For many of us, our first sexual experience stays in our memory forever. It is the experience that determines much of our early knowledge about sex, our future sexual expectations, and our approach to physical intimacy. It is also a very gendered experience, writes Diana Peragine, a postdoctoral fellow at Professor Doug VanderLaan’s Biopsychosocial Investigations of Gender Laboratory (BIG Lab), in an email interview with The Medium.
Women and men differ in how they view their sexual debut. A recent Irish study by the Crisis Pregnancy Agency shows that women tend to regret their first sexual encounter to a higher degree than men, despite beginning to have sex at around the same age (16–17 years old). Men are also said to experience more satisfaction and pleasure when it comes to their sexual debut than women. This enjoyment gap is among the largest gender differences in sexuality research.
Peragine’s research focuses on how “sexual inequality is written in the body,” and how first sexual encounters vary based on gender identity. She tries to explain why women experience less satisfaction at their sexual debut and what role society plays in this. “When sexual experiences aren’t functional or fulfilling for women, we often pin those problems on women themselves, labelling their bodies or minds ‘dysfunctional’,” says Peragine.
But satisfying sex rarely, if ever, has one single source. Often, women feel pleasure because of an interplay of factors that extend beyond the individual. Their satisfaction depends on who takes part in the sexual act and what societal norms they follow. For instance, some sexual behaviours deemed normal for men are seen as less acceptable when displayed by women. This inequality can make women feel restrained during their first sexual experience. Fearing judgment, they may even avoid any further discussion about their wants and needs in bed.
Peragine notes that the social standard for sex itself also affects women’s pleasure and desire, especially during their first time. “Sex is often narrowly defined as penis-in-vagina sex, which less often triggers orgasm for women than men. Besides, it is less likely to result in orgasm than other sexual activities like oral sex, manual sex, and masturbation,” explains Peragine.
Men’s orgasm seems to be a central focus in sex, such that ejaculation marks its end. Glans stimulation for women is instead framed as a build-up to sex, even though clitoral arousal is the major way for women to achieve an orgasm. The “pleasure gap” is so significant that men often feature orgasm in their definitions of satisfying sex, while women define it simply as sex that is free of pain or degradation.
Over the years, women’s negative responses to their first sexual experience have decreased, research finds. As a result of her 23-year study in human sexuality, Susan Sprecher, a professor at Illinois State University in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, learned that over time, gender differences in emotional reactions to first intercourse have declined. Still, the first sexual encounter continues to be a more positive experience for men than for women.
Peragine believes there are ways to increase women’s satisfaction at sexual debut even more. As a part of sex education, she suggests teaching girls about alternate avenues for sexual intimacy beyond penis-in-vagina sex that can bring pleasure. “There is a growing need to expand our concept of sex education, such that it stretches beyond the instructions young people receive about sex to their experience of it,” she says.
According to Peragine, turning sex education lessons more experiential would benefit the girls. Speaking about first sexual experiences and showing aspects of them—rather than simply instructing teenagers—can narrow the “pleasure gap” and help young people, specifically young women, realize their sexual rights.
Associate Features Editor (Volume 49) — Olga is a second-year student studying Professional Writing and Communications and completing a double minor in French and Environmental Management. She joined The Medium this year as an Associate Features Editor and is excited to start connecting with many interesting people for her interviews. In her spare time, you can find her taking long mental-health walks around UTM's campus and listening to Harry Styles’ latest album. Olga hopes the students of UTM will be able to see themselves in her articles and relate to the stories of her interviewees.