What to know before having sex for the first time
Julie Medical Advisor
What to know before losing your virginity
No matter where you are in life — high school, college, or hardcore adulting — if you haven’t had sex, you might consider yourself a “virgin.” But “being a virgin” can mean different things to different people, and what you see on TV or in the movies about having sex for the first time isn’t really that accurate. There’s no rush to have any kind of sex for the first time, but if you’re ready, we have some tips and advice to help your first time feel less awkward and stressful.
What is virginity?
A virgin is someone who’s never had sex. However, sex and virginity can mean different things to different people.
For a long time, “losing” your virginity only applied to penetrative penis-in-vagina sex (vaginal sex). Nowadays, our understanding of sexuality has evolved. People who haven’t had vaginal sex but have had other kinds of sex (like oral or anal sex) may or may not consider themselves virgins. Similarly, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or pansexual people may never experience penis-in-vagina sex, which means virginity may have a totally different definition.
Because of our changing understanding of intimacy, virginity is complicated. Some people don’t even believe in the concept of virginity, or they might not believe it matters. In the end, how and when you want to have sex for the first time should be entirely up to you.
What is a hymen?
The hymen is a thin membrane at the vaginal opening. But contrary to popular belief, the presence or absence of a hymen does not determine your virginity.
The hymen can vary in shape, size, and appearance. According to Planned Parenthood, hymens already have a hole big enough for period blood to come out. Your hymen can also be stretched or torn for various reasons unrelated to sexual activity, like exercise, tampon use, fingering, inserting a sex toy, or just naturally over time.
Does my hymen make me a virgin?
No. Having a hymen does not define virginity. Virginity is a personal and subjective concept. The state of your hymen (whether it’s stretched, torn, or not) does not accurately reflect one's sexual history or experiences.
Having sex for the first time: what to know
If you’re ready to go for it, here are some things you can do to create a less stressful experience that feels good and protects you.
Preparation and Protection
We don’t always know when we’ll have sex, especially if it’s for the first time, but preparing ahead can be helpful. Have these on hand in case the moment arises: condoms, dental dams, and Julie (specifically if you’re having penis-in-vagina sex).
Condoms and dental dams will help protect you and your partner from sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Condoms can also help prevent unwanted pregnancy when having penis-in-vagina sex. If you’re not on birth control and have unprotected sex, the condom broke, or you just want to have a backup to prevent pregnancy, take Julie ASAP after sex within 72 hours (3 days).
What to expect: arousal, foreplay, sex & orgasm (maybe)
Everyone’s first time is different. Above all, communicate with your partner. Aside from consent, this is where you can explore each other, find out what they do or don’t like, and make sex seem less stressful and more enjoyable.
Arousal & Foreplay
Arousal is the feeling of being turned on sexually (i.e., feeling horny). It can occur before foreplay and sex, or it can occur and/or increase during foreplay. For people with a vagina, arousal is important for lubrication (fluid produced in the vagina). For people with a penis, arousal is needed to increase blood flow to the penis and create an erection.
Foreplay can be all the stuff you do before sex, or it can be sex itself, depending on the person. Foreplay is essentially stimulation, and it’s what you and your partner can do to increase arousal to lead to orgasm. Foreplay can be physical—like touching, kissing, stroking and fingering. Foreplay can also be non-physical—like sexting or talking dirty to each other. You don’t have to have foreplay to have sex, but it can be helpful (and fun) to increase lubrication for the vagina and deepen the experience.
Vaginal wetness is important for reducing pain and friction during intercourse. However, there are plenty of reasons why vaginal lubrication isn’t enough despite sufficient arousal. In these cases, having store-bought lube on-hand can be used.
Sex (or sexual intercourse) can be penetrative (i.e., vaginal sex or anal sex) or oral. Because two people may have different definitions of sex, it’s important that all parties clearly share what their expectations are ahead of time. And don’t be afraid to try a different position or communicate with your partner during sex if something doesn’t feel good.
Orgasm is the peak of your arousal, where intense feelings of physical pleasure happen. Contrary to TV shows and movies, not everyone orgasms at the same time. You might orgasm before or after your partner, or you may not orgasm at all. For some people, sharing intimacy is the best part of sex, but if you want to orgasm it is helpful to tell your partner what feels best.
Protecting your body after sex is just as important as doing it before. First thing’s first: if you have a vagina, go pee. This will help flush any bacteria out of the urethra (and prevent urinary tract infections). It’s also important to check the condom (if used), check in with yourself and your partner, and take Julie if you need to. Here’s a quick after-sex care checklist to keep your body safe and healthy after sex.
How will losing my virginity affect my body?
Before and during sex, the release of hormones can influence your physiological responses. These hormonal shifts increase wetness, heart rate, and muscle tension. For those with a penis, it causes increased blood flow to the penis, which causes an erection. These changes can create a comfortable sexual experience. After sex, your body can also experience some weird yet totally normal side effects. If your side effects persist or you feel increased pain, be sure to schedule an appointment with your healthcare provider.
Does It Hurt?
Pain or discomfort is possible during sex. If you have a hymen, it may stretch or tear during your first time, which can cause a little pain or bleeding. Beyond the hymen, factors like stress, lack of arousal, or insufficient lubrication may cause discomfort. Open communication with your partner, taking things at a comfortable pace, increasing lubrication through arousal or using a water-based lube, and prioritizing relaxation can help mitigate pain. Read more on what can cause sex to hurt here.
When "should" you lose your virginity?
That’s entirely up to you.
There’s no deadline or timeline you should follow. Some people lose their virginity as a teenager, and some wait till they’re middle-aged adults. Societal expectations and peer pressure can influence perceptions, but the decision is up to you. If someone is pressuring you into sex, that’s not ok. Even if it feels awkward, say no.
Only you know when you’re ready.
Consent and virginity
Whether it's your first time or not, consent is crucial. You and your partner should willingly and enthusiastically agree to engage in foreplay and sexual intercourse. Consent is ongoing, and you can withdraw it at any point. Just because you started kissing, touching, or “having sex” doesn’t mean that you can’t withdraw consent. If you want to stop, say it. Prioritizing open communication, respecting boundaries, and understanding mutual desires can improve your experience.
When it comes to virginity, consent can factor into whether or not someone thinks they’ve had sex or lost their virginity. Some people believe that being coerced or forced into sex isn’t sex and that sex only happens when both people consent. If someone feels they were pressured into sex, they may believe they haven’t lost their virginity. Again, virginity can mean different things to different people.
But to be 100% clear:sex without consent is rape.
Can You Get an STI?
Yes, it’s possible to get an STI during sex, regardless of whether it’s your first time or not. It’s also possible to give or receive an STI even if you’re not having vaginal sex. STIs can spread through bodily fluids and direct contact. Condoms and dental dams are crucial for keeping both you and your partner safe. As part of your after-sex care, be sure to get tested regularly for STIs.
Have more questions about virginity and sex? Head to After Sex on Quora to ask our community of doctors any question you have.