When you are thinking about “having sex” for the first time, the stakes can seem really high. After all, the society and pop culture around you have been telling you that at some point in your life you will “lose your virginity,” as if it were an actual possession that you give away, never to have again.
In fact, “there is no part of your body called ‘virginity,’” says Logan Levkoff, PhD, a sexuality educator in Manhattan. “It is a socially constructed term that is steeped in old ideas of who must maintain virginity. It’s loaded with shame and stigma, because if you lose something you can never get it back. That phrase is designed to make people feel guilty.”
Plus, it only applies to one particular sex act -- vaginal intercourse (when a penis is inserted into a vagina), which leaves out other equally intimate sex acts and sex with a same-sex partner.
Broaden Your Definition of What Sex Is
When school sex educator Al Vernacchio, of Wynnewood, PA, talks to high school students who are interested in having sex, he asks them: “What’s important to you about having sex? Is it pleasure, is it intimacy, is it connection, or is it just achieving some external mark that seems to have some societal meaning?” Then, when he has a clear sense of what someone is actually interested in, “we talk about some of the best ways to achieve that,” Vernacchio says. That could involve vaginal intercourse, but there’s a lot more out there that you can experiment with as you are becoming a sexually active person.
What you define as sex is a personal decision, but the sex educators interviewed for this piece agreed that it involves the genitals. For Levkoff, any time there is genital contact, whether with a hand, a mouth, or another person’s genitals, she considers it sex. Jo Langford, a psychotherapist, sex and tech educator in Seattle, uses genitals and penetration as a benchmark (and that includes oral sex).
But all argue that broadening your definition of sex achieves a lot of things. It makes sex more inclusive. It takes the pressure off one sex act being the be-all and end-all, and it allows you time to experiment with what you like and what feels good. And that gives you a chance to work up to the sexual acts that come with more significant potential outcomes.
Some things that can be considered sex:
- Masturbating with your partner
- Masturbating each other
- Oral sex
- Vaginal penetration
- Anal penetration
Ask Yourself Some Questions First
“Whomever is involved and whatever parts they’re using, they are deeply personal, intimate acts,” Levkoff says. “They all come with the potential for pleasure, they all need protection -- emotional and physical -- and they all need consent.” That means you should feel comfortable enough with yourself -- and with the person you want to share your body with -- to ask the important questions and think through what you both want and are prepared for.
“One of the things I say constantly is, if you can’t talk about it, then you should not be doing it,” Langford says. “If there’s no way you would ask your partner about their sexual history, then that’s a sign that maybe you are not ready for this.”
Levkoff offers these questions to help guide you through the decision about what you are ready for.
- Is it something that I want to be doing? Is this decision for me?
- Am I comfortable with my body?
- Do I know how to negotiate with my partner?
- Am I going to put my pleasure as equal to my partner’s?
- Is my partnership at a state where it will be a quality experience? “Love is a super loaded term that means different things to different people,” says Levkoff, so her benchmark is: “Is there care, respect, and equity in your partnership?”
- Do I know how to manage certain outcomes? For instance, getting treatment for a sexually transmitted infection (STI), having people gossip about what I did or didn’t do, accessing plan B if I have unprotected sex, an unplanned pregnancy.
- Am I ready to purchase protection to avoid STIs and unwanted pregnancy?
- Am I ready to talk to a medical provider about how to take care of myself?
- Am I ready to make the commitment to be tested for STIs?
- If something happens that I don’t expect, do I have a plan for how to handle it?
“Ideally, you want your heart, your mind, and your crotch to be firing at the same speed,” Langford says. “For most people that doesn’t happen until 16, when they can get their driver’s license and reach a place where they are learning how to make grown-up decisions, which can be really motivating and empowering.”
Vernacchio agrees that teenagers younger than that are probably not ready for genital contact. “The way our society is structured, when you’re 13 or 14 and you’re a 9th grader, you are at the beginning of a whole new phase of your life as a high school kid,” Vernacchio says. “There’s a vulnerability there that make it easier for kids to be taken advantage of or for power to be misused against them, intentionally or unintentionally.”
Get Clear About Consent
“Everything we do with our bodies, from holding hands to kissing to sharing our genitals in any capacity, requires consent,” Levkoff says. “Consent is you being able to take agency over your own body to say, ‘this is what I want, this feels good,’ or ‘no, this is not what I want.’” And that applies to everything. When Langford talks about consent, he likes to use a pizza analogy. “You wouldn’t order pizza for someone without finding out what they want on it and you wouldn’t grab a slice off their plate or take a bite of their slice without asking,” he says. “Go out and order pizza with someone before you have sex and see how that goes. You are exercising the same muscles you use for consent.”
Another thing to be prepared for is how to handle it if the person you are being intimate with does not want to do the same things you do or decides they want to stop. It’s important to be ready for “hearing and recognizing and being OK with a ‘no’ and managing your feelings around that,” Levkoff says.
Find Out What Feels Good to You
“A lot of people grow up thinking that someone else will flip the switch that makes them a sexual being, but that’s giving someone else a lot of power,” Levkoff says. “There is something really empowering and important about knowing your body is capable of pleasure on its own.” Masturbation is a great way to get to know what feels good to you. And it “will help you explain to somebody else what feels good to you,” Langford says.
Because porn has become a fairly ubiquitous experience, and because it presents a very unrealistic picture of sex, Langford recommends that people who have been masturbating with porn aim to masturbate 50% of the time with just your imagination. That will help you find out what is a turn on for you personally and increase the likelihood that your first experiences with someone else are fulfilling. If you rely only on pornography to reach an orgasm, you may find it hard to orgasm when you are physically intimate with another person. “Having a healthy imagination is so important for consent and intimacy and romance,” Langford says.
“There is this common expectation that if you are a heterosexual, male-bodied boy-identified person, that at some point in high school you are going to get a blow job from a girl,” Vernacchio says, “but we do not see the same kind of expectation about girls getting sexual pleasure. I like to call that out. Too often we sacrifice female pleasure on the altar of having sex for the first time, and that’s not fair.”
And the reality is that “the majority of orgasms for people with vulvas and vaginas do not come from sexual intercourse,” Levkoff says. Which means that “if you are interested in your female partner having an orgasm, that may not be the best thing to do for your initial sexual interaction,” Vernacchio says. “If you are masturbating each other or masturbating with each other, that can be a really pleasurable experience.”
But Don’t Expect Pain
“There’s always been a whisper network about how it’s going to hurt the first time, it’s going to bleed,” Levkoff says. “I think people with vaginas have a huge amount of fear around this, particularly with my teenage students, they ask, ‘How painful is it going to be?’” The answer that she and other sex educators give is that with care and communication it does not have to be painful.
“Penetrative sex shouldn’t hurt,” Vernacchio says. Ways to make sure your first experience with penetrative sex is not painful include doing what you can to make it a relaxed experience. This is where those conversations and open communication with your partner come into play, as well as going slow and gently. Lubrication from being aroused and/or lubrication products are a big help, too, Levkoff says.
And practicing penetration -- whether in an anus or vagina -- beforehand is good idea. “Use a finger first,” Levkoff recommends, “so there is gradual insertion going on. There are muscles, blood vessels, and thin tissue that is expanding for the first time. So, it’s really important to have consent, protection, and lubrication. We really need to be with partners who we can talk to about these things, so we are comfortable.”It’s also helpful for people with vaginas to know that the hymen is an overhyped body part. “It’s basically a thin membrane that is left over from in utero development,” Levkioff says. “Most people do not have intact hymens, or they would not be able to menstruate, and most of the time the hymen has been abraded and worn away -- just from living life -- long before someone has sex for the first time.”
Work Toward an Experience That You Want to Have
For me the most important part of the conversation is, ‘Why do you want to do this? What do you want to get out of it?’” Vernacchio says. “And then, choose something that is really going to meet those goals.”