We wrap our notions of sexuality in myth and misconception. What if we could unwrap a few of those misconceptions, albeit with a nod to the mystery and fascination that sex holds?
My curiosity was piqued a few weeks back by a discussion around the 35-year old virgin, and whether or not virginity – “technical” at that – still holds meaning in contemporary culture.
I believe it does, though its meaning is certainly different from that of 40 years ago.
I was further intrigued by the Justin Lehmiller article on whether or not the first sexual experience is the most important. This led me to take issue (as did he) with a small study that was referenced, but nonetheless to wonder if these early experiences are purely milestones or something more.
Do our first sexual experiences in fact lay the groundwork for patterns that may last a lifetime? Or, at the very least, reinforce psychological seeds that have already been planted (positive or negative)? Do they plant a few seeds of their own that take root and flower at a later point in time?
It is this set of questions that led me to ask a number of writers to comment on their “first” and in particular, to consider the psychological and behavioral terrain that developed afterward.
Misconceptions About First Time Sex
The series of essays contributed over the past two weeks may confirm what we already believe about first time sexual encounters or alter what we now see as misconceptions. Some of these stories make us mildly uncomfortable, others are jarring or even horrifying, and a few encourage a smile – as the experiences overall were good, or we recognize some element, nostalgically, of our younger selves in them.
We see examples of sex with little or no emotional investment whatsoever, sex with some emotional investment, sex with a friend, sex with a loved one, sex as a dreadful but instructive experience, and the sexual act as a violation of trust.
But let’s go beyond our tendency to label an experience as “good, bad, or mixed review.” My intent was never to describe putting Part A into Slot B and trying out Position C; this is an attempt to encourage us to reflect on what we’ve lived, what we’ve learned, and if possible, in our sexually confused culture, how we might still benefit from that awareness ourselves.
What else? Perhaps we can use this to consider what and how we teach our children (or grandchildren).
Personal Stories of First Sexual Experiences
So let’s consider what turns out to be a surprisingly diverse spectrum of encounters, even in such a small group, as we wrap up the “first” series by unwrapping some of the narrative in these essays and examining stated or suggested emotional repercussions.
Let’s note the gender differences, though by no means should we conclude anything with this non-scientific and non-representative sample of 11 contributors, all heterosexual, ranging in age from approximately 30 into the 60s, and only two of whom were men.
The breadth of “firsts” include mentions I might have anticipated, and others that caught me entirely by surprise. Among the many realities that come to light are:
- disappointment with the earliest experience(s)
- a desire for more skilled partners
- anxiety over performance issues for the men; guilt and esteem issues for the women
- lack of connection and subsequent involvement with emotionally unavailable partners
- pleasant and respectful first experiences, taking time to learn
- firsts associated with marriage, and a variety of questions that follow
- unwanted firsts, entered into “to get it over with”
- a first in the “friend zone,” reinforcing certain partner preferences
- firsts (from the men) with a nod to the good graces of older, more experienced women
- a first after divorce that is also about “getting it over with”
- other firsts after divorce that target chemistry or connection, and apparently achieve it
- various issues of power, and in one instance, aggression
Observations on the First Sexual Experience
I will leave you to read and consider each essay, and no doubt, to reflect on your own experience in light of these stories. Among my observations are the following.
The two men who participated reference some awkwardness or embarrassment, though we hear little about this typically. And why wouldn’t this important first be potentially awkward or embarrassing for them as well – unless guided by someone more experienced?
We have similar concerns from the women, along with acknowledgment that intercourse is initially painful, but the degree to which that is quickly alleviated may vary by the comfort, caring, and pleasure we experience with our first partners.
In “Sex by the Book” and “The Teen, The Man, The Father,” our two male writers don’t deal in the emotional in these early experiences. That is observation and not critique; whether this is a choice, too much time having passed to remember, or the result of less emphasis on the emotional aspects for adolescent boys – I cannot say. Perhaps a bit of all three.
Yet behaviorally, they express a preference (while young) for older partners with sexual skills and comfort – adding to their comfort. Let’s not forget that several of the women, myself included, did the same.
I would like to note that one of the misconceptions some have about boys and men is that they will enjoy sex regardless of the circumstances. Both of these male writers make a point of differentiating their views as they grew into men – emotional connection certainly became part of the picture.
Sex as Power Play, Sex and Power
For the women, the extent of emotional damage (or blossoming) is more evident – certainly in a few instances – as power may be at play.
In “The Picnic,” date rape is a breach of trust that leads to a lifetime of emotional repercussions, the most obvious – not engaging in sexual activity for three years after. Others include a lingering sense of never being deserving, as a 16-year-old boy renders a 16-year-old girl powerless – and humiliated.
In another example, the writer of “The Good Girl” describes constant coaxing on the part of her boyfriend, and she ultimately gives in. The experience itself she remembers as romantic, though she recounts the unraveling of the relationship afterward. Not to oversimplify what is likely a complex dynamic, as that first relationship fizzles and she moves on to other sexual experiences, it’s interesting to note that she takes the power position. Not only does she realize that her sexuality is itself a powerful force, but the relationship she describes (and eventually ends) is one in which a power play of sorts may be part of the excitement. Is this a reaction to holding less power in the decision-making with her “first?”
I can’t help but think of the ways that many of us are attracted to power; women often attach themselves to powerful men – (to compensate for any number of factors?) – but beyond that, power can be a turn-on. Is this a pattern that is established in the earliest sexual experiences? The question is intriguing, and not answered by these essays.
When No Means No and Related Issues
Not only does “The Good Girl” evoke issues of power, at least for me, but related questions come to mind.
If the man is being “satisfied,” why the insistence on intercourse if the woman isn’t ready? Is it a matter of power? Of status? Of something else?
In “Diary,” we have similar indications of pressure by a boyfriend, although the writer manages to hold him off.
But what are we to make of the constant coaxing or wearing down of a partner? Is it a form of coercion? Should any of us have to coax or coerce another into any sexual act? In the absence of an explicit “yes,” isn’t that a “no?”
How do we teach our sons and daughters that they don’t have to settle for doing anything with a partner that they aren’t ready for?
How do we teach both boys and girls to feel “whole” enough to say no?
One Partner, Two Partners, Multiple Partners… So?
How might we interpret some of the other personal essays? I imagine, we each interpret in light of our years and our experience.
For me, reflecting on those who marry young and their first partner, as in “Honeymoon” and “Lusting for Love,” I would be surprised if they didn’t express curiosity at some point. Acting on it is another matter.
In many of these stories, self-esteem issues are crystal clear whether we’re talking about the first sexual encounter in the teenage years or young adulthood – or following a long marriage. Returning to the questions posed in “Your First Sexual Experience,” are these lifelong impacts or temporary? Can other life experience replace early patterns? Do some of us grow into our sense of self over the years – sexually and otherwise?
Mixed messages around virginity – partly a matter of generational upbringing, religious upbringing, and age – are also apparent. As for society’s mixed messages in general? That sex is good – but only if this or that? Sex is good only if one partner or five partners or no more than ten partners, but oh by the way, the number is different if you’re a man? What of the conflicting message that sex feels good, but then we feel bad? What of the pronouncements that sex is only for love, sex is only for marriage, sex is purely a physical act… for men?
Aren’t these messages both confusing and contradictory, even for the adults?
Lessons to Help Us Be Better Parents
For some of us, sex is always about emotional connection. For some of us, sex is about pleasure. For most of us, our experience is likely to range from sex as a physical (ideally pleasurable) act to sex as lovemaking, i.e. emotionally connective.
I believe the notion that women consider sex to equal love to be a misconception. Women are visual, women understand the difference between sex and love, women – like men – may choose emotional distance for any number of reasons, women enjoy sex as recreation. This is a matter of the individual woman and the circumstances.
“Diary” speaks candidly to the visual; the writer is surprised at her own pleasure in looking at her first lover’s body.
Other observations? Her series of diary entries also suggests a degree of emotional disconnection that continues, at least into the next few years.
Deeming One Sort of Sex “Better” Than Another
Personally, I don’t deem one sort of sex better than any other. As long as consenting adults are involved, what they enjoy is their business.
I don’t consider sex for the pleasure of it inferior to lovemaking, however you define the activities involved.
Yet as a parent, what would I want for my children? My views will surely differ from yours, but my questions may find some common ground.
How do we address the pervasive, underlying issues of low self-esteem in our girls and our women? Are we offering enough information about the breadth of feelings that sexuality encompasses, including the absence of emotional connection? Must we always deem that absence as “bad” and “connective sex” as better?
Talking to Kids About Sex
My boys are now young men. I allow them the privacy of their personal lives as they see fit to live them. But did I speak to them about sex in the right ways at the right times?
Should we be speaking about sex before they hit puberty? Most would agree that’s a yes. Are we certain what messages we want to convey? How do we – as parents – balance sexuality as “natural” with boundaries that we know will protect our children’s physical and emotional well-being? How do we position sexuality so that it is in accordance with our beliefs, but not damning to our children in later years if their beliefs are different?
What does the single parent do – not only in terms of words, but actions in her or his own social life as a model? What of the mother who is raising sons? What of the father who is raising daughters? How do we raise our daughters with more self-esteem? How do we teach our boys that masculinity doesn’t require that they score as many girls as possible, and as often as possible? If our children are gay or bisexual, must we handle with particular care?
How do we judge each other less harshly, and ourselves less critically, knowing that we don’t always make the best decisions, and that sometimes our mistakes lead to our best possible lessons?
My thanks to the diverse group of writers who contributed with such candor. I encourage you to read and consider their stories, and welcome the ongoing discussion.
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