Can Your Partner Tell If You’re A Virgin The First Time You Have Sex? Here’s What You Should Know

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In this week's Sex IDK column, Emma McGowan, certified sex educator and writer, answers your questions about having penis-in-vagina sex for the first time.

Q: Will a guy be able to tell I’m a virgin when we have sex? I’m 26 and would like to avoid bringing up the issues that led me to wait so long.

Being open about our sexual histories can feel really scary, especially when you feel like your circumstances are different from those of most of the people you know. So being unsure about your first time having sex makes total sense!

When you say you’re a “virgin,” reader, I’m going to assume that you mean you haven’t had penis-in-vagina (PIV) sex. That’s usually the way we define virginity in our culture. But it’s actually a bit more complicated than that! So before we get into whether or not you need to tell a future partner about your prior sexual history, let’s take a look at the idea of virginity itself.

Our society puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of virginity. People swap stories about their “first time.” There are entire movies about “losing it.” There are balls where teenage girls pledge their chastity to their dads. So you’d think we all knew what “it” was, right? Nope! While many people will (correctly) assume, because of our culture's centering of heterosexual relationships, that people are talking about PIV virginity when they call themselves a virgin, that conception is not only super limiting, but also discriminates against people who don’t have PIV sex.

Think about it. People have plenty of sexual experiences without a penis going into a vagina — does that somehow not "count"? The fact that there will be a variety of reactions to that statement illustrates how the concept of one single virginity, defined by PIV sex, is flawed.

Rather than thinking of yourself as a capital-V Virgin, I suggest you think of your PIV virginity as one of multiple virginities. Have you received oral sex? Had anal sex? Given oral sex? Had sex with your fingers? If you consider those actions to be types of “sex” — and I encourage you to do so — then PIV sex can stop feeling like this weighty thing that changes your whole life and more like the next in a line of new sexual experiences.

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But back to the question at hand — whether a partner will be able to "tell" if you've had sex before! First of all, you get to choose what and to whom you reveal anything about your sexual past. So if you don’t want to tell someone that you’ve never had PIV sex, you absolutely, positively don’t have to. Period.

That said, if there are issues that have prevented you from have vaginal intercourse in the past, it might be helpful to seek out someone who is understanding and empathetic as your first PIV partner. Being communicative about your needs pretty much always leads to better sex, but it’s especially true if you have triggers that your partner needs to be conscientious about. For example, if you might start crying at some point, isn’t it less awkward to talk about it beforehand than it would be to deal with it in the moment? I think so. And if you do get emotional — or have another reaction to a trigger you weren’t expecting — then it may come out that it’s your first time having PIV sex anyway. Ultimately, though, whether or not to tell a partner that you’ve never done “it” is your choice.

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Now, let’s talk about the physical side of things. You may have heard that people with vaginas bleed when they have PIV sex for the first time — in which case, it’s fair to say the person you’re having PIV sex with might notice — but I’m here to tell you that doesn’t have to happen. Not everyone has a hymen, and by 26, it's pretty unlikely that you still do, if you ever did. Hymens can be broken by a bunch of activities that have nothing to do with a penis: horse riding, gymnastics, putting in a tampon, masturbating with your fingers, having “digital sex” (i.e. fingers in your vagina). The list goes on and on.

Another reason people sometimes bleed during their first time having PIV sex is because they aren’t properly lubricated. Luckily, there’s a great solution for this: Lube! Try out a couple lubes, see what works for you, and don’t be shy about asking for it if you need it before intercourse. And if your body naturally lubes up quite a lot on its own, make sure you get really turned on before penetration and you should be good to go. That’s actually good advice for anyone, whether or not they need lube: Do lots of sexy stuff before PIV intercourse! It not only feels better but also helps prevent vaginal tearing, cervical bruising, and will help you be nice and ready when it’s go time.

And while we're talking about the physical side of things, if you're worried that your partner will be able to tell that you're "inexperienced," don't be. There's no specific way an "experienced" person acts that's different from how an "inexperienced" person acts, because we all act differently during sex.

So, will a guy be able to tell that you haven’t had PIV sex? Not necessarily. Make sure you’re properly lubricated, do an internal assessment of your triggers to figure out what you need, and go for it!

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