Whether you’re a virgin or are contemplating having sex with a new partner, first times can be nerve-wracking. There are many factors to consider, both emotional and physical. We talked to Heather Corinna, founder and executive director of Scarleteen, an independent, grassroots sexuality education and support organization and website. Corinna is a sexuality, contraception and abortion educator and counselor as well as a writer and activist. Read on for her and collegiettes’ advice on how to know when you’re ready for sex.
When is the right time to have sex in a relationship?
Some girls wait until marriage, some wait a few months and some just a few dates. There’s no recommended timeline—the right time to have sex is when you and your partner feel ready. Eva, a Collegiette at Colby College, decided to lose her virginity a month into hooking up with the girl she liked. She says you know it’s a good time to have sex “once you stop thinking about it and don’t doubt the person and trust they’re on the same page,” she says. “I had a first time that was genuinely lovely. We fell hard and fast.” For others, it takes a bit longer to get comfortable. Veronica, a Collegiette at Johns Hopkins University, has dated her boyfriend for four months but has decided to wait to have sex. “I want to make sure I’m in love. I don’t want to have any doubts about it. You hear about a lot of people who do it and then regret it,” she says.
Further, consider your mental health. Are you depressed, overly stressed or anxious? Take a step back. “We know from a lot of broad study and anecdote at this point that while sex can be something we seek out for emotional comfort, when people are deeply depressed or suffering from a lot of anxiety or stress, sex with a partner often isn’t the greatest choice, especially if sex is something someone isn’t already engaging in—and thus, they’d be adding a new potential stressor—or when it’s not happening in interpersonal contexts where someone feels pretty emotionally safe,” Corinna says. “Being in a relatively good mental headspace isn’t required for sex, and it’s not like if someone engages in sex when they’re not in one, it’s likely to create any mind of lifelong trauma, but it usually tends to hurt, rather than help, if we’re already struggling emotionally.”
Will I just know when I’m ready?
Some girls know and other girls take a lot of time to think about the decision to have sex—both are valid! For Emily, a Collegiette at University of Virginia, sex was an option that required a bit of thinking first. “I knew I was ready for sex when it became obvious that my boyfriend and I had the same goals. We were both looking to get the same thing out of sex, so I could trust that he was not going to intentionally hurt or use me. It required a lot of communication, but many years later, I have no regrets,” she says. For other girls, like Ann, a Collegiette at Roanoke College, she just felt deep down that it was the right time. “I didn’t feel any reluctance. I wanted to do it with him. I wanted it to be with someone whom I cared about, who cared about me and whom I was secure with. I wanted someone who could guide me through it and not make me feel bad,” she says.
Sex is a two-way street, so your partner should be ready too. Can the both of you trust each other? Do you feel comfortable enough having potentially awkward conversations (about contraception, what you do and don’t like sexually, etc.)? Are you both mature enough to handle the consequences, good and bad, of sex? This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but you should make sure you know your limits and the other person’s limits before having sex. “I like to keep in mind that sex with someone can be, and often is, an emotionally and physically high-stakes activity. Are we up for that? Are they? Do we both recognize that, and are we both on board to do what we can to manage those stakes and explore them together safely?” Corinna says.
Regardless of when you decide is the right time, your and your partner’s opinions are the only ones that count. There can be pressure to have sex in college, but that shouldn’t influence your decision. “It doesn’t make sense to have the world decide such a personal thing but I think sex has turned into one of the most public things when it really should be the most intimate. Sex is in plays and movies and books and TV but really, it shouldn’t be something that everyone feels like they get a say in,” Brittany, a Collegiette at Indiana University, says.
Will it improve my relationship?
Maybe, maybe not. Regardless of whether or not it might, that’s not a good reason to have sex with someone. There are a lot of bad reasons to have sex: pressure (both from your partner and your peers), a desire to “get it over with,” because you feel you have to and because you think sex will fix your relationship—just to name a few. But, there are a TON of great reasons too! Sex can be fun, intense, and passionate! A lot of girls do it for the emotional aspect. “I felt like I was more deeply connected to him because when we had sex, it was a more passionate kind of sex and not just some hook-up,” says Rachel, a Collegiette at Miami University of Ohio. There isn’t a “best” reason to have sex. And sex also doesn’t have to be some intense act of love if you and your partner don’t want it to be. “I guess I had sex out of curiosity. If it was as fun as people say, I said, ‘why wait?’ and if it wasn’t as fun…Well I wouldn’t be curious anymore and I could move on with my life. I did it and I don’t regret it,” says Laura, a Collegiette at Rice University.
Will it hurt?
When girls talk about first-time pain, they’re often referring to breaking their hymen, which is a thin tissue that sits at the opening of the vagina. However, this is a myth. “The hymen, or corona, isn’t something that usually ‘breaks’ at all, save with serious injury or violent sexual assault.” Corinna says. “Instead, it’s tissue, and very, very thin tissue, at that, which usually very gradually erodes or wears away through a person’s whole life. And when first-time intercourse is uncomfortable, it’s not usually about the hymen at all, which has no nerve endings of its own. It’s more often about lack of relaxation, arousal or lubrication—and is thus, vaginal pain—or a too-hasty approach, etc. For most people, hymenal tissue surrounding the vaginal opening will already at least have micro-openings if that person has been menstruating already, and it’ll tend to easily stretch or move to the side for vaginal entry. It’s super-stretchy stuff.” The key? Having a trusted partner who will be gentle and patient. Lubricant helps too, she says. However, sometimes the hymen does tear a little, which will cause a bit of bleeding. This is no big deal and should go away in a few days.
There are other reasons for pain, too. Many down-there conditions like vaginismus and vulvodynia can cause sexual pain. If you experience severe pain, set up an appointment with your gynecologist, who can help you target the cause of your pain and find possible treatments.
What should I do about contraception?
Before having sex, have a conversation with your partner about contraception. To prevent possible pregnancy and STIs, having a contraception plan is crucial. Many women use the Pill or other types of birth control like IUDs or NuvaRing to supplement a condom. “I got on the Pill by choice so I wouldn’t feel so pressured to mention [contraception] when it was the heat of the moment,” Alice, a Collegiette at Johns Hopkins, says. “But my boyfriend and I would talk about [contraception] other times too, and he often was unprepared which made it annoying.” Alice told her boyfriend she required condoms to have sex, so he supplied them. Moral of the story? Don’t rely on anyone else when it comes to birth control—some guys carry them around, some don’t. Just to be safe, make sure you have condoms. Have a plan (and a back-up plan if necessary) and make sure your partner is on the same page as you. And don’t be afraid to stand your ground. “I’ve never had guys argue [about wearing a condom] except for once and I just stood my ground and they backed off. I couldn’t care less if they don’t want a condom. If they want to have sex with me they’re going to wear one or I leave,” Alice says.
How do I protect myself from STDs?
Of course, birth control and condoms won’t assure you a clean bill of health. If your partner has been sexually active in the past, urge him or her to get tested for STDs/STIs, which you can do at your student health center. These conversations aren’t awkward if you’re with someone who cares about your well-being, says Alice. “Sex with partners can introduce health risks we often won’t be exposed to otherwise, like pregnancy, STIs, or even more common illnesses, like colds and flus, which are way easier to pick up when we’re rubbing all over each other. There are things we can do, of course, to reduce those risks, like contraception to reduce the risk of pregnancy, safer sex (barrier use and testing, as well as some lifestyle choices) to reduce our infection risk, and doing ourselves and others a favor like opting out of sex or taking a rain check if we or a partner have the flu or a runny nose,” Corinna says.
What if I’m not good at sex?
Being “good” at sex is all about communication, says Tiffany, a Collegiette at Maryland Institute College of Art. “Neither of us knew what we were doing so it didn’t feel amazing but that’s part of it. Practice makes perfect. The longer you’re with the one person, you learn what they like,” she says. By talking about what you like and don’t like (as well as your partner’s preferences!) you’ll feel confident about your own performance. “I felt inexperienced [my first time] and it took reassurance at first from the guy to get me to become comfortable with being myself and being with him which is basically how you become ‘good’ at sex. You go with the flow,” says Angelina, a Collegiette at Johns Hopkins. Sex is best when you’re comfortable with your own anatomy and arousal as well as your partner’s. No one’s perfect, of course. Sex doesn’t have to be hot and mind-blowing—but it should be a comfortable way to explore your and your partner’s bodies.
There’s a lot to think about when it comes to sex. But once you feel like you’re ready, it can be pretty awesome. “Sex with a partner that you’re actually head over heels in love with and one that connects with you in every way is honestly the best thing in the entire world,” Alice says. “It’s absolutely fantastic when you know someone well enough to be able to tell them what you like and what you don’t like in the bedroom (or wherever else you do it, that’s cool too), and to be able to listen to them and do the same for them. When you do that, and you’ve got the chemistry, sex is more incredible than any other thing in the entire world.”