What to Expect the First Time You Have Sex, According to a Sex Therapist

“You’re going to want to take off your clothes and touch each other. But if you do touch each other, you will get Chlamydia … and die.”

There’s nothing like a little Mean Girls and an overly dramatic sex-ed teacher to scare you away from sex. But while your first time may seem scary, you don’t have to worry — because I'm here to guide you through it! You’ve already learned about the risks (perhaps you’ve seen one too many STI pictures) and benefits associated with sex, but how’s a person to know what to realistically expect? I spoke with several sexperts to help you better prepare — physically and mentally — for when you’re ready to take the next step.

Will it hurt?

When thinking about sex, experiencing pain is a perfectly normal concern to have! Many women assume that losing their virginity will be painful because of what they learn about the hymen, a tissue that lines the opening of the vagina. If it tears, it’s supposed to hurt … right?

Reena Liberman, MS., a private practice sex therapist in Ann Arbor, MI, explains that intercourse may feel uncomfortable at first, but the pain shouldn’t be too overwhelming. “If it’s the first time having intercourse and the hymen is still intact, it might feel like a little pinch, but it shouldn’t be very painful,” she says. Also, before you even have intercourse, you could have broken your hymen when using tampons, during masturbation, or even with strenuous exercise.

Along with tearing the hymen, it’s normal to experience bleeding during and after your first time. Liberman says that light spotting is typical, but anything more than that may signal that something is wrong (or maybe it’s that time of the month!). “It’s normal to bleed … and it depends on the kind of hymen that the [person] has,” she says. “There shouldn’t be too much blood. If it’s flowing, then there is something else going on.” According to Liberman, the hymen varies in size and thickness from person to person, and this can dictate how much bleeding, if any, you will experience.

Coping with any pain

Yes, sex might feel uncomfortable at first, but the idea that penetration is supposed to hurt is a myth! Much of the pain that we associate with intercourse happens if the person's body is overly tense from nerves.

“Often, because it is a nervous or anxious moment, it can [be] hard for the [person] to self-lubricate and that’s what can make intercourse more uncomfortable or even painful,” Liberman says. “Along with this, the muscles can tense up and add to the discomfort.” 

To help ease the pain, Susan Ernst, a physician at the University Health Service Women's Health Clinic at the University of Michigan, says that young people should look into using water-based lubricants. Be sure to stay away from oil-based lubricants because these degrade latex condoms faster, making it easier for them to break during intercourse. Astroglide X Premium Personal Lubricant ($14 at CVS) and K-Y Jelly Personal Water Based Lubricant ($5 at CVS) are great options to try.

If intercourse is painful or uncomfortable, Taylor, a senior at the University of Michigan, says that you should speak up. “My first time, I did not feel comfortable telling the person that I was with how it was feeling,” she says. “My best advice is to try out different positions, do whatever feels comfortable; if it hurts, switch it up and communicate [with your partner].”

couple Photo by Becca Tapert on Unsplash

Should I tell them that I’m a virgin?

If you’re not sure if you should tell your partner that you’re a virgin, guess what? Many college students go through the same thing! If you’re worried about disclosing your virginity, you can always make it clear to your partner that you’re inexperienced instead.

“Instead of saying I was a virgin, I told my first partner that I was inexperienced and was feeling nervous,” Kayla, a senior at Michigan State University, says. “I wasn’t lying; I really was inexperienced! But this way, your partner knows how you’re feeling and you don’t have to explain your virginity if you don’t want to.”

If you want to tell your partner you’re a virgin, it’s best to clear the air in the beginning. Who knows, maybe they're a virgin as well! And if a person has a problem with you being a virgin, then they're not worth sharing this experience with.

Should there be foreplay?

Foreplay is anything that leads up to intercourse. I've come to think of foreplay as an opening act before the main event — the appetizer before the entrée. However, Liberman says that thinking about the experience of foreplay as inferior to the act of intercourse is misleading. “Foreplay suggests that it’s not as important as intercourse, whereas most women can orgasm during this time,” Liberman says.

For the first time having sex, Liberman explains that it’s important to take things slow in order to make sure each partner is ready. You can use this intimate time as you please; there are no set rules to follow!

Foreplay is extremely important for women because that’s when women are most aroused,” she says. “If you jump into intercourse, the woman might not be lubricated enough to enjoy it and may not experience the full pleasure of sex.”

Sarah, a junior at the University of Michigan, also says that foreplay is important. “What is considered foreplay by many straight couples — oral, fingering, manual stimulation, kissing, and touching—is considered sex by many queer couples,” she says. “It can be just as fun and important as vaginal sex, so don't just write it off as something that you do on the way to the main event.”

Will I have an orgasm?

After living vicariously through The Notebook and just about every other Nicholas Sparks inspired-film, you can only dream that your first time will be as romantic and satisfying as the passionate love scenes those couples had. But when it comes to pleasure, it’s important to have realistic expectations.

Dr. Ernst says that it’s uncommon for women to experience an orgasm during sex for the first time because they aren’t familiar with interacting with a partner. “It’s more common that women don’t [orgasm] just because they are not as aware of their own bodies and what it might take to reach that stage of excitement,” she says. “As they get more comfortable with their partner and their partner knows them and they know themselves, that becomes more common.”

Contrary to popular belief, it’s rare that you’ll reach the grand finale solely from intercourse, even with experience. “It’s generally not common for women to have orgasms with intercourse, and most don’t,” Liberman says. “Even after the 10th, 20th, or 100th time, it’s uncommon.”

According to Liberman, the reasoning behind this is that the vaginal canal isn’t the most sensitive area, and so it’s more common for women to orgasm when other areas, such as the clitoris, are stimulated. This is why foreplay is important!

Amy, a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, says that over time you will learn what feels good for your body. “I did not experience an orgasm when having sex until I had practiced at it for about three years,” she says. “While my hope for all people is that they experience great orgasms, having an orgasm is not the end-all-be-all. Feel comfortable enough to do whatever feels good.”

What should I do about contraception?

If you’re thinking about having sex, it’s important to consider the different contraception options beforehand. “I think it’s a great idea for young [people] to think about contraception before they become sexually active and even come in and have a consultation with a health care provider who can talk about all of the options,” Ernst says. “There are a million options, and there’s one that’s right for everyone.”

Whether you decide to use female or male condoms, they are a must-have for your first time (and any time after that). Even if you’re on birth control, there's no love without the glove — it is the only way to protect your body against sexually transmitted diseases and infections. You can find inexpensive female condoms such as VCF Vaginal Contraceptive Films ($16 at CVS) or male condoms at any local drugstore. It’s always smart to have a backup in case things get heated and your partner doesn’t have protection on them!

And what if your worst nightmare comes true? The condom broke. You forgot to take your birth control pill that day. Plan B (emergency contraception) is now offered over-the-counter and is a viable option for college women. 

What if I’m feeling anxious?

You’re used to pre-test jitters and the anxiousness associated with going on a first date, but this is a whole new playing field. First things first: it’s okay to be nervous! “It’s normal to feel anxious because [having intercourse] is probably unlike anything you’ve done before, and so like anything new, it can be scary,” Liberman says.

To make the experience less intimidating, Liberman says that people should become comfortable with their own bodies before having sex. “It’s important to educate yourself about your body,” she says. “To go into sex for the first time without knowing anything about your body is doing [yourself] a disservice because you don’t know what [it] looks like and you don’t know what to expect from yourself. If you’re more familiar with yourself, including masturbation, you’re probably going to feel less anxious [and know what feels good].”

Liberman recommends that women take the time to read about the female body; there are an infinite number of online resources to look at if you have any sex-related questions, including Scarleteen. Along with reading, she says that it’s helpful to get to know your body more personally (when you have some alone time, if you know what I mean). Once you begin to explore your own body, you will know what to expect from yourself with a partner when that time comes. If you’re self-conscious about trying masturbation, the shower is a natural, easy place to start. 

You may have certain expectations for your first time, but keep in mind that having sex for the first time is different for every person! Just remember that it should be your decision and no one else’s. When you’re ready, these tips will be here to guide you through your first time!

*Names have been changed.