BREAKING: How you view sex determines how you view sex

There’s this study making the rounds which says that how you lose your virginity impacts the rest of your entire sexual life. Which is an accurate reading of the study, if by “your entire sexual life” you mean “roughly the next one to four years” and if by “how you lose your virginity” you actually mean “how you feel about sex.”

PROBLEM: Common knowledge says that sex the first time is usually not-so-great; something to be endured more than enjoyed, as an initiation into sexual adulthood. But what if there’s even more pressure on that situation than we realize, and how it goes the first time affects the sex you have for the rest of your life?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the Universities of Tennessee and Mississippi grilled undergrads — 206 women and 113 men — about when and how they lost their virginity. How content were they? To what degree did they regret it? Their first-time experiences were characterized in terms of “anxiety” “negativity,” “connection” and “afterglow.”

They asked the students to rate their current sex lives in terms of sense of control, satisfaction, and general well-being. Then for the next two weeks, they had them keep sex diaries describing and rating all of their “sexual interactions” (any encounter “in which the purpose was sexual arousal”).

RESULTS: Positive first-time experiences reliably predicted physical and emotional satisfaction in later sexual interactions. Those who had more positive initiations into sex scored higher for sexual satisfaction and esteem later on, and reported less “sexual depression.” Feeling loved and respected by one’s partner was associated with more emotional satisfaction later on, and physical satisfaction, even when controlling for the overall emotional experience, was self-perpetuating as well. Anxiety and negativity experienced when losing one’s virginity was associated with lower overall sexual functioning.

CONCLUSION: “These results suggest that one’s first-time sexual experience is more than just a milestone in development,” wrote the authors. “Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later.”

It’s not impossible to conduct a study that asks participants to rate an experience they had potentially many years ago, but it’s hard. And it’s silly to assume that “losing” one’s virginity (WHERE DID IT GO?) shapes one’s feelings about sex rather than acknowledging that one’s feeling about sex inevitably shape one’s experience of sexual initiation as well as subsequent sex acts.

Does how you had sex for the first time probably influence, to some degree, how you see sex? I mean sure. If there was violence involved that’s going to be influential. And however you had the consensual sex the first time was probably largely determined by your own values, desires and views on sex. Of course that will have reverberations. But “losing your virginity” isn’t a thing that just happens absent any context, and whether it felt good or bad or anxiety-inducing or loving has as much to do with your perspective and your sexual belief system than the act itself. If you think sex is a bad thing or a dirty thing or a thing that girls shouldn’t want, then your sexual initiation is probably not going to feel awesome, and neither will later sexual experiences. But that’s not a “bad” virginity loss making the rest of your sex life shitty. That’s a lifetime of internalizing shitty views of sex that’s making the rest of your sex life shitty.


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About Jill

Jill began blogging for Feministe in 2005. She has since written as a weekly columnist for the Guardian newspaper and in April 2014 she was appointed as senior political writer for Cosmopolitan magazine.
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45 Responses to BREAKING: How you view sex determines how you view sex

  1. Hey, stupid correlations! I bet if we randomly select a sexual experience in a person’s life, and ask if it was good, it will strongly correlate to how people feel about the rest of their sexual experiences. Because that’s obvious.

    What I’d like to see is the relationship between the number of consensual, partnered sexual experiences someone has before penile-insertive sex (for those who engage in it) and present satisfaction. My hunch is that people whose sex lives later involve penetrative sex, but who have a lot of sexual experiences that don’t include penile-penetrative sex before they get there, are much happier with their later sex lives, for a variety of reasons.

    • My hunch is that people whose sex lives later involve penetrative sex, but who have a lot of sexual experiences that don’t include penile-penetrative sex before they get there, are much happier with their later sex lives, for a variety of reasons.

      Seconded with vehemence.

      • rox says:

        God I relate to this so much (would be curious about actual research). My first experience was with someone who was abusive so I won’t go into details- but needless to say I basically experience making out with a guy with clothes on once– and then sex just sort of happened. It was awful.

        I think in highschool, college, there should be a lot more affirmation of making out with nosex and practice respecting boundaries and going slow.

        Because once you’re 30 it’s so hard to find anyone who will kind of…go backwards to the way young people date and do the sweet things… holding hands, cuddling and watching movies… becoming intimate or doing somethings but not others. Over a matter of months rather than a few weeks.

        I just never got to do that and there’s no way to replicate it. I wish I could find someone who wanted to date that way so I could actually have the experience of choosing what kind of intimacy feels safe and ok and actually work up to WANTING it. Most ofmy experiences have involved some degree of wanting intimacy but sex almost always coming way before I’m ready and just tolerating it for the sake of having the other intimacy. That feels pretty awful so now I just don’t date. Fending off (even well intentioned) advances brings on panic symptoms for me and it just feels bad. It’s not fun. I don’t like dating at all. Which is sad because I love intimacy and closeness.

    • LC says:

      I’d plead confirmation bias on expecting that result as well. :)

  2. Fat Steve says:

    Hmmmm…so I view sex as a minute exchange of fluids in the woods during a park party with an older woman (I was in 8th grade, she in 9th) who I found out the next day had been with 5 other guys at the same party.

    That will come as quite a shock to my wife of 18 years.

  3. So do people who’ve never had sex not have any feelings about it, or opinions, if it’s all about “losing one’s virginity”? And does that refer only to PiV sex? Wow, didn’t know having feelings or thoughts about sex were things you could only do if you were a paid-up member of the club.

    Spot on about the context, too, Jill. What about feelings resulting from the person one is having sex with? Say one’s first time is okay, or just meh, or whatever (I’m not thinking of something traumatic). Why should that first time override a later experience with someone you’re madly in love or lust with? It’s like humans are some sort of robots who can only be programmed once.

    Stoopid.

    • Madeleine N. says:

      Yes, thank you. This is also how I feel about people who purport that past sexual partners/experiences dictate present gender or sexual identity.

    • EG says:

      On the one hand, I certainly agree. On the other hand…I think the bar for “trauma” can be lower than we think. I’ve had bad experiences that affected me for years that I would never term trauma or assault or rape or anything like that…just being treated badly.

      That said, the same is true of non-sexual experiences, in my opinion.

      • Lolagirl says:

        I think the bar for “trauma” can be lower than we think. I’ve had bad experiences that affected me for years that I would never term trauma or assault or rape or anything like that…just being treated badly.

        Ita. My “first time” was with a guy I later would discover was a giant asshole, and it was really awful. And that experience stayed with me for a long time after we split up. I wouldn’t say it was necessarily a trauma, but it took me a long time to deprogram the messages I got from him that sex had to be awful and shaming.

        So, I dunno, it doesn’t have to cast all future sexual experiences in a negative light, but I don’t get the resistance to the notion that it might and certainly can for some people. Individual experiences varying and all that.

      • Fat Steve says:

        On the one hand, I certainly agree.

        On the one hand was actually my first sexual experience…

      • Bagelsan says:

        I lol’d.

      • Past my expiration date says:

        Actually, the study says it’s not an intimate encounter unless it’s with somebody else. Which is actually kind of a metaphysical statement.

      • EG – yeah, I was using traumatic pretty widely there, both in the sense of rape or assault and in the sense of something that leaves bad memories for years, as you described. I probably used it too widely, but I think we’re talking about generally the same thing.

        Lolagirl – I think you’ve summed it up exactly with individual experiences. There isn’t a template for how people’s sex lives are going to turn out (and gosh! They can change over a lifetime!) much less this first-time-sets-it-in-stone idea.

  4. Caperton says:

    My first time was one of those “if I do this for him, he’ll love me” kind of things (despite having been given the message early on that “if I do this for him, he’ll love me” isn’t an effective or preferred strategy), and we only did it the once, and it was dead lousy, and we ended up breaking up about a month later. But the next time the opportunity for sex arose, I figured, “Well, I’m already rurnt, so I might as well” and ended up having years of fantastic, hot monkey lovin’ with a talented and enthusiastic guy. And it almost certainly wouldn’t have happened had I not seen myself as already sullied beyond repair.

    • Alyson says:

      I was kind of in the same boat…my first time was because I thought my boyfriend of over a year would cheat on me if I didn’t. It wasn’t great, he cheated anyway, and a few months later he raped me, and then a few months after that we broke up (yes, my life was fucked up.) With the next guy, sex often felt like a necessary, functional transaction to make him happy/keep him from leaving, until he started needing me more than I needed him. It took a while before I began to view sex as good for its own sake, in the context of my life, even after we broke up (the break-up happened, of course, because he was pissed off that I wouldn’t fuck him and started reading my private e-mails).

  5. librarygoose says:

    So I get to always view sex as something done out of curiosity that will lead me to laughing at the guy when he says he loves me? Not my finest moment of empathy, but alright then.

  6. Andrew says:

    Seconded The Kitteh’s.

    What exactly qualifies as “sex” in this study?

    That time I was sexually assaulted when I was pre-teen, the later molestation, the awkward fumbling with that girl who told me she didn’t believe it was my first time as I felt hopelessly confused…?

    Cause most “sex” for me isn’t humiliating or hopelessly confusing (HEY, I said mostly!), so not sure what I should take from this study.

  7. Past my expiration date says:

    How did they get a paper published where they’re studying “first sexual experience”, but they never define what it is, beyond that it’s heterosexual and synonymous with “losing one’s virginity” (which they don’t define either)? And they don’t even bother mentioning in the abstract that the study is limited to heterosexual “first sexual experiences”?

  8. Colin says:

    Words like ‘virgin’ or ‘virginity’ (at least in the literal sense) ought to be struck from the English language. We don’t have a word for what you ‘lose’ if you do anything else for the first time, whether it’s eating a taco or having a baby. The only ‘virginity’ that actually means anything from a biological point of view is that of your immune system, where the first time encounter with a particular substance really does shape all subsequent encounters. But I don’t think possible allergic reactions to another person’s bodily fluids are really what is being discussed here.

    Studies like this at least ought to be using phrasing like ‘the first time you had sex’ to minimise the amount of baggage that is tied to the terminology.

    • H-nought says:

      The only ‘virginity’ that actually means anything from a biological point of view is that of your immune system, where the first time encounter with a particular substance really does shape all subsequent encounters.

      And even for subjects like that the term I usually see in scientific literature is ‘naive’, which is much more neutral and much less loaded than ‘virgin’

    • Alara Rogers says:

      You can lose your innocence, by discovering there is no such thing as Santa Claus, killing a person, or, well, having sex.

      I find it highly problematic that innocence of sin (not guilty), innocence of deception (what do you mean there is no Santa Claus), and innocence of sexuality are all considered the exact same word… it’s like “innocence” has come to mean a dimension in which you are childlike, where you haven’t had sex, you trust people you shouldn’t, and you haven’t done anything really bad yet. But at least it’s not specific to sex, unlike virginity.

    • tomek says:

      well inside woman there is thing which i cannot remember the name of. but when she have first time sex, it is there no longer.

      also telling to woman that they should not value there verginity seems sexist to me. is this not like saying male thing is higher than female thing? because having casual view of sex is male thing. having not casual view of sex is female thing. so saying that having female view of sex is bad… well this is sexist.

      it is like how modern femanist say we shouldnt disrespect female things such as make-up and leg hairs, as second wave femanist did.

  9. Iris says:

    Touching on the “next one to four years” aspect of things Jill did: I imagine the odds of these college students still being involved with the first-time partner are much higher than for a different population (if you ran this with an older group, I mean.) For those statistically relevant students A. they still have their love goggles on (are invested in the positive story of their first time with this person), B. they don’t know what anyone else is like in bed, etc.

    My first actual PIV sex was pretty underwhelming. Like, “I was fantasizing about THIS?” But my sex life now, I am veeeeeery happy with. Because it’s been decades and I broke up with that asshole. (And, side note: TMM’s suggested test would in fact predict I have an awesome sex life, since this PIV disappointment was 3 years behind other activities! Anecdata are fun!)

  10. Pat says:

    Striking words from the English language is right up there with burning books. OK I know it was bit of rhetorical hyperbole, and yes I know that as a social construct virginity carries a lot of historical and cultural baggage that is not compatible with much current Western thinking (nor with my attitudes for that matter)… nevertheless I don’t have a problem with words like virgin and virginity in any of their many linguistic and historical senses. As for losing it, sure you can joke about it (where did I put it? I must have left it on the bus, etc) but we also lose face, lose respect, lose time, lose money, lose innocence, lose a job, lose a game, etc etc etc.

    When I lost my virginity it was more significant, more memorable and more enjoyable than my first taco.

    • Fat Steve says:

      nevertheless I don’t have a problem with words like virgin and virginity in any of their many linguistic and historical senses. As for losing it, sure you can joke about it (where did I put it? I must have left it on the bus, etc) but we also lose face, lose respect, lose time, lose money, lose innocence, lose a job, lose a game, etc etc etc.

      It seems you didn’t notice that all those examples of losing you give are negative, or you might have realized why the concept is harmful. Wow, you are such a loser! (Please take that as a compliment, as you clearly have no problem with the word.)

  11. Pat says:

    I should also add (assuming my previous comment gets posted) that I agree with the basic premise here that this kind of so-called study is a sad comment on what passes for academic research. But I hope that hardly needs to be said.

  12. Athenia says:

    To what degree did they regret it?

    I love/hate how the word “regret” assumes consent. I feel if were really concerned about the ramifications of first time sex, they would realize that for some people first time sex was rape.

    • Miriam says:

      They do, but they dismiss it as non-normative. “The initial sample comprised 331 participants who attended the orientation sessions and completed the questionnaire; however, we removed 12 participants (10 women and 2 men) from additional analyses because they characterized their first-time experiences as involving physical force (which we felt would make their first time nonnormative). ”

      That seems very blithe to me and inconsistent with the purpose of the study.

    • Miriam says:

      Also, they explicitly limit their study to heterosexual sex. They do not explain why (at least not in the part of the study I’ve gotten to). My best guess is again that it fits into this concept of normative vs. non-normative experiences, although I have not yet seen a definition of what they consider to be a normative experience or even how they communicated the definition of a first-time sexual experience (P-I-V only? anal? oral?)

  13. Datdamwuf says:

    Yes, this “has as much to do with your perspective and your sexual belief system than the act itself.” Exactly. I set out to have sex the first time with someone older/experienced and no strings because I just wanted to see if it was more awesome than what I could do for myself. It was. Then that whole stupid “virginity” troupe screwed it up. The guy literally wanted to marry me solely because he was my first. Good thing I was moving in 3 weeks, he was relentless in pursuit.

  14. Tim says:

    I dunno, I think there might be something to this … I lost my virginity to a cucumber I had grown myself, and 40 years later I still really love both gardening and salads.

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