Unexpected results from 30 live interviews and the research they triggered.
According to a 2017 CDC report, 40 percent of U.S. high school students have had sexual intercourse at least once, 10 percent of students had four or more sexual partners, 30 percent had had sex during the previous three months and of these, 46 percent did not use a condom the last time they had sex and 14 percent of those surveyed did not use any method of contraception.
These numbers add up to an inescapable conclusion: An enormous number of people—adolescents and children really—are making major life decisions without the benefit of the wisdom that comes with age.
Thinking about this, I wondered what people who first had sex in their teens would say about the experience after they had matured and could look back on their first time having sex with the wisdom of hindsight. Would they second-guess their teen decisions? Be proud of bravely diving into the unknown? Wished they had picked different partners for their first encounter?
To get answers to these questions and more, I interviewed 20 women and 10 men. Most lived in California with ages ranging from 21 to 77, and participants were a mix of Hispanic, African-American and Caucasian. A few of these interviewees turned out to have had their first sex in their early 20s, but I include their answers because the insights from these subjects were as compelling as those who had sex in their teens.
I simply asked my interview subjects: What do you wish you had known prior to having sex for the first time and how would this have changed your life?
Here are the most striking anonymous answers:
Interviews with women:
Woman # 1:
I wish I had known that using tampons every month had significantly widened my hymen.
I was used to putting tampons in my vagina every month when I had my period which I didn’t think anything of… When I had sex for the first time, I was so afraid that it would be painful and bloody that I chose a boyfriend with a small penis for my first intercourse. Unfortunately, he was so small that not only did I not bleed, but I didn’t feel anything. I mean nothing. No pain, no pleasure, nothing! Was there anything in my vagina? I couldn’t tell! This was utterly disappointing! I wish I had known that using tampons every month had widen my hymen and that I needed somebody with a larger size penis to experience a vaginal orgasm.
Woman # 2:
I wish I had known that my hymen was very thick and that there was a way for me to have sex without pain for the first time.
I wanted to lose my virginity to my husband. I thought it would be easy but on my wedding night, I couldn’t have sex because it was too painful. We tried for 2 months but each time, penetration was impossible because of the pain. I went to see an ob-gyn who said that my hymen was very thick. My ob-gyn told me to use a local anesthetic ointment type lidocaine 10 minutes before sex. This worked. During this first intercourse, I had a lot of bleeding but no pain. I wish I had known about the lidocaine ointment on my wedding night.
Woman # 3:
I wish I had known that it was okay to allow myself to live my truth: I had known since the age of 11 that I was a lesbian. At age 11, I was fantasizing about having sex with other girls and not with boys. But my family was very homophobic, so I decided to close the lesbian door down. At the age of 18, since all my friends were sleeping around with men and enjoying sex, I decided it was time for me to do it too. I didn’t care about anybody in particular. Since I knew a married man at work who was 25 years my senior, I made my desire very obvious and he was more than willing to satisfy me. I expected this first-time sex to be painful, but it was less painful than I expected. I expected to have an orgasm, but it didn’t happen. I separated sex and emotional attachment, but I was surprised to experience that I still got emotionally attached to him. This wasn’t reciprocal, and the emotional pain I experienced taught me that I should never have sex with a married person. Had I known I wouldn’t have chosen just anybody, I would have realized it was okay for remain a virgin and wait until I would have found somebody I would have cared about and who would have cared about me. And, had I known, I would have allowed myself to be true to myself and would have chosen a woman instead of a man for my first time having sex.
Woman # 4:
I wish I had known that losing my virginity wouldn’t change me. I thought I would feel different afterwards given Hollywood movies. But I was the same afterwards.
Woman # 5:
I wish I had known that men were falling asleep after sex. Had I known this, I wouldn’t have had the unrealistic expectation to have my boyfriend walk me home afterwards.
Woman # 6:
I wish I had known how strong my emotional connection would be to my lover after sex. We were both 16 years old, we were not emotionally close, and I thought sex would bring us closer together, but it did not. Once sex got involved, my emotions made all the decisions. Plus, I wanted to be cool with my friends. It was like, if you’re not doing it, you’re not cool. Sex brought us a beautiful daughter, but unfortunately my boyfriend left me when our daughter was 2 years old. Had I known, I would have waited to have sex until I had found somebody with whom I had a very strong foundation. I am now 36 and had I waited to find the right man, I would still maybe be with the father of my child.
Woman # 7:
I wish I had known how little men knew about having sex with women. I wish I had known that I could tell them how I needed to be touched. Had I known, I would have told my first lover (he was 17 and I was 15 and a half) the kind of touch I needed to get an orgasm and my first time (which, by the way, was not painful) would have been a “wow” instead of “this is just okay, but it is not what I expected it to be”. Women think that men are just selfish but in reality, men don’t know what to do. They think they do but they don’t. Later on, I discovered that men want women to enjoy sex too and they are happy to be guided in what to do.
Woman # 8:
I wish I had known that men have a biological urge to sleep with lots of women. I was taught that sex is a sacred bond between 2 people but not everybody thinks the same way. A man and a woman could go into the same sexual encounter but interpret it completely differently. Had I known I would have taken my father’s advice to wait until I would have found somebody with the same mindset as mine. Instead I lost my virginity at 15 with the first boy who wanted to sleep with me (he was 17) and I got disappointed.
Woman # 9:
I wish I had known about other women’s experiences. I would have wanted other women (my mother, my friends, relatives, teachers) to be more forthcoming about sex. Describe what was their expectations, their experience, their feelings, their sensations? What did they enjoy? What did they not enjoy? It would have allowed me to hear about all the different ways to experience sex and encourage my partner to please me in those different ways. It would have decreased my anxiety and given me more confidence. I also wish I had more education about contraception. This would have allowed me to discover sex in a better way while being less anxious about avoiding pregnancy.
Woman # 10:
I wish I had known that having sex doesn’t mean being in reciprocal love. Having sex was an implicit commitment on my side because I got emotionally attached right away but I realized that it wasn’t reciprocal. Had I known, I wouldn’t have given 100 percent of myself, but only 90 percent to protect myself from the hurt and disappointment.
Woman # 11:
I wish I had known that men could easily separate sex from love. I waited for somebody I was in love with to have sex for the first time, but he cheated on me with other women and broke my heart.
Woman # 12:
I wish I had known how painful sex for the first time was going to be.
Woman # 13:
I was 17 when I first had sex. The first time was special, but I realized that once I had lost my virginity, it was very easy to have sex with several other people. Sex was not special anymore and it became very easy for me to give in. Had I known, I would have waited longer to have sex for the first time. I would have tried to find the right man and as a result, I would have had sex with less people and sex would have been more special.
Woman # 14:
I am now 22 and I had sex for the first time when I was 16. I wish I had known that my lady private parts and my heart were linked to each other. I was not able at the time to tell the difference between love and lust. I thought it was love but it was just lust. I gave him a piece of me thinking I would be fulfilled by his love but all he gave me was lust and no love. I got really disappointed. I didn’t think my heart would be so broken, but it was. Had I known I would have waited until I had found real love.
Woman # 15:
I wish I had known I had been given a lot of myths about sex by my overprotective parents. What my parents told me was: “You should be engaged or married before you have sex; you shouldn’t show that you enjoy sex because you don’t want to be seen as a slut; you shouldn’t talk about sex and you should always let the man initiate sexual encounters.”
Well…I had sex for the first time at the age of 22 on a liberating trip to Europe where I unconsciously kind of said ‘F.U.’ to my parents when I chose a complete stranger to have sex with on a one-night-stand basis. This made me realize that I could have sex without being engaged or married and that I didn’t even have to be in love with the man. I also realized that it was okay to show that I enjoyed sex.
Had I known what I know now, I would have put more thought into choosing my first sexual partner and would have selected somebody I had known for a while and cared for.
Woman # 16:
I wish I had known that I would get emotionally attached to my first casual sexual partner. I was just one month shy of 21 when I decided I didn’t want to be a virgin any more. Before that, I was saving myself for love but didn’t find it, so I decided I had waited enough. I chose a man I was having a first date with. I decided I didn’t have to love him to have sex, which made him very happy. I was surprised that after sex, I had expectations that he would call me the following day. I got very disappointed and hurt when he didn’t call for a whole week. After a week, he finally called, and we had sex once more. That would be the second and last time I ever saw him.
Interviews with men:
Man # 1:
I wish I had known at the age of 15, what a man told me later on. He told me: “That thing between your leg doesn’t care about you! All it thinks about is standing up, throwing up and laying back down… After that, whatever happens is on you: babies, HIV, other venereal diseases, etc… So, cover up and protect yourself!” This hit me like a ton of bricks. If somebody had told me that at the age of 15 instead of 18, I would have made wiser choices. But at the age of 18, it was too late, I had been sexually promiscuous, and I already had 2 kids.
Man # 2:
I didn’t realize there were so many diseases around like gonorrhea, syphilis, HIV. If I had known about this at the age of 14, when I first had sex with a 40-year-old woman, I would have been more subjective in choosing my girlfriends and more protective in the ones I chose. I wouldn’t have gotten gonorrhea several times which left me with a low sperm count and infertility.
Man # 3:
I had sex for the first time at the age of 17 and enjoyed it a lot. I wish I had known that when I was 13, a lot of the boys and girls in my class had already had sex. Had I known, I would have had sex earlier.
Man # 4:
I am very lucky because my parents and my Catholic school taught me a lot about sex, so I was not worried about it, but I wish I had known that a girl could have a panic attack in the middle of having sex, tremble, crawl into a corner without being able to hear me and that I would have to calm her down. One of the most terrifying times of my life. But I didn’t give up, I was there for her, reassured her and together we worked past it over time. Sex is like riding a bicycle. It might not go well the first time, but it will get better with time. Masturbation is the training wheel. Learning about your own body is important and this way you can guide your partner towards what you like and away from what you don’t like. The more discussion about the subject the better.
Man # 5:
I was 20 years old the first time I had sex with my girlfriend who was 20 also. I tried to force myself into being a man who desires women but deep inside, I knew I had been attracted to boys since the age of 7. When I was 11, I had a sexual encounter with a boy who was 11 too and that was a wonderful experience but because of family and peer pressure, I tried to be someone I wasn’t. I wish I could have been confident enough to embrace my identity as a gay man sooner (I finally completely embraced it at the age of 25). Had I embraced my identity earlier, I would have been happier sooner and wouldn’t have hurt my girlfriend.
Man # 6:
I was 21 when I first had sex and there is nothing I wish I had known before because the first time I had sex, it was with a woman nine years older than me who made me discover everything in a wonderful way.
Man # 7:
I wish I had known myself better. I didn’t know who I was and even less who I was compatible with or what I was looking for in a woman. I didn’t know how deep sex would get me in. As a consequence, when I lost my virginity, I felt guilty that I got into a relationship with the wrong person and needed to get out.
Man # 8:
I was 16 and so was she. I wish I had known what to do with a real girl. All I knew was what porn actors did, but this didn’t help me with a real girl.
Man # 9:
I was 14, she was 13 and it was great. I am now 40 and don’t wish I had known anything more than I did at the time. It was exciting for me to get into the unknown.
Take aways from the interviews:
There are many things to take away from those interviews, but I decided to focus on what the majority of women said and contrast this with what the majority of men said.
It’s noteworthy that most women didn’t know they would get emotionally attached to the first person they had sex with. Even in case of casual sex, or with a lesbian having sex with a man, the women were surprised to experience emotional attachment. This emotional bond for women that accompanies first time sex cuts across generations and across races.
In contrast, no man talked about emotional attachment after sex.
How can we explain this?
One possibility is the surge of oxytocin that accompanies sex.
Heon-Jin Lee and colleagues describe in Prog. Neurobiology (June 2009) the complex influence of oxytocin in animals and humans. They describe how oxytocin is a hormone secreted in the brain by the paraventricular nucleus of the hypothalamus. Lee reminds us that oxytocin is known for its uterine-contracting properties, its role in lactation, sexual and maternal behavior, social memory and attachment, human bonding and trust which are all important for species propagation.
Inna Schneiderman and colleagues show in Psychoneuroendocrinology (August 2012) how plasma oxytocin levels increase in new lovers compared to non-attached singles.
Inna Shneiderman and colleagues later show in the Journal of Social Neuroscience (March 2014) how hormones such as oxytocin, prolactin, cortisol, testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate plasma levels are important in early-stage romantic love. Individuals whose partners had higher oxytocin showed greater empathy and that combined high cortisol (stress hormone) in both partners was associated with relationship breakup.
It is interesting that oxytocin in secreted in the brain in response to cervical and uterine stretching and nipple sucking, which typically happen during and after a woman delivers her baby. Oxytocin creates emotional attachment so that a mother won’t abandon her baby.
Is there uterine and cervical stretching during sex? I didn’t find any study on this but there is vaginal stretching and nipple sucking during sex which could explain the oxytocin secretion and as a consequence, the unexpected emotional attachment.
Furthermore, oxytocin secretion is increased when there is estrogen secretion but inhibited when there is testosterone secretion.
Could higher testosterone levels in men– and associated decreases in oxytocin—account for female-male differences in emotional bonding after first time sex?
In men, studies by Ivell R and colleagues published in Adv. Exp. Med. Biol. (1997) show that the secretion of oxytocin by the hypothalamus appears to be associated with ejaculation. However, other studies show that this secretion of oxytocin is counteracted by the secretion of testosterone because, for survival, men need to hunt and fish, killing without empathy or emotional attachment in general.
So, women who haven’t had sex yet, beware… Even if you just want to have a quick hook-up, your body might surprise you and secrete oxytocin that will get you emotionally attached to your first sexual partner who might not reciprocate the attachment.
Okabe S, Kitano K, Nagasawa M, Mogi K, Kikusui T (June 2013). “Testosterone inhibits facilitating effects of parenting experience on parental behavior and the oxytocin neural system in mice”. Physiology & Behavior. 118: 159–64. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2013.05.017. PMID 23685236.
Hurlemann R, Patin A, Onur OA, Cohen MX, Baumgartner T, Metzler S, Dziobek I, Gallinat J, Wagner M, Maier W, Kendrick KM (April 2010). “Oxytocin enhances amygdala-dependent, socially reinforced learning and emotional empathy in humans”. The Journal of Neuroscience. 30 (14): 4999–5007. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5538-09.2010. PMID 20371820.
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