What We Talk About When We Talk About Having Sex for the First Time

For centuries, people have been obsessed with stories about virginity loss. We talked to an expert about why this is—and how the typical deflowering narratives are changing.

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Oct 20 2016, 7:50pm

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While mentally planning your first fuck is common, it's also somewhat futile: According to those who've studied virginity loss throughout history, losing your v card — whether you're a Victorian madame in England or a sexual revolutionary in 1970s San Francisco — is almost always a let down.

The problem, according to Jodi McAlister, a lecturer at the University of Tasmania whose recently published paper looks at how the "virginity loss confessional" genre has evolved over time, is that we tend to think of love as a hard-and-fast prerequisite for first time sex when it's really a mirage. "Love replaced marriage as the excuse we needed to have sex, but there's no certificate you sign that says, 'Yes, love exists in this relationship, it definitely counts.' Lots of female stories are about thinking you loved someone but it ends up not being the 'right' person or time."

A recent study of 364 college students backs up McAlister's claims. Researchers at Hanover College found that women experience more sexual guilt compared to men, especially those with a religious upbringing. "This implies that society is still instilling guilt in women," the study reads.

Read more: How Lesbians Lose Their Virginity

Men, on the flip side, are much more likely to speak of their first times in positive terms, whether or not they've been deflowered by someone with whom they shared a genuine connection, according to McAlister. "For men, it doesn't seem to matter if they were in love with their first or not," says McAlister. There's also evidence to believe men lie about their first times, the McAlister says, "bragging that they had their first sex with a porn star when they were fourteen, for example."

McAlister poured over more than 600 virginity loss stories throughout history to try to understand how and why we tell stories about our first time getting laid. Some of these tales are harrowing; in the early 20th century, virginity loss stories tended to be "gory" with "brutish men screaming and blood everywhere," McAllister says. "Women almost universally talked about what a violation it was, and because this was an era in which there was virtually no proper sexual education, these women had no idea what to expect."

Photo by Viktor Solomin via Stocksy.

You can partially blame Victorian pamphlets and books for the horrors women endured. These texts attempted to prepare women for their wedding nights by making them even more paranoid and confused about their bodies. For example, according to Karl Heinzen's 1891 book, The Rights of Women and Their Sexual Relations, women shouldn't get too comfortable in their skin before their sexual premiere because nothing drives the boys wild like a heaping dollop of self-shame:

"This 'shame' is...a natural consequence of an emotional affection upon entering a new life...it has nothing to do with the consciousness or the fear of seeing something improper disclosed, is an ornament to every woman, and its absence is a proof of dullness and coarseness," Heinzen writes.

So-called experts also had peculiar ideas about what it meant to remain a virgin up until that fateful wedding night. According to some medieval and Victorian literature, virginity wasn't thought to be entirely physical but spiritual, as well. You could be completely untouched by a member of the opposite sex but still considered non-virginal if you'd had a dirty thought; a letter to the editor of a British newspaper in 1730 said books by female authors like Eliza Haywood and Delarivier Manley "ruin more virgins than masquerades or brothels," McAllister tells Broadly.

McAlister believes the anxiety-producing language around losing your virginity didn't undergo a radical makeover until Marie Stopes' book "Married Love" was published in 1918. It joined Margaret Sangers' 1916 "What Every Girl Should Know" in pushing against Victorian norms, arguing that women could enjoy their own sex drives.

Another shift occurred during the sexual revolution, when those who'd felt repressed by society rebelled by talking more candidly about their sexual dalliance. McAlister chose to focus on a relatively more recent phenomenon: first-time sex books written in the nineties. Some of these books are didactic, pairing virginity loss stories with epilogues by sexperts. But as the genre has developed, McAlister argues, virginity loss stories have moved away from moralizing to become subjects of anthropological interest.

there's also a real sense of fascination because this was something we couldn't talk about before and now we can

"People still want to know how other people lose their virginity on the level of, 'Did I do it right? Am I normal?' But there's also a real sense of fascination because this was something we couldn't talk about before and now we can," she says.

That's not to say that we've become completely sexually enlightened since; even tips in magazines like Seventeen are more about helping teens embrace the confusion of their first time rather than offering any solid advice on how to avoid feeling embarrassed or ashamed afterwards. Maybe that's because there are few ways to avoid instilling the event with forced significance: The first time for anything often feels like a big deal, as if it will foretell success in all encounters that follow.

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McAlister argues that how you mentally script your sexual experiences has a huge effect on how much guilt or shame you feel afterwards. She describes three levels of so-called sexual scripting we use to narrate our sexual experiences: the cultural level, or dominant narratives; the interpersonal level, or the narratives you learn from friends and the people around you; and the intrapsychic level, or your own personal fantasies. What people to choose to prioritize is entirely up to them.

"In passive stories, the cultural script becomes the default and you get huge amounts of shame," McAlister says. "In active ones, the intrapsychic level is more at play and things tend to be fine."