Tales of life’s “first times” are usually intriguing, filled with anxiety, fear, and awkward moments — like losing your virginity. Whether your first time was after the high school prom, at a college party, or in an overly candle-lit room filled with more rose petals than your garden, most people will admit it’s uncomfortable and anxiety-ridden — except for those losing their virginity today. According to a recent study published in The Journal of Sex Research, virginity loss has become a significantly better experience than it was 20 years ago, with less anxiety and more pleasure for both men and women.
First-time sexual intercourse can be an important life transition, or rite of passage in some cultures, for both men and women, that the emotional tone of the event — whether positive or negative — can have lasting effects on future sexual relationships. Earlier studies conducted with young adults about their transition to losing their virginity has found women experience more negative and less pleasant reactions to their first time than men do. These gender differences in emotional reactions are commonly portrayed in pop culture, but researchers suggest these differences have diminished over time, since virgins today tend to be well-versed in human sexuality, and the stigma of virginity loss isn’t as big a deal as it was 20 to 30 years ago.
Susan Spencer, lead researcher of the study at Illinois State University, sought to examine gender differences in pleasure, anxiety, and guilt in response to first intercourse in a large cohort of university students. Data was obtained from over 5,000 students over a 23-year period — 1990 to 2012 — which represented three decades of first sexual experiences. The first experience of intercourse had occurred up to a decade before: 1980.
Participants completed a questionnaire that asked participants about the experience, their emotional reactions to their first time, and to indicate the degree to which they experienced pleasure, anxiety, and guilt. For example, the following question asked about pleasure: “At the time, how pleasurable was this first sexual intercourse experience for you?” The other two questions asked “how anxious” and “how guilty” respondents felt. The response scale provided for each item ranged from 1 = Not at all to 7 = A great deal.
The findings revealed men reported more pleasure and anxiety than women, and women reported more guilt than men. However, "Anxiety decreased over the three decades for men; pleasure increased and guilt decreased for women,” wrote Spencer, Esquire reported. Spencer believes these positive changes are cultural, as recent cohorts of men today are less likely than cohorts of men from the 1980s and 1990s to consider their first time as a rite of passage, shedding the stigma, and leading to less performance-related anxiety. For women, Spencer believes pleasure has increased, and guilt has decreased because of a reduction of social regulation of female sexuality, and double standard.
Although gender differences in emotional reactions to virginity loss has decreased over the years, it continues to be a more positive experience for men than women, the study found. Female sexuality, according to the erotic plasticity theory, is more likely to be affected by change in social and cultural events.
Spencer believes the differences will begin to narrow over time as flexibility in sexual expression for each gender, specifically women, changes.
So, for those who are still virgins, rejoice. You’re more likely to have a pleasurable experience than those who lost it 20 years ago.
Sources: Spencer S. Evidence of Change in Men's Versus Women's Emotional Reactions to First Sexual Intercourse: A 23-year Study in a Human Sexuality Course at a Midwestern University. The Journal of Sex Research. 2014.
Darling CA, Davidson JK Sr., Passarello LC. The mystique of first intercourse among college youth: the role of partners, contraceptive practices, and psychological reactions. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. 1992.
Baumeister RF. Gender differences in erotic plasticity: the female sex drive as socially flexible and responsive. Psychology Bulletin. 2000.