Having Sex for the First Time: Who Makes the Decision?

Is your decision to have sex made by you?

Posted Oct 30, 2018

Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock
Source: Branislav Nenin/Shutterstock

Recently, in my Human Sexuality class, I asked the students to describe their reasons for engaging in sex for the first time. My students are young, and their memories of sexual initiation are fresh. One student told of being ridiculed by his girlfriend for his hesitancy to go all the way, until he succumbed; another 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. As they recounted their stories, one theme emerged with clarity from the myriad narratives: the importance of social influence.

This observation — that sexual initiation is shaped in part by social forces and pressures — is not new, and has been documented amply in the research literature. The issue matters, because first sex is a robust predictor of young people’s future. Generally, research has shown that early initiation predicts worse outcomes for adolescents. On the other hand, a good first experience, like a good first impression in other areas, may go a long way toward setting youngsters on a path to sexual fulfillment (I have written about this in an earlier column).

The discussion of sexual initiation often focuses on the effects of peers. And, indeed, peers are influential. Peer norms shape individual behavior, and individuals routinely replicate peer relationship norms in their dating and romantic behavioral scripts. Research has suggested that peers’ characteristics may predict individual sexual behavior better than the individual’s own characteristics. 

Peer influence is strong in large part because, contrary to popular belief, adolescents are not engaged in a search for individual identity, but rather in a search for group affiliation; they are not looking to find themselves, but to find their tribe. Even when adolescents rebel, they are not seeking aloneness, but rather rejecting one group in favor of another. And they are wise to do so. We are only as strong, as safe, and as clearly defined as our affiliations. One aspect of belonging to a tribe is following tribal norms and expectations, sexual and otherwise.

To be sure, peers are not the whole story. Behavior is multiply determined, and many factors conspire to shape, and predict, sexual initiation. Parental involvement plays a role, as does partner availability, particularly for men, the neighborhood context, and temperament. Risk takers in nonsexual realms are more likely to take sexual risks as well. A history of violence and substance use predicts early initiation 

One theory in this area argues that early sex has evolutionary underpinnings, as girls from a chaotic home environment, particularly where the father is absent, are more likely to menstruate and have sex early, as this strategy is advantageous for gene propagation under conditions of uncertainty. When you’re not sure if there’s a tomorrow, you’d better act now. 

A truly satisfactory, comprehensive model of prediction for sexual initiation is yet to be developed. The best such model appears to be the so-called Integrative Model for behavioral prediction. It assumes that "background factors," (such as demographic and social characteristics) shape the beliefs that determine attitudes (how I feel about the issue), perceived normative pressure (what I think others feel about it), and self-efficacy (what I feel I can do), which in turn facilitate the formation of intentions to engage in the behavior of interest.  

One thread that runs through most of the research (as with my anecdotal class experience) is the finding that context matters. In fact, much of what we think of as our individual behavior is not solely — or even primarily — guided by our individual, independent wishes and desires. Even those behaviors that we carry out individually do not emerge whole cloth from within our individual minds, but are in fact gifts from the culture.

In psychology, this notion was perhaps most clearly articulated by the great Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

According to Vygotsky, individuals are never as independent and free of outside influences as they appear. Rather, human thoughts and actions — even when performed by an individual who is acting alone; even when no one is around — are inherently social. A mind cannot operate, or be understood or evaluated, independent of tribe, of social context, of the cultural environment. Vygotsky famously explained it thus: “Every function in the child’s cultural development appears twice: first, on the social level, and later, on the individual level; first, between people (interpsychological) and then inside the child (intrapsychological)… All the higher functions originate as actual relationships between individuals” (Mind in Society, p.57). 

For Vygotsky, individual function derives from cultural process. Thus, any effort to understand individual behavior and mental processes has to look outside of the individual, into the processes of social life. Even consciousness for Vygotsky is a product of socialization. You begin to talk to interact with others, and then you develop an internal dialogue, an inner world where complex language enables complex thought, and a self. Vygotsky, in other words, sees the self as made from culture.

This view is counterintuitive at first blush, yet its elegance and explanatory power are difficult to deny. We are, above all, learning herd animals, and we learn though interaction with our herd. Our social environment affords us certain types of interactions, teaches us certain concepts, and directs us into certain niches and habits. A mind, said Vygotsky, cannot be independent of culture. Indeed, it emerges from social interaction like sound emerges from two hands clapping. Per Vygotsky, “Everything within us is social.” 

Clearly, the relationship between the individual and the culture are reciprocal. The culture gives us tools, and we in turn use them in the cultural space. But for Vygotsky, it is the cultural influence that dominates the picture. By way of analogy: When I was a soldier, we used to say that when you spit at the army, the army wipes off its face; when the army spits at you, you drown.

I know of no systematic attempt in the literature to apply Vygotsky’s ideas specifically to sexual behavior. But the connection appears quite intuitive. Vygotsky himself, in his writing about adolescent development, noted that sexual maturation co-occurs with the child’s social maturation, and that the emerging biological needs are given concrete psychological content within the child’s specific social environment. 

Society provides the norms (e.g., adolescent sex is OK), the tools (e.g., contraceptives; privacy; internet porn), and the narratives and scripts for sexual behavior (e.g., what should happen on a date; the sequence of "bases," etc.). The decision to have sex, therefore, may be yours, but you are constructed by the culture, a conduit for its notions of sexuality. No wonder you resonate with the currents and force fields of culture. Going along with the culture is on some level the deepest assertion of self. 

The American mindset tends to see the self as the foundational unit of analysis, the primary agent; it sees the action as moving from the individual out toward society; great individual ideas and actions create, shape, and lead society. In the American ethos, it is noble to be the rugged individualist, to resist peer pressure, to do your thing, to stand out from the crowd.

Vygotsky argues that this view is, for one, wrongheaded. Striving amidst a crowd of strivers is de facto conformity. This view is also misguided. Your peers are part of you. Resisting them is in part self-negation, akin to refusing to speak English around English speakers when English is your native tongue.

One practical implication of all this may rest in the prediction that changing social norms, rules, scripts, and expectations will do more for changing patterns of sexual initiation than trying to increase individual will power, self-control, or self-esteem. What may end up mattering more for sexual initiation and beyond is not what you want for yourself, but what your culture wants for you.