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Dear Sexpert,

I am a virgin, and I think I am ready to have sex for the first time with my partner. But I am feeling a little nervous. What should I expect? What should I do to prepare? 

--Nervous First-Timer 

Dear Nervous First-Timer,

It’s natural to feel nervous when engaging in something for the first time — whether it is a new sex act or with a new partner — since there are plenty of unknowns. But it can also be exciting, especially if you approach it with accurate information, open communication, and some preparation.

Virginity can mean very different things for people, depending on their sexual orientation, religious, cultural, or familial background (e.g., absence of vaginal intercourse for some, or lack of any intimate acts for others, such as mutual masturbation, manual sex, oral, and/or anal sex for others). Whatever you define as virginity, deciding to have sex for the first time is a personal decision. Factors like your peers, family, societal expectations, curiosity, beliefs, and/or desires can influence whether you feel you are “ready.” 

Assess your emotional readiness by asking yourself some of these questions:

  • What does losing my virginity mean to me?
  • What do I expect from sex with my partner?
  • What sexual activities am I comfortable doing?
  • Will I feel comfortable voicing my concerns or limits to my partner?
  • What possible outcomes – wanted or unwanted – might sex entail?

In terms of physical readiness, you should consider both the possibility of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections. If engaging in penile-vaginal sex, while contraceptives such as the pill or the IUD (intrauterine device) are highly effective as birth control, only condoms are effective at preventing both pregnancy and STIs. Make sure you know how to put on a condom properly before intercourse. If engaging in anal sex, be sure to use a barrier method, such as a condom (internal/female or external/male). If you plan to engage in oral sex, use a dental dam to prevent any possible STIs. For information on how to properly use these barrier methods, here are some useful tips by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Regarding knowing what to expect, although this may not be the exact answer you are looking for, one’s experience of first-time sex truly varies. While it can be sensual and passionate, it can also be awkward and disappointing. The most important aspect to understand is that pleasurable sex is something that can be worked on as you and your partner better understand your individual and each other’s bodies. One suggestion is that before sex, you and your partner can experiment with other intimate acts (such as finding erogenous zones other than the genitalia, cuddling, or massaging) to maximize the pleasure from this first-time experience. Moreover, you may want to talk to each other about what feels good and where you’d like to be touched; this will encourage an open line of communication that will lead to better sexual experiences. 

For some with a vulva, penile-vaginal intercourse may cause pain and bleeding as the hymen (a thin tissue near the vaginal opening that is stretched during intercourse) is penetrated. For others, the hymen may be naturally more open or has already been stretched due to activities such as sports, and thereby cause no pain. With manual stimulation or penile-vaginal sex, it is also possible to experience some irritation due to vaginal dryness (as in, the area is not “wet” enough). In this case, it may help to engage in more foreplay (such as kissing, massaging, or touching different areas of the body) to ensure that the partner is aroused enough to have more comfortable sex. Additionally, lube can be used to supplement vaginal lubrication. If either partner has a penis and is using an external (male) condom, only water-based lube should be used (not oil-based lube – i.e., massage oils and petroleum jelly) to prevent the breaking down of latex condoms.

All that said, the most important aspect of first-time sexual intercourse is to have open communication with your partner, to respect each other’s boundaries, and understand each other’s comfort zones. No matter how the first time goes, as long as both of you are willing to explore and work with each other to improve, the experience will hopefully be better each time! 

~The Sexpert

Information regarding sexual health retrieved from Go Ask Alice, Planned Parenthood, and AVERT.

For more advice from The Sexpert or to submit a question, visit thesexpert.princeton.edu.

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