A new study examines how people remember the first time they had sex.
Take a random selection of adult women, and you’ll find a wide range of losing-my-virginity stories. Some women will look back on the experience fondly, while others will find it hysterically funny. Some will wish it had happened differently, and others will hardly remember it at all.
The very concept of virginity as something that can be ‘lost’ can be criticised from a feminist perspective, as notions of virginal purity have historically been used to constrain women’s sexuality. It also goes without saying that traditional notions of what constitutes ‘losing’ one’s virginity tend to ignore the experiences of LGBTQ+ people.
Despite all this, it’s hard to deny that the first time one has sex is a formative experience. And in a new study, researchers set out to discover just how British people really feel about losing their virginity.
Scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed the responses to the latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal), a poll that’s carried out every decade or so.
They found that nearly 40% of women thought that it had not been “the right time” when they first had sex, compared to a quarter of men.
When quizzed further, most of these people said they wished they had been older when they had sex for the first time. Nearly a third had had sex before turning 16 – the age of consent – and most had lost their virginities by the time they were 18.
This is perhaps not surprising. We’re all familiar with the pressure that is often put on teenage girls to be sexually active, and when combined with a culture of slut-shaming, this pressure can be confusing. So it’s understandable, if a little sad, that many women feel they ended up having sex earlier than they would have liked.
Peer pressure fed into another part of the survey, which asked if people felt they had been capable of reasonably making an informed decision about whether to have sex for the first time. For this to be the case, respondents should have been sober enough to consent, and not acting on peer pressure.
Troublingly, around half of women surveyed in the study said they did not make an informed decision about losing their virginities. Almost 20% said they and their partner had not been equally happy to sleep together (compared to one in 10 men), suggesting that their partner may have put pressure on them to have sex.
“Age is often used as a determinant of readiness for sex. The problem with this measure is it assumes every young person is the same, that they will all wake up on their 16th birthday equipped with the qualities that will enable them to have safe and satisfying sexual experiences,” said Kaye Wellings, senior author at the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine.
“Our findings show this isn’t the case. Every young person is different – some 15 year olds may be ready while some 18 year olds are not.”
The researchers say that their findings support the argument for better sex and relationships education in schools – something that absolutely is a feminist issue. New Netflix series Sex Education tackles the subject with wit and warmth; find out why it’s such an empowering watch here.
Images: Getty Images / Netflix