When, at age 16, I finally lost my virginity, my only regret was that it hadn't happened sooner. Now, 17 years later, I still remember that night fondly. But my experience losing my virginity wasn't great because the bed was covered in rose petals, because I had hit some arbitrary age marker beforehand, or because the guy I lost it to became my husband (in the parlance of our times: LOL). It was great because it was exactly what I wanted, when I wanted it.
I didn't think that I lost anything by having sex at 16; I only saw myself as gaining an entry into the world of mature(ish) sexuality, which I was excited to explore. But as I got older, I realized that 16 reads as a bit young for sex to many people — they didn't see me as the heroine of my own sexual destiny, but instead as a kid who wasn't old enough to be trusted to make decisions about her body. Mind you, 16 is not much younger than the national average age for loss of virginity — 16.9 for men and 17.2 for women. But for many people, there's baggage around the idea of high schoolers having sex, especially when you're a woman, and supposed to be hanging on to your virginity for dear life so that you can cash it in for something important farther down the line (jewelry? A white wedding dress? Some Adele tickets?). Given that I didn't play by that script, there's sometimes an expectation that I regret what I did.
Though I regret many things from my teen years — such as my mistaken belief that red eyeshadow is ever a good idea — I have never regretted the circumstances surrounding the loss of my virginity. And I'm not alone: according to one 2014 study, 76 percent of men and 72 percent of women had zero regrets about losing their virginity, so our ideas about virginity and regret might be as misguided as our beliefs about virginity in general.
People who had sex young, waited until they were older, waited until marriage, or decided that sex was off the table for them completely shouldn't be judged. We should be free to make the decisions that are right for us — and I still think losing my virginity at 16 was absolutely the right choice for me. Here are five reasons why.
1. No One Pressured Me Into It
When people think of a girl losing her virginity in high school, many picture some sexually Machiavellian boyfriend working overtime behind the scenes, using a combination of flattery and empty promises to convince his partner to part with her precious maidenhead. For me, this could not have been further from the truth. I realized fairly early on that my sexuality was one of the primary lenses through which I experienced the world, and I was eager to personally experience some of the activities that I spent every waking moment thinking about. And though I liked my high school boyfriend, I would be lying if I said I didn't start dating him with the idea that this guy could finally be my ticket to the world of having sex (with anyone besides myself, that is).
Our cultural concerns about young women being pressured into having sex can be positive and important — many people of all ages are manipulated into going beyond their sexual limits and engaging in activities that make them feel unhappy and unsafe, and its important that people feel they have the kind of support that they need in order to stick to their boundaries.
However, when we express this concern exclusively about young female virgins, we end up doing more than just "protecting" girls who aren't ready; we also end up shaming girls who are ready, implying that they're either abnormal or lying to themselves. I wasn't abnormal or lying to myself. I was just horny.
2. Being Young Didn't Mean I Was Irresponsible
Though no one has ever had to ovaries to say this to me directly, I know the assumptions that many people jump to when they hear about a high school sexual experience: that it was totally unsafe, that you might have been drunk, that it may have even been with someone random at a party that you didn't know very well.
While I'm sure these things are true about many people's first sexual experiences, they had nothing to do with mine. My boyfriend and I did the research about how to best prevent pregnancy, we were stone cold sober when we got it on, and we did it purposefully, with a great deal of planning (essential when you're trying to engage in a sexual act in the same house where your parents are watching Frasier). The young have no monopoly on being irresponsible; I never had any idiotic unsafe sex until years after college, and many of the most sexually irresponsible people I have met were in their mid-20s — an age when almost all of us would agree that people are "old enough" to have sex.
There's a kind of benevolently judgmental language that is used by many to talk down to sexually active teens. As Jane M. Johnson, MSW, said in Psychology Today regarding the question of how to talk to a 16-year-old who may be sexually active, "I would express regret that he/she did not wait until he/she was older, surer, wiser." To me, this kind of language is not that different from more traditional language that judges young people who have lost their virginity (the "who'll buy the cow" type of talk) — both ways of speaking implies that there is a correct way in which to lose one's virginity, which the addressee has failed. But not everyone is unsure at 16, just as not everyone is sure at 23; not everyone would be happier if they waited. I personally would have been much less happy if I waited — and much more likely to have made a dumb, damaging decision, like having sex with someone I didn't care about at all, because I was crawling out of my skin with horniness.
3. Losing My Virginity Made Me Feel Less Beholden To Certain Societal Norms
I was a teen in the late '90s, a time when Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson spent a lot of time making public proclamations about saving their virginity for marriage, and a mania for "abstinence education" and purity pledges swept the nation. As a secular Jewish teen goth, I had about as much in common with Jessica Simpson as I did with a slice of pizza that someone has dropped on the sidewalk; but I felt that as a young woman, I was being lumped in with them. Even though I felt less pressure than many of my peers to visibly be a "good girl," there was still a cultural expectation that all young women should be interested in pleasing as many authority figures as possible, gaging their self-worth based on romantic attention, and holding on to their virginity until some undisclosed future date.
I failed spectacularly at all of these activities even when I tried, so I liked that losing my virginity took me out of the running in a race I had never signed on to be a part of. I won't go as far as to say losing my virginity was a political act for me — it was chiefly borne out of curiosity and overwhelming horniness — but I was happy that that losing my virginity seemed permanently remove me from the good girl Olympics. The "perfect" teen girl didn't follow her own sexual impulses wherever they led her — so now that I had definitively established to myself that I wasn't perfect, I felt like I could finally get to work on just being myself.
4. I'm Proud That I Listened To My Own Desires
If I had waited any longer than I did to have sex, it wouldn't have been for me; it would have been to placate a sexist system that thinks it is "cheap" for young women to take control of their sexuality, a system that demands that young women act like they have no sexual agency or desire at all.
My memories of adolescence basically consist of an endless, pummeling wave of horniness, which was punctuated every so often by school and Seinfeld reruns (both of which, if I am being honest, also fed my general horniness). I have a hard time remembering the things that ostensibly took up the bulk of my high school existence, like French subjunctive pronouns or the key symbolism in House of the Seven Gables. But at 33, I can still tell you what it felt like to spend my every waking moment desperate to attain carnal knowledge with my lab partner, my lockermate, or the guy who worked at the pretzel stand at the mall. At 15, 14, and even 13, sex seemed everywhere, but tantalizingly out of reach.
I didn't think those urges were shameful or bad; I was incredibly curious about what life as an actively sexual person would be like, and I was proud of myself for listening to my heart on this one, instead of a world that felt my desires were negative.
5. It Gave Me The Chance To Start Having Better Sex Sooner
People don't only regret giving in to their sexual urges — sometimes they also regret denying them. Brooke Shields, who waited until she was 22, told Health that she wished she had lost her virginity sooner, because she felt that if she had, "I would have been much more in touch with myself." I'm not mentioning this to glory in anyone's regret; far from it. But I hope we can understand that sexual regret, when it exists, isn't a one-way street — people can regret what they didn't do as much as they can regret what they did.
From the way we fetishize virginity in our culture, you might think that sex was some kind of downward trajectory, with the first time being the best time. For almost all of us, quite the opposite was true: in one 1995 study of 1600 college students that asked them to rate their first sexual experience on a scale of one to seven (with seven being the highest), female students rated their first sexual experience as a 2.95 on average (men rated it a five on average). My own first sexual experience was no different — I felt satisfied because I achieved a goal, but not because the sex was actually, you know, satisfying. But I was happy to now be able to start exploring my sexuality, trying new things, and figuring stuff out, without all the pressure for things to be perfect.
My way was right for me, and I would never say that it is right for everyone — for some people, losing your virginity under a specific set of circumstances is incredibly meaningful, and being respectful of that is part of being respectful of sexuality in general. But know that it goes both ways; no one should be pitied or thought less of because they lost their virginity on the younger side. There's little that frightens our culture as much as the idea that women might be the best judges of what to do with their own bodies — which is why we have to trust young women to do exactly that.
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