- New study examines the experience of sexual pleasure during first sexual experience(s).
- Determinants of sexual pleasure included gender, positive parental communication, and consent.
- Sex education that includes discussions about sexual agency and sexual pleasure are critical for overall sexual health.
Think back to your very first sexual experience. What do you remember? How did it feel? Did it live up to the anticipation? Was it fun and exciting? Or perhaps was it painful or unwanted? Maybe it was just unremarkable?
While there are numerous ways we may have experienced our first sexual encounter, rarely do we consider asking teens and young adults about how pleasurable their experience was, nor what might have allowed the experience of sexual pleasure to occur.
In a new study just published in The Journal of Sex Research, authors conducted a rapid review of articles published between 1990 and 2020 that explored sexual pleasure during first sexual experiences.
Inclusion criteria were that all articles were written in English and the title and abstract had to contain a reference to first sexual experience and sexual pleasure. The final sample included 23 papers that were quantitative (n = 16), qualitative (n = 6), and mixed-methods (n = 1).
While the authors considered a broad definition of “sex” with the intention of being as inclusive as possible (i.e., allowing for oral sex and anal sex, not just penile-vaginal intercourse) they noted that 17 out of the 23 studies used penile-vaginal intercourse as the definition of first sexual encounter.
The authors note that the definition of sexual pleasure varies for people and across studies in their sample. The most common phrases used to define sexual pleasure were satisfaction, enjoyment, happiness, and positive emotional reactions to first sexual experiences.
They then dug deeper to better understand: What makes sexual pleasure during a first sexual experience more likely to occur?
What Determines Sexual Pleasure in First Sexual Experiences?
Across studies, young men and boys were more likely to report positive and pleasurable first sexual experiences than young women. Boys and young men often reported that their first sexual experience was a rite of passage that came with both psychological and physical satisfaction. In contrast, women and girls' first sexual experiences were more often described as negative, and were often associated with feelings of guilt, pain, and regret.
The participants in the studies were primarily high-school students and college-aged students. Regardless of which age range was examined, the authors noted that older age tended to be more positively associated with sexual pleasure, although some studies found that younger age (e.g., 15 and younger) was also associated with sexual pleasure. They note that while age appears to play a role, age alone does not touch on maturity nor emotional readiness and, thus, may not be an overly reliable measuring stick for predicting sexual pleasure.
3. Relationship Structure
More positive, pleasurable sexual experiences tended to occur in the context of a relationship. However, the key element was less simply being in a relationship but, rather, being in a positive relationship that allowed sexual self-expression, sexual agency, and the ability to engage in sexual communication, particularly for women.
4. Positive Parental Communication
Positive parental communication about sex, sexual agency, and sexual self-awareness was a key factor in promoting the possibility of sexual pleasure. Specifically, open, accepting, sex-positive conversations about sex with parents about safe sex and what sex can mean and can include, appeared to help teens and young adults more effectively navigate their first sexual experience and, consequently, experience sexual pleasure.
5. Time and Location
The authors noted there was a positive association between sexual pleasure and having enough time to consider and plan what sex would look like and what individuals want from their sexual experience (versus times when sex was described as being more spontaneous or unexpected). Unexpected sexual encounters were also less likely to include foreplay and sexual communication, which tends to be linked to lower levels of pleasure and satisfaction.
6. Sexual Consent
Perhaps most critically, the ability to consent to a first sexual encounter played a key role in sexual pleasure. However, consent was described as being more complex than simply saying yes to sex in the moment. The authors note that consent includes having the time, space, and opportunity to carefully plan and think through the kind of sex we want to be engaging in, suggesting that consent starts with an intimate knowledge of our own sexuality before sharing that experience with a partner.
The findings from this study highlight the need to include sexual pleasure and agency as part of sexual health education, noting that current models of sexual health tend to focus on abstinence, delaying sexual debut, and preventing sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy.
The authors also suggest that more open conversations with family members about defining sex and considering readiness to engage in sex are key to promoting better sexual experiences for young people.
It’s important to note that the majority of the studies were conducted in what the authors considered high-income and upper-middle-income countries, and many of the studies (18 of 23) were of men and women living in the Global North. Consequently, the findings are most applicable to predominantly While middle- to upper-class heterosexual educated respondents, and more research is still needed on the experiences of sexual pleasure among a more diverse sample, varying by country of origin, ethnicity, education, and socioeconomic status.
Facebook image: Juice Dash/Shutterstock
Boydell, V., Wright, K., & Smith, R. (2021). A rapid review of sexual pleasure in first sexual experience(s). The Journal of Sex Research, https://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2021.1904810