Gender, Sex Ed

How People Look Back On Their Very First Sexual Experience

May 10, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

How do you look back on your first sexual experience? For some people, it’s remembered positively, whereas for others, it is a source of regret and shame because they feel like it happened too soon or with the wrong person.

A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research sought to better understand people’s views on their sexual debut (an increasingly popular term that refers to one’s first sexual experience—and that avoids some of the negative connotations associated with other terms such as “losing your virginity”). Specifically, the researchers wanted to examine people’s views on whether their sexual debut happened at the “right” age, as well as the factors associated with viewing one’s sexual debut more positively versus negatively.

The sample consisted of 6,430 college students (36% men, 64% women) who were age 20 on average. The data were collected over a period of nearly 30 years (1990-2019) from students taking a human sexuality course.

Participants were asked about the age at which they first had sexual intercourse (their sexual debut) and how acceptable they felt the timing of it was. They were also asked about a range of circumstances surrounding their sexual debut, including how much desire they felt for it, whether they used substances, whether contraception was used, as well as the nature and length of their relationship with their partner.

On average, sexual debut occurred between ages 16 and 17. Overall, most (57%) felt that their sexual debut happened at the right age, whereas 37% wished it had happened later and 6% wished it had happened earlier. Those who wished it happened later tended to be younger when they had their sexual debut.

Across the nearly 30 years of data collection, there was a trend toward waiting longer to have sex and feeling that one’s age of sexual debut was more acceptable.

Men and women differed in how they felt about their sexual debut, with women perceiving the timing as less acceptable than men. However, it is important to note that men and women did not differ in their average age of sexual debut. So despite beginning to have sex at around the same age, men and women reported very different feelings about it. This is consistent with other research finding that women tend to regret their previous sexual actions more than men.

There was also a racial difference such that White participants reported more acceptability of the timing of their sexual debut; however, this appeared to be accounted for by group differences in age of sexual debut because White participants, on average, waited longer to start having sex. The same pattern was observed for those living in urban vs. suburban areas: those from large cities reported lower acceptability, but they also started having sex at younger ages.

However, a very different pattern was observed for religious involvement. Those who were more religiously involved perceived their sexual debut as less acceptable, yet they waited longer to begin having sex. Even when accounting for differences in age of sexual debut, religious involvement was linked to feeling less positively about it.

Family structure (having parents who were together vs. divorced) was not related to acceptability of sexual debut, although those whose parents had separated had a lower age of sexual debut on average. By contrast, socio-economic status was neither associated with age of sexual debut nor perceived acceptability of it.

Acceptability of one’s sexual debut was also linked to using contraception during one’s first sexual experience, reporting more desire for sex, feeling less pressure to have sex, and having sex with a partner who was closer in age (no more than two years older). Relationship status, relationship duration, and substance use were not linked to acceptability of one’s sexual debut.

It is important to note that these findings are not based on a representative sample and only consider the views of young adults (some of whom may have still been involved with the partners with whom they had their first sexual experience). Thus, it is possible that different results might be observed among older adults, who may interpret their first sexual experience through a very different lens.

That said, these findings tell us that while most young adults seem to look back on the timing of their sexual debut favorably, a substantial minority appear to have some regrets. Further, perceived acceptability appears to depend on a number of factors, including gender, religious involvement, sexual desire, and various contextual factors, including contraception use.

Why are these findings important? A better understanding of regrets around sexual debut could potentially be useful to sex educators when it comes to developing interventions designed to promote more positive and pleasurable sexual experiences for adolescents and young adults.

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To learn more about this research, see: Sprecher, S., O’Sullivan, L. F., Drouin, M., Verette-Lindenbaum, J., & Willetts, M. C. (2021). Perhaps It Was Too Soon: College Students’ Reflections on the Timing of Their Sexual Debut. The Journal of Sex Research.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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