What’s a “first time,” anyway?

A study on virginity loss raises questions about how we define sex -- so we talk to people about their "first"

Topics: Sex, Love and Sex, virgin, Editor's Picks,

What's a "first time," anyway? (Credit: krivenko via Shutterstock)

The story that I typically tell of my “first time” takes place in a hotel room with my longtime high school boyfriend and involves an enthusiastic romp through the entire goddamn Kama Sutra. But months before we had made several attempts at sex: It’s just, he was nervous, I was tense, and so we didn’t get all that far. This may sound crude, but how far in does a penis have to go for it to count as a “first time”? How many thrusts, exactly? What if there is no penis involved — or no vagina? And more to the point: What the hell is virginity?

Those are the thoughts that came to mind earlier this week when a study started making the rounds alleging that our “first time” influences the rest of our sex lives. Positive first-times correlated with greater carnal bliss later on, while negative experiences were associated with sexual dissatisfaction. In addition to the study’s limitations — including that the participants were undergrads, many of whom only just recently started having sex — there is the issue of how, exactly, to define virginity. It’s a tricky question that certainly applies beyond the exclusively heterosexual sample that the study looked at.

In the collective pop culture brain, the “first time” looks very particular: A guy and a girl in the missionary position. But in real life, it’s not so uniform — so I decided to talk to people about defining their first time.

Jodie’s “bursting open moment,” as she calls it, happened before she ever had penetrative, missionary-position sex. The first time she gave a blow job, at the age of 19, was when “the sexuality and desire I kept hidden came pouring out,” she says. As a strictly religious teenager — a personal rebellion against her laid-back parents — she had turned off her sexuality like a light switch. That night “felt significant,” she says, “because not only did it confirm my suspicions that I was, indeed, a sensual sex goddess but it gave me permission to [be one].” That’s why she considers it her “first time,” even though it wasn’t sex-sex, as heterosexual mainstream culture would have it.



Lest you think this a sensitive lady-feelings thing, consider Adam. In college, “while receiving oral sex from a girl I was really crazy about,” he says, “I had my first orgasm administered by another person.” He had penetrative — there’s no other way to put this — penis-in-vagina sex (or “PIV”) four years later, but he counts that blow job as his “first time.” “It was at that moment I understood why people get so crazy about sex,” he says. “It was like the first time I dropped the clutch on a sports car and felt the back of my head get pushed back into the headrest, and I understood how people get into fast cars, because the feeling is singular and intense.”

In both cases, these first times were defined by the revelation of the sexual experience, not necessarily by the anatomical particulars of the act itself. In the past, I’ve talked with gay men who had heterosexual sex first but consider their virginity loss to be their first time with a man.

Similarly, Lux Alptraum, CEO of Fleshbot, has an emotional definition of her first time. At 16 she had “oral sex and fingering stuff with my first boyfriend,” she says. Months later, with her first girlfriend, she says, “we had the sex that I prefer to consider my loss of virginity — if only because at the end of the day, it was the most pleasant of all the experiences.” Although she notes, “Since we just had oral sex, pretty much, it wasn’t actually a qualitatively different experience from what I experienced with the boyfriend.”

That said, she counts another significant “first”: losing her “PIV” virginity during a drunken hookup with a co-worker. “Though it wasn’t good sex, I definitely thought it was sex. I specifically remember him getting a condom and what felt like penetration,” she says, but he later denied that they had successfully had sex, claiming that she had been too tight to complete the act. Ultimately, she tells me, “I am 30 years old and I am still not really sure when I ‘lost’ my virginity.”

Other people that I spoke with wondered if a first time was defined by orgasm. Anna was a late bloomer: She hadn’t masturbated to orgasm until age 25 and had her first open-mouthed kiss at 28. In the same evening, that first kiss transformed into “extended sexual intimacy” with the woman she would later marry. But she was too “hyper-stimulated” to orgasm, so she asks, “Did I lose my ‘virginity’ to myself?” Or did she lose her virginity several nights later when she had her first partnered orgasm?

Tracy Quan, a novelist, Daily Beast writer and former sex worker, differentiates between her first non-commercial and commercial time. The first time she had sex for money she says, “I was just trying something out. It was a whim, an experiment. I went on with my life and rarely thought about the encounter.” But she considers her real commercial first-time to have happened later when she made it as a “professional decision.” “I said to myself, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and set sail” — and that time was “a life-shaping event,” she says.

What’s the common thread here? It isn’t a medical definition of virginity — of which there is none, by the way — but rather an emotional one. Now there’s something worthy of a study.

Tracy Clark-Flory

Tracy Clark-Flory is a staff writer at Salon. Follow @tracyclarkflory on Twitter and Facebook.

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