences, although perhaps less intimate in some ways compared to those involving genital contact, appear to be pivotal events in sexual development. First breast and chest contact, for instance, appears to shift girls’ sense of self as a sexual person. In our research, we found that girls who went from no experience to some experience of this type over the course of a year reported higher sexual self-esteem, as well as higher self-reported arousability to sexual cues, and less strong abstinence attitudes compared to those who remained without this experience. This finding needs to be replicated with boys, of course, and might reflect pre-existing differences between the girls. But we also found this difference between transitioners and abstainers across other types of early sexual behavior.
When they go well, early experiences give young people confidence in intimate activities, the “pluck” or agency needed to participate and respond to a partner without overwhelming shyness or anxiety, which helps them to transform their sexual self-concept—to go from a nonsexual to a sexual being. They start to learn how sex works, what feels good and what doesn’t, and what to expect of their body and their partner’s body. It is one thing to see sex performed in porn, but quite another to face a real, live partner. As one 17-year-old boy we interviewed said, “I expected it to be—I’m not sure ‘easier’ is the right word, but, uh, more coordinated.”
A surprising trend in research on early sexual experience includes a 2016 report indicating that a greater proportion of millennials (born in the 1980s and 1990s) were sexually inactive in young adulthood, compared to a similar sample from a previous generation. They have also shown somewhat later ages of first intercourse and decreased numbers of sexual partners compared to earlier cohorts. Despite their greater tolerance of diverse sexual experiences, young people actually seem to have more conservative sexual lives than their parents and often their grandparents before them.
There has been quite a lot of speculation about why we are seeing this trend, and chief among the factors suggested are the higher rates of depression and anxiety reported in young people, plus their increasingly being engrossed and distracted by technology (despite feeling more “connected” than ever). Virtual experiences may be dominating in-person experiences.
Rather than worrying about signs of sexual interest in others, parents may soon be more concerned that their child isn’t showing signs of developing sexual interest at all.
Submit your response to this story to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you would like us to consider your letter for publication, please include your name, city, and state. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.
Pick up a copy of Psychology Today on newsstands now or subscribe to read the rest of the latest issue.