First time’s the charm

Sex on Tuesday

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I have no memory of losing my virginity.

I know it wasn’t dark, so a lack of visual stimulus doesn’t explain why I don’t remember. And I know it wasn’t planned: It happened somewhat by accident as a natural evolution of the moment. But given it’s such a socially overhyped experience — and given that it mattered a lot to me — I’m surprised the memory’s gone.

I recall the fits and starts of exploration in the months before; I recall more vividly the times other people lost their virginities with me; and I recall many other experiences with the same wonderful girl after the first time. But that big first time itself brings back only reconstructed memories — no original recollections remain.

I remember being excited and apprehensive about my first time, afraid I wouldn’t be any good and scared I couldn’t keep her from hurting — yet still, of course, exhilarated. I don’t recall much peer pressure in high school, partly because I started having sex before many of my friends, but that was certainly a relief. I got to take my time and work toward being comfortable with the idea of having sex, and I got to lose my virginity on my own terms, not because other people thought I was a prude or because anyone pushed me to do more than I was ready for.

But it’s interesting to me that I don’t remember my first time. I do understand, though, why I might not remember my first time yet still remember when other people lost their virginities with me. Anecdotally, I feel as though memories form more clearly for me when the emotion is really intense for me, and even if I know someone else cares about a moment a lot, the memory won’t stick unless it feels personal.

Paradoxically, my first time was less of a big deal, because I felt like I had nothing to prove. Although inexpert, my first time was neither emotionally nor physically bad, and since it was all brand new, I couldn’t really be expected to nail it on the first try. But other people’s first times stick in my head, because I felt responsible for making sure they were content, taken care of and at ease. For my first time, the pressure was off, but other people’s felt more high stakes.

Among the blessings of losing my virginity in high school was that we could have sex in a large, clean house when no one’s parents were home (I think). It was a less foreign, less risky environment than having sex for the first time in someone’s random, maybe somewhat gross college dorm or apartment where a roommate could walk in at any moment.

Another fortunate fact was that we were 16 years old, meaning alcohol wasn’t a factor (neither of us drank, anyway) that could make consent questionable or make either of us think we wanted something we weren’t assessing soberly. In college, of course, and even later in high school, many people obviously prefer to drink to feel less inhibited about being intimate. But although you can obviously have good sexual experiences while a little buzzed, I’ve always been skittish about the risks of mixing substances with sex.

Even if college can be a blast sometimes, it’s still often overwhelming and intense. As someone who takes time to get comfortable being fully myself with others, my college experiences with hookup culture or rushed relationships have been generally mediocre at best. Having my first time with someone I’d already been dating for a few months was a better fit for me and ensured I was truly relaxed.

Friends of mine who’ve just started having sex (or who haven’t yet) mostly say sex still feels like a really big deal, and that seems totally appropriate. For the most part, we probably all want to have sex that feels meaningful rather than quick or empty, and having sex you’re emotionally invested in makes for a better experience on many levels. Even if I’m more accustomed to sex, I still think that at its best, sex should feel precious and special.

In college, however, there’s typically less emphasis on sex being something to treat delicately and more emphasis on having lots of sex however you can get it. Obviously, the emotional dimension of sex usually requires time and energy, and a busy UC Berkeley lifestyle probably makes that a tad less feasible. But I would still advocate for people to treat their first time as a big event — not something to feel pressured about, not something to rush into if it hasn’t happened yet, just something that can be great and special when done thoughtfully.

I’m glad I started having sex as young as I did; it’s given me some valuable perspective in college about how to have fulfilling sex and avoid bad sex. I also sympathize with the pressures and obstacles lots of people face when they have their first times in college. For people who still aren’t ready or are ready but want to make sure they handle their first time carefully and seriously, take your time.

I have far more regrets about the bad sex I did have than about all the times I didn’t have sex that I truly wanted. Not getting something of uncertain value hurts far less than losing something that feels personal and precious.

So please, by all means, have sex you want. Have as much consensual sex as you like. Godspeed. But sex is one of the strange, beautiful and (to me) still sometimes mysterious wonders of being human. It deserves to be taken seriously. Don’t let anyone diminish how precious your first — or fifty-first — time can be.

Aidan Bassett writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact him at [email protected].