Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Virginity Loss: Not a Single Event, a Multi-Year Process

Focusing only on first intercourse obscures how most people become sexual.

Key points

  • For most people, virginity loss is a big deal.
  • There's more to sexual debut than first intercourse. It's a process that takes, on average, six years.
  • 90 percent of young people feel happy about the way they lost their virginity.

In our culture, virginity loss, i.e., first intercourse, is a big deal. The conventional wisdom says it marks the end of sexual innocence and the beginning of sexual experience. Most young people celebrate their virginity loss as a milestone of emerging adulthood.

However, parents, psychologists, educators, and public health officials disapprove of adolescents who have first intercourse “too young,” that is, before around 16. Many studies have associated early first intercourse, also known as sexual debut, with physical and mental health woes: coercion, sexual assault, unplanned pregnancies, sexual infections, genital pain, and deep regret causing sexual inhibition later in life. Consequently, adult authorities do whatever they can to delay adolescents’ first intercourse until at least 16—and preferably later.

However, focusing only on age at first intercourse obscures how the vast majority of young people actually become sexual. When intercourse is young people’s first sexual experience, it’s risky and involves all the downsides just mentioned. But first intercourse marks teens’ actual sexual debut only rarely. Other erotic events that occur earlier in most teens’ lives are equally important, key developmental steps toward happy, satisfying adult lovemaking.

Recently, Canadian researchers conducted the first investigation of adolescent sexual debut, not just focused on age at first intercourse but rather on most teens’ years-long climb up the ladder of sexual escalation. The findings paint a welcome and more nuanced view of sexual debut.

The Study

The investigators advertised online to recruit young adults willing to share memories of how they became sexually active. The sample included 2,055 women and 1,084 men (other genders unspecified), with an average age of 24. Three-quarters were white (74 percent). The other 26 percent represented all other races. Participants were atheists, agnostics, or adherents of all major faiths. Almost all were high school graduates, with most (58 percent) having attended college and 15 percent having earned professional degrees. The large majority identified as heterosexual (80 percent), with 13 percent bisexual and 7 percent lesbian/gay (other sexualities unspecified). These demographics are not representative of North America, but they’re close enough to lend credence to the findings.

The researchers asked when participants had experienced four events:

  • First solo sex after toddlerhood
  • First orgasm
  • First partnered genital touch: hand massage (hand jobs) and oral sex (fellatio, cunnilingus)
  • First intercourse

Usually, a 6-Year Process

Every milestone of sexual maturation takes place over a range of ages. Consider puberty. It typically begins around age 11 for girls and 12 for boys. But it’s perfectly normal for the changes of puberty to begin as early as eight in girls and nine in boys or as late as 13 and 14, respectively. As girls begin to menstruate and boys start to have wet dreams, their sexual thoughts increase—along with a desire to experience sex.

In the Canadian study, participants reported these age ranges for the four erotic milestones:

  • First solo sex after toddlerhood: age 8-15, typically 11.
  • First orgasm: 10-17, usually 14
  • First partnered genital touch: 13-19, typically 16
  • First intercourse: 15-19, usually 17

Almost nine of 10 respondents (87 percent) said their first erotic experience involved self-sexing. No surprise there. Children’s hands easily reach their genitals, and self-touch provides great pleasure. As every parent knows, infants and toddlers are enthusiastic masturbators—until the adults in their lives tell them to either stop or self-sex in private. Most kids ignore parental entreaties not to and continue to enjoy self-touch surreptitiously throughout childhood. As they explore self-sexing, it slowly dawns on them that what feels good feels better with more vigorous genital manipulation. Consequently, a few years after their solo sex debut, as young people enter puberty, they typically work up to their first orgasms.

Meanwhile, 7 percent of study participants said they didn’t recall self-sexing as children and that their first sexual experience involved a partner touching their genitals. And 6 percent said their first sexual experience involved intercourse. The large majority of both the women and men (90 percent) said their early sexual experiences felt fine. With just 6 percent having sexual debuts involving intercourse, only a small fraction of young people are at high risk for the problems mentioned above.

Compared with the men, in partner sex, the women were substantially less orgasmic. The gendered orgasm gap found in this study mirrors dozens of other studies over the past 75 years. Most young men and many young women believe erroneously that vaginal intercourse is as key to women’s orgasms and sexual satisfaction as it is for men. Actually, a women’s orgasm trigger is not the vagina, but the clitoris, which sits outside the vagina an inch or so above it beneath the top junction of the outer vaginal lips. It takes some women and many men well into adulthood to understand the importance of the clit. Until they do, women’s rates of orgasm are considerably lower than men’s.

First Intercourse Before 16: Cons and Pros

The risk of sex-related physical and mental health concerns is age-related. As mentioned, the younger teens are at first partnered with genital play, the more likely they are to experience difficulties.

About 10 percent of participants recalled that their first partner sexual experience involved feeling pressured, coerced, or assaulted—20 percent of the women, 4 percent of the men. In addition, around 4 percent of the total sample said their first partner sexual experiences resulted in sexual infections or pregnancy—6 percent of the women, 1 percent of the men. Most of those teens were younger than the typical age range for the various milestones, sometimes much younger. Most troubling, those reporting first intercourse at unusually young ages were likely to recall having been coerced (p < 0.003).

That’s why parents, teachers, and sex educators work so hard to delay teens’ first intercourse. If adolescents wait until at least 16, they’re likelier to enjoy less problematic, more pleasurable partner play.

But the researchers also found that early partnered play—starting around age 15—had unexpected upsides: less sexual inhibition (p < 0.001), more desire (p < 0.001), and less pain (p < 0.01), in other words, better sexual functioning.

The upshot is that very early sexual debut, say, intercourse at 13, is strongly associated with coercion and other problems. Teens need to be taught to avoid forced sex and, if it looms, to stop it by resisting, leaving, asking friends for help at parties, and/or calling their parents.

But within the typical age ranges for the sexual milestones, for both young men and women, debut on the early side has benefits, notably better, more enjoyable sexual functioning.


Age at puberty:,9%20and%2014%20in%20boys.

Else-Quest, NM et al. “Context Counts: Long-Term Sequelae of Premarital Intercourse or Abstinence,” Journal of Sex Research (2005) 42:102.

Peragine, DE et al. “The Risks and Benefits of Being ‘Early to Bed”: Toward a Broader Understanding of Age at Sexual Debut and Sexual Health in Adulthood,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2022) 19:1343.

Rapsey, CM et al. “Age, Quality, and Context of First Sex: Associations with Sexual Difficulties,” Journal of Sexual Medicine (2014) 11:2873.

Sandfort, TG et al. “Long-Term Health Correlates of Timing of Sexual Debut: Results from a National U.S. Study,” American Journal of Public Health (2008) 98:155.

Schwartz, IM et al. “A Gender-Based Generational Comparison of Sexual Behaviors Adolescents Engage in Prior to First Coitus,” Sex Research and Social Policy (2022) 19:521.

More from Michael Castleman M.A.
More from Psychology Today