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Is THAT All There Is?

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The first time I had consensual, opposite-sex vaginal intercourse was when I was around 16, with my boyfriend at the time, who was 15. I'd had previous sexual abuse in my past, and for years before had been running the gamut with various other sorts of sexual activities: manual sex, oral sex, lots and lots of kissing and heavy breathing, the whole lot. I'd had a few same-sex partners. I'd had annual gynecologist visits for a couple years by then.

It was 1986. We'd been dating for a couple of months, but had been friends first. We hadn't planned dates or times or any of that, but we'd discussed it now and then, and had condoms and a contraceptive sponge or two on hand, since I'd recently gone off the pill. James slept over frequently at my apartment, and I his, and both of our parents knew we were sexually involved. Neither of them had any major objections to further activity so long as the two of us were responsible and kind to each other.

One morning we woke up, started snuggling and engaging in dry sex, and the intercourse started to happen pretty organically, with little more than a nod from both of us that we were fine with going ahead with it, and the moment it took for him to put on the condom. It was pretty much over before it started, lasting all of about three or four minutes, tops. It hurt maybe the littlest bit. It felt okay -- not a total bore, but not spine-tingling, earth-shattering amazing, either.

Both of us laid there for a few minutes a bit stupefied, until I couldn't hold it in anymore and said, "So, what was all the fuss about THAT?" To which James replied in kind, and we shared a pretty decent laugh over the fact that really, compared to all the hype intercourse gets, it sure seemed like a whole lotta nothing special on a physical level. Not the stuff of movies, popular novels, and not anything that would measure up to speeches heard in passing and various sorts of propaganda heralding intercourse as "this oh-so-special thing that happens between two people who love each other" blah, blah, blah (though we heard that far, far less than most of you do now).

We did love each other. We did have a good time. It was special and intimate on an emotional level, but no more or less so than anything else we did together. For a couple of days, I had the high one gets when you've gone through a given rite-of-passage. Yet truthfully, when my friends were beaming and buzzing, to the ones really reaching for it to live up to their expectations, I made it sound a lot more exciting than it actually was, for fear I'd be a buzzkill. It's something which seems to be a long-standing tradition amongst first-timers -- exaggerating either/both the pain and the pleasure to try and live up to what the experience is supposed to be, give it the gravity we're sure it requires, because if it doesn't have that gravity as-is, we're convinced that's because we did something wrong, not that it may be merely overrated or made into something larger than it is.

James and I weren't that disappointed -- I don't think either of us really had any major expectations, and we knew the propaganda about intercourse was likely at least a little melodramatic. It wasn't the stuff of which drama was made: there were no pregnancy or STI scares, no big highs or lows, no major physical blunders -- but then, having no previous intercourse, we'd not have known if there had been any.

Looking back more than half a lifetime to that scenario, I'm glad I had a partner who could be as down-to-earth about the whole thing as I was; who wasn't insecure or afraid to agree that really, first-time intercourse wasn't the Big Deal we'd been led to believe it was. I'm glad we were prepared enough with birth control measures (and the condoms, though safer sex wasn't yet the known quantity it is now, nor did we even have that language -- in 1986 few people were familiar with HIV or AIDS yet, the test for HIV was just invented, and our president didn't even use the word "AIDS" out loud until a year later). I bled a little, and neither I nor my partner made a big deal out of it, and I'm glad I knew enough about sexuality not to be alarmed by that. I'm glad I had a handful of years to experiment with a number of sexual practices, without feeling pressure to do any more than felt right. I'm glad no big secrets needed to be kept from our parents. I'm glad I knew my own body, and my own sexual responses, and had already been in the habit of taking care of my sexual health. I'm glad there was zero drama attached to the whole thing.

In short, I may not be exactly what a lot of people have in mind when they talk about doing first intercourse "right." I was relatively young, and certainly young when I started engaging in other sexual activities, though not outside the norm by any stretch. I didn't think the person I was with was the only partner I'd ever have, and I certainly was not only not married to them, I had no dreams of such for the future. There wasn't a ton of romance attached or expected. We laughed and grunted instead of sighing or whispering sonnets. I didn't orgasm from the intercourse by itself.

But I think we did it as right as it gets. When I look back, I don't think of it as something that was a major event in my life, or a rite of passage. It's a single moment that really, had more importance because it was SUPPOSED to be important than because it actually was.

I'm not sure if my experience is duplicated as much nowadays, especially in the US, but I see echoes of it often enough. That isn't to say other varied experiences can't also be just as right for those involved, nor that our way was THE way. It's also likely that some of the things particular to both of us made it as it was. I have always been bisexual, which may have made heterosexual intercourse less important to me. The level of sexually transmitted disease we have today is far higher than it was then, and we're more aware of it now (thank goodness). The level of investment -- and massive hype -- of the outside world into the sex lives of teenagers is far higher than it was then. We were city kids with liberal parents who went to an alternative arts school, and were unusually self-reliant for our age.

Those things aside, I think that now it's a bit harder for many teens to really feel free to find the scenario in which first intercourse can be as tailored to them, and as down-to-earth, as ours was for us, and not just because of higher rates of disease and infection (the teen pregnancy rates are actually lower now than they were then, thanks to wider availability of birth control and greater condom use). Many of our users at Scarleteen, when asked what they'd wished they'd known then about first-time sex that they know now have simply said they wished they knew it really wasn't the big deal they kept being told it was. Teenagers today are told a lot of different things from a lot of different people about a situation which ideally tends to be private, rather than public, and tends to be about the two people involved, not about the whole world's opinion on that very personal and individual experience.

Many teens now are engaging in numerous sexual activities not just because they feel right -- if they feel right at all -- but to try and avoid intercourse, because they're told it is physically or emotionally dangerous by default, and they aren't told that most of the activities they're engaging in present the same risks or dangers, as well as the same possible levels of intimacy. It's no wonder, really, that many teens feel -- or hear friends saying -- that they'd just like to get the whole mess over with to alleviate all the pressures they're faced with. In my mind, that's a pity, not because just "getting it over with" can't be okay for some, because it can, but because WHY many want to do so has less to do with themselves and their relationships and more to do with the burden of external pressures put on them by their peers, schools, communities or culture.


That said, I'm going to pass on a little of my own advice to you. You get to take it or leave it.

• Sexual intercourse doesn't have to be the biggest deal in the world or some major drama. When you subtract the factors that might make it so -- being irresponsible about your sexual health, birth control or safer sex, not being honest with partners, having unrealistic expectations, using sex as rebellion or as a means to add drama to you life, and/or being sexually involved for reasons that just aren't healthy for you and yours -- it can actually be amazingly normal, healthy, safe, loving and fun.

• Very rarely will first sexual intercourse majorly change your life. Often when it does it's due not to the experience itself, but due to things like accidental or purposeful pregnancy, STI transmission, getting "caught" by parents, having intercourse when you're not certain it's what you really want, and the like. You get to choose to set things up so that those things are unlikely to happen.

• It's okay for first intercourse to be underwhelming. If it is, you can rest assured that you didn't blow a "one-time-chance" at eternal bliss. It just doesn't work that way. For pretty much EVERYONE who engages in intercourse, or any kind of sex, it's safe to say that their first time is more likely to be their MOST unfulfilling time (physically, and sometimes emotionally) than the opposite, and that's often the case no matter your age or station. Think about your first kiss, for instance. Chances are, though, it's less likely to be really disappointing if you do a reality check with your expectations and your feelings first. And every time you have a new partner, it very much is like having a new "first time" all over again -- we get lots of firsts in life. Don't make yourself nuts over one that wasn't what you'd hoped, or attach a bunch of symbolism to how it went: for instance, because the sex was ho-hum mean your relationship is. Much of the time, part of the reason our watershed experiences are rites-of-passage is about not the experiences themselves, but what they teach us.

• You get to tailor first intercourse to YOUR needs, wants and level of readiness. If you want to be married or in a serious relationship during that experience, you get to wait until then. If you aren't interested in those things and it feels more right to you for first intercourse to be more casual, you get to do that, too. Barring legal issues like age of consent laws -- which it is important to pay attention to, your partner ending up a registered sex offender is the sort of serious negative which could make the scenario life-changing in the worst way -- your sexual choices are just that: yours. They carry risks and various consequences -- not just for you but for others, so it's smart to make them wisely and with care -- but they are yours to make. No one can know what is most "right" for you but you. This goes for both women AND men, for the record. Guys get to choose when they're really ready just as much as girls do, and biology or nothing else dictates that they are automatically more ready than women or that it is easier for them to be casual about sex.

• We've said it once, we've said it a thousand times, but it bears saying again: sexual intercourse -- or "giving your virginity" to a partner -- cannot cement a relationship. In other words, it cannot make you or a partner less prone to leave and it does not imply an agreement or contract that either of you will stay together for any set amount of time, or stay in love forever. Sex just doesn't have that magical power. Nothing does. Either of you still gets to leave the relationship at any time if you want to, and in fact, in some cases, being sexually active and/or engaging in intercourse may make relationships more difficult or challenging because of the added responsibilities and intimacy.

• Don't doom yourself foolishly. In other words, I feel pretty confident saying that first time sex when you're wasted at a party, with someone whose last name you don't know, sneaking around behind your parents backs, not using birth control or safer sex measures, when you or your partner are lying about something critical (like, for instance, your sexual health status or the fact that one or both of you have not had intercourse before), when you're with a partner you just can't talk with openly, or when your gut tells you suddenly that what you're doing is NOT right for you or what you want are all likely to make first intercourse into something you regret, if not into an absolute disaster.

Lastly, understand that there really is no one right or ideal first intercourse experience, and that the "first" experience you have that is pivotal may not even be intercourse, regardless of your sexual orientation. What's right for a given person is a very individual thing, and what the media, news, our religious or government leaders, our teachers, friends or family tells us is right may or may not be right for us at all.

It's very easy to look back at something you've already done and say, "Well, I did this wrong, so for it to be right for you, you need to do it THIS way instead," but more times than not, that's about what we think would have made it right for us, not for you. My first intercourse experience wasn't what I expected or necessarily what I wanted at the time, but it was just right for me: similar experiences might be just as right for one person and not right at all for another. When it happened, I'm not sure what I would have said about it. A couple years down the road, I would likely have said it was disappointing by comparison. But 17 years afterwards, it seems as fine and good as first sex can be, and pretty darned okay in my book. It gives me a smile and a chuckle when I think about it, and I can't imagine that my life would be more enriched or different if I had a first-time-sex experience that played out like a romance novel. All the importance put on the experience seems... well, a little bit silly and awfully invasive. We don't tell a child how they'll feel when they take their first steps, or when it's right or not right for them to do so. We don't tell the mother having that child when to conceive or how she'll feel when she does. In most things, we allow people to have watershed experiences at their own pace, and feel how they feel about them.

And first-time sex should be no different. So, when you look to someone else asking if what you're considering is right for you, turn back and look at yourself. For how much you can know what is or will be right -- and we just can't know that entire beforehand -- the only one with the final answer is you, which is a good thing, because you're also the one who gets to make the choices.

And the one who gets to laugh, if you want to, and say, "So, what was all the fuss about THAT?"

written 24 Apr 2001 . updated 17 Apr 2014

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