According to almost every teen-centered film or television show ever produced, losing your virginity is a big deal. A really big deal. But just how important is that one sexual event when the reality is that sexually active people may have sex hundreds if not thousands of times during their entire lives? A new study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy suggests that your first sexual experience can potentially set the tone of your sex life for years to come.
In this study, 331 college students completed a survey in which they were asked questions about the nature of their first sexual experience (e.g., the extent to which they felt loved and respected by their sexual partner, as well as the degree to which they were happy with the experience or regretted it) . Participants then reported how fulfilled they felt by their current sex life and kept a sexual diary for two weeks in which they rated the quality of every sexual interaction. The goal was to see how perceptions of one’s first time are associated with the quality of one’s ongoing sexual experiences.
Results revealed that participants who evaluated their virginity loss positively (i.e., those who felt the experience was characterized by greater intimacy and mutual respect) reported that their current sexual interactions were the most satisfying, both physically and emotionally. Participants who had more anxiety and regret over their virginity loss tended to report worse sexual functioning.
On the basis of these results, the authors concluded that “one's first-time sexual experience is more than just a milestone in development. Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later.” Although these results are certainly provocative, I’m not convinced we should draw such strong conclusions yet. For one thing, the authors only studied college undergraduates for whom not a lot of time had passed since they lost their virginity (the biggest gap was 7 years, but for some participants, it was just a few months). Thus, it is possible that a smaller association (or perhaps no association at all) would be found among older adults.
In addition, due to the correlational nature of the study, we cannot truly say whether the first sexual experience actually affected subsequent experiences. It could be the case that the people who had a very positive first experience were somehow different from those who had a very bad first experience (e.g., in terms of personality, attitudes, demographics), and perhaps this difference explains the association. For instance, is it possible that the people who had a better first experience just had more positive attitudes toward sex to begin with? If so, that might explain why they reported being more sexually satisfied later on. It could also be that people's feelings about their current sex life are coloring perceptions of their first sexual experience (i.e., people who have a happier sex life now may be recalling their virginity loss as more positive than it really was). Thus, we just cannot conclude that the quality of people’s first experience necessarily caused them to have better or worse sex later on.
Although there is a lot this study doesn’t tell us, it does demonstrate that there are ties between how you feel about your first sexual experience and how you feel about your subsequent sexual experiences.
 Smith, C. V., Shaffer, M. J. (2013). Gone but not forgotten: Virginity loss and current sexual satisfaction. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 39, 96-111.
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