“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 the overly dramatic sex-ed teacher from Mean Girls to scare you away from having sex. Because your first time may seem daunting, I spoke with several sex experts to help you better prepare for when you’re ready to take the next step. Here’s what to expect the first time you have sex, according to a sex therapist, a physician, and college women who have been there. And while we’ll be referring to penetrative sex in this article, know that there are many different ways to have sex — it’s all about what feels good for you.
What if I’m feeling anxious to have sex for the first time?
You’re used to pre-test jitters and the anxiety associated with going on a first date, but having sex for the first time can be 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,” Reena Liberman, MS., a sex therapist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, tells Her Campus. “Like anything new, it can be scary.”
To make the experience less intimidating overall, Liberman suggests starting to get comfortable with your own body. “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.” Plus, you’ll know what feels good! If you’re self-conscious about trying masturbation, the shower is a natural, easy place to start — and you can always check out other tips and tricks for how to begin.
In a 2017 study of 142 couples published in the Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, researchers found that intimate partners who freely communicated their sexual needs and desires had more healthy and fulfilling sex lives. So, if you’re feeling anxious about having sex for the first time, don’t be afraid to explore your body and practice how you might communicate your sexual needs to someone else. It may seem intimidating, but once you begin to explore your own body privately, it may more empowering to eventually voice to a partner what you do and do not enjoy during sex.
Will having sex the first time hurt?
It’s totally normal to be concerned about experiencing pain and discomfort during sex. Women are taught that having penetrative sex for the first time will be painful because of what they learn about the hymen — AKA the thin tissue that lines the opening of the vagina. It’s often referred to as “tearing,” which means it’s supposed to hurt…right? While sexual intercourse can definitely feel uncomfortable at first, Liberman explains that the pain shouldn’t be too severe.
“If it’s your first time having intercourse and the hymen is still intact, [sex] might feel like a little pinch, but it shouldn’t be very painful,” Liberman tells Her Campus. It’s also worth noting that it’s entirely possible to tear the hymen before even having intercourse — some people report this happening while using tampons, during masturbation, or even after strenuous exercise.
When you have sex for the first time, know that it’s also normal to experience spotting or bleeding during and after intercourse. Liberman says that light spotting is typical, but anything more than that may signal that something is wrong. “It’s normal to bleed,” Liberman says, “and it depends on the kind of hymen that the [person] has. There shouldn’t be too much blood. If it’s flowing, then there is something else going on.”
Coping with any pain after having sex for the first time
While sex might feel physically uncomfortable at first, penetration isn’t necessarily supposed to hurt. Surprisingly, much of the pain that we associate with intercourse can happen if your body is overly tense from stress, nerves, or muscle tension. Liberman tells Her Campus, “often, because [sex can be] a nervous or anxious moment, it can be hard for the [person] to self-lubricate — that can make intercourse more uncomfortable or even painful. Along with this, muscles can tense up and add to the discomfort.”
If you’re concerned about experiencing pain during sex, Susan Ernst, MD, a physician at the University Health Service Women’s Health Clinic at the University of Michigan, recommends using a water-based lubricant, which can help minimize discomfort. And while there are many options for using lube, you may want to avoid oil-based lubricants, as these tend to degrade latex condoms faster, thus making it easier for them to break during intercourse.
Whether you opt to use lube or not, Taylor*, a senior at the University of Michigan, says that you should definitely speak up if intercourse is painful or uncomfortable in any way. “My first time, I did not feel comfortable telling the person that I was with how it was feeling,” she tells Her Campus. “My best advice is to try out different positions, do whatever feels comfortable; and if [intercourse] hurts, switch it up and communicate [with your partner].”
If I’m having sex for the first time, should I tell my partner?
If you’re not sure how to tell your partner that you’ve never had penetrative sex before, guess what? You are not alone — many young women feel the same way. It can be totally nerve-wracking to open up and have a conversation like this with a partner, but remember, only share what makes you feel the most comfortable in a way that makes sense for you. Know that when it comes to sex, everyone moves at their own pace, and everyone approaches the conversation differently — it’s up to you to determine what feels safe.
If you’re having sex for the first time, it can feel daunting to place a lot of emphasis on “losing your virginity.” However, it’s important to remember that virginity is a social construct despite it being over-emphasized in Western culture. That’s right — according to the World Health Organization (WHO), “virginity” is not a medical or scientific term, and emphasis on a woman’s “virginity” can even be a form of gender discrimination. Virginity means something different to everyone, plus, there are a number of different ways to have sex — there is no one-size-fits all version! Once again, sex is all about what makes you feel most comfortable. You shouldn’t feel pressured to label your experience.
If you do want to tell your partner you’ve never had sex before, it’s up to you to decide how you want to share. And who knows, maybe it’s their first time having sex as well. Pro tip: if a person has a problem with you being a first-timer, or expresses judgment toward you or what you share, then it may be worth considering if they’re a person you’re comfortable having sex with in the first place.
What about foreplay before I have sex?
Foreplay is often considered to be any sexual activity that leads up to intercourse. Think: kissing, touching, sending steamy text messages, using sex toys, igniting the senses in some way, oral sex, or all of the above! Foreplay means different things to different people, and there is no one “right” or “wrong” way to go about it. Foreplay can definitely enhance your sexual experience, but there’s no pressure — always do what’s right for you.
I’ve come to think of foreplay as an “opening act” before the main event — the appetizer before the entrée, if you will. However, foreplay isn’t necessarily “less important” than sexual intercourse, given that many women can orgasm during foreplay (and not always during intercourse)! Liberman says, “Foreplay is extremely important for women because that’s when women are most aroused. 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 believes foreplay is important and highlights that it can mean different things to different couples. She shares with Her Campus, “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.’”
If it’s your first time having sex, Liberman suggests taking things slow in order to ensure each partner is ready, whether you opt to engage in forepay or not. Remember that you can use this intimate time as you please; there are no set rules to follow.
Will I have an orgasm the first time I have sex?
After living vicariously through The Notebook, it’s natural to dream about your first time being as romantic and satisfying as the passionate love scenes you see in movies. And it totally can be! But when it comes to having sex for the first time, know that penetrative sex doesn’t always end in orgasm — in fact, a 2018 study published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior suggests that women only reach orgasm 65% of the time when having sexual intercourse. While orgasms are often viewed as a “goal” for sexual experiences (often prioritized for men in particular), reaching orgasm is only one piece of the puzzle. It’s entirely possible to enjoy great sex without having an orgasm, and it can be even more empowering to prioritize pleasure instead. The bottom line: sex doesn’t always end in orgasm, but it should absolutely feel good — and prioritizing your pleasure can be a key part of that.
Contrary to popular belief, it’s rare that you’ll reach the grand finale solely from intercourse, even with plenty of 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.” Why is that, you ask? According to Liberman, one potential reason is that the vaginal canal isn’t actually the most sensitive area of the body, and so it’s more common for women to orgasm when other areas, such as the clitoris, are stimulated (yes, this is why foreplay is important!).
A 2010 study published in The Journal of Sex Research found that the way women view their bodies is often tied to self-consciousness during sex, and Dr. Ernst says that this can be one of the many reasons why women don’t orgasm having sex for the first time. “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 tells Her Campus. “As they get more comfortable with their partner — and their partner knows them and they know themselves — [orgasm] becomes more common.”
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 about using contraception the first time I have sex?
If you’re thinking about having sex for the first time, researching different contraception options beforehand can be helpful in putting your mind at ease. “I think it’s a great idea for young [people] to think about contraception before they become sexually active,” says Ernst. “[They can] even come in and have a consultation with a health care provider who can talk about all of the options. There are a million options, and there’s one that’s right for everyone.”
Even if you’re taking birth control, condoms are recommended for your first time having sex (and any time after that!), since they’re the only way to protect your body against sexually transmitted diseases and infections. It’s always smart to have a backup, too, in case things get steamy and you don’t have protection nearby. If for some reason you run into an emergency — whether the condom broke, you forgot to take your birth control pill, or otherwise, Plan B One-Step (AKA the “morning after” pill) is over-the-counter emergency contraception that you can buy at your local drugstore for extra peace of mind.
What about consent?
If there’s anything to know about having sex for the first time, it’s that consent matters. After all, you deserve to enjoy your sexual experience, and that involves feeling safe and comfortable! While consent can manifest in a variety of ways, consent is an agreement between people to engage in a sexual activity, and should be clearly communicated — this can help both you and your partner to understand and respect each other’s boundaries. PSA: if someone is underage, intoxicated, asleep, or unconscious, they are unable to give consent.
While consent can be nerve-wracking to consider if you’re having sex for the first time, remember: consent is all about communication, and should happen for every type of activity. Consenting to one activity doesn’t necessarily mean consent for another, and that includes the same activity at a different time. For example: agreeing to make out with someone doesn’t give them permission to take your clothes off, and having sex with someone doesn’t give them permission to have sex with you again. Know that you have the power to discuss boundaries, expectations, and communicate what you are — and are not — comfortable with when it comes to sex. Consent is your right, and communicating with your partner clearly can help create space for fun, empowering sexual experiences in the future.
Having sex for the first time can be intimidating, and while you may have certain expectations for your first time, keep in mind that having sex is different for every person, regardless of experience level. Just remember that having sex is your decision and no one else’s, and there’s no “right” or “wrong” experience to have! When you’re ready, these tips will be here to guide you through your first time.
*Names have been changed.
Taylor, student at University of Michigan
Amy, University of Michigan alumna
Kayla, student at Michigan State University
Sarah, student at University of Michigan
Frederick, D. A., John, H. K. S., Garcia, J. R., & Lloyd, E. A. (2018). Differences in orgasm frequency among gay, lesbian, bisexual, and heterosexual men and women in a US national sample. Archives of sexual behavior, 47(1), 273-288.
Jones, A. C., Robinson, W. D., & Seedall, R. B. (2018). The role of sexual communication in couples’ sexual outcomes: A dyadic path analysis. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 44(4), 606-623.
Wiederman, M. W. (2000). Women’s body image self‐consciousness during physical intimacy with a partner. Journal of sex research, 37(1), 60-68.