“Gone But Not Forgotten.” It sounds like the title of a paperback crime thriller or a steamy gay romance movie (because it is, in fact), but it’s also the title of a new psychological study subtitled “Virginity Loss and Current Sexual Satisfaction.” The study, conducted by two psychology professors at the Universities of Mississippi and Tennessee, purports to demonstrate that the way you lose your virginity “is so salient that it is related to future sexual satisfaction and functioning.” Or, as The Atlantic’s Lindsay Abrams puts it, skillfully ramping the hysterical implications of this study up to 11 while appearing to ask a simple rhetorical question, “[W]hat if there’s even more pressure on that situation than we realize, and how it goes the first time affects the sex you have for the rest of your life?”
The authors of the study do plenty of their own fear-mongering, writing that “one’s first-time sexual experience is more than just a milestone in development. Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later.” The authors also claim that their research “suggests that any schemas and scripts developed during the first time may continue to influence sexual intercourse later in life.” The good news is that the way in which the study was conducted does not seem to back up the hype. That’s because its sample size is small (319 people total), narrow, and—most importantly—very, very young. The sample size consisted entirely of college undergrads whose average age was 18.93, and who had been having sex for an average of 2.21 years. How were the first 2 years, 2 months, and 2 weeks of your sex life post-virginity-loss? Mine consisted of a few awkward, unsatisfying, and/or boring sexual encounters, plus a lot of down time. But I’m happy to report that things have picked up since then, and most everyone I know can report the same. Maybe we should start an “It Gets Better”-style campaign for the 19-year-old participants in this study, just to reassure them that the sex you have post-college is virtually guaranteed to be more varied, interesting, and satisfying than the sex you have in college.
The study also judges current sexual satisfaction based on “intimate interactions,” which are defined as “any interaction that lasts 10 minutes or longer in which a person is physically intimate with another person.” But what if you’re sexually satisfied with a bottle of lube, a vibrator, and/or your favorite porn site? According to the study’s parameters, it doesn’t matter whether you felt “relaxed, good, and exhilarated” afterwards (or, conversely, “regret, guilty, disappointed, and ashamed”) unless another person was in the room with you.
In addition to pretending masturbation doesn’t count as part of one’s sex life, the study also was designed to exclude people whose sexual histories do not match the cultural ideal of a boyfriend and girlfriend deciding to finally go all the way on prom night. For one thing, it ignores people whose first sexual encounter involved “physical force,” which is, unfortunately, a not insignificant portion of the population. (Twelve people were excluded from the study because their first sexual encounter was rape.) It also defines virginity loss in a way that leaves out most lesbians and gay men, since the participants “needed to have had heterosexual intercourse to be eligible.”
The truth is, virginity loss, as defined by the study, is one of many, many possible sexual initiation experiences. Sure, the first time you have penis-in-vagina sex can color all your future sexual experiences. Other things that can color your future sexual experiences: your first kiss, or the first time you climax with a partner, or the first time you climax by yourself, for that matter. Not to mention your parents’ attitudes towards sex, the way your peers treated you when you were growing up, and the messages your culture sends you about sex. It seems much more likely to me that these factors all affect both your first sexual experience and your subsequent sexual experiences. But that’s a hypothesis that’s impossible to test with questionnaires and statistics—which is why we’re stuck with poorly designed, heteronormative, dramatically titled sexuality studies that purport to prove more than they really do.