A lot of people worry that they’re out of step with what’s “right” or “normal” if they don’t do certain sexual things by certain ages. You may think you should “lose your virginity” by a specific age or there’s something wrong with you. (More later on why I put that in quotes.) You may visualize some sort of correct or ideal timeline on which sex and relationships unfold.
But the truth is that healthy human sexuality encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including big variations in timing. The “right” age to have sex is an incredibly personal thing. The question isn’t what’s “right” for people in general, but what’s right for you as an individual. This is your life, your sexuality, and the best path is to listen to your own internal truth. What does your gut say is best for you?
What Makes It “Right”
For most people, what makes the timing right to have sex for the first time isn’t an age, but a situation. For a lot of people, especially women, what makes sex feel right is the person they’re doing it with. You may be aroused, even really aroused, but not feel that the timing or the person is quite right. It may feel right to wait until you’re in a relationship with someone you trust and care about. Or maybe not a serious relationship, but at least a partner you feel safe with. Or maybe lust alone is enough for you. The essential thing isn’t what you think would feel right to someone else, but what does actually feel right to you.
One thing that helps is making a conscious choice that you’re ready. People who feel they’ve thought about their choice tend to feel better about their first time than people for whom “it just happened.” When and with whom to have sex is a decision you can (and should) control.
Also, there’s a big range of things that we lump together as “sex.” Most people think of “losing their virginity” as the first time they have penis-in-vagina sex. But that leaves out a lot of LGBTQ people who may be very active sexually and never have PIV sex. It also leaves out equally intimate things like oral sex.
The idea of virginity as only about PIV sex is a holdover from patriarchal times when a woman’s value was based mostly on what a man had done to or with her. It didn’t matter whether she agreed to sex or whether she enjoyed it; it was all about where his penis got. This bugs me. I’d rather we had conversations about sexuality that care more about women’s internal experience than just how her body is in contact with a man’s.
That’s one reason why some people (me included) don’t like the expression “losing your virginity.” Because really, it shouldn’t be a loss; it’s a change, a new experience, and hopefully a positive one. A better term is “sexual debut.”
It’s also true that PIV sex may or may not be a big deal when it happens. For some people, it’s life-changing; for others, it’s completely underwhelming. If you expect PIV to be huge and it isn’t, that can be pretty disappointing. (Which doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you; it happens a lot.) Sometimes what’s really powerful is the first time you have an orgasm, or an orgasm with a partner (however that happens), or the first time you have sex with someone you’re in love with.
So How Do You Know?
The key to choosing the right time, really, is what you don’t do: You don’t worry about what anyone else thinks, including your partner.
Not that your partner’s needs and preferences don’t matter, because they do. They just don’t control this particular decision. When it comes to sex, especially sex for the first time, the least-ready person’s needs control. Always.
Sex is such an important, powerful thing that it should only happen when both people’s hearts, minds, and bodies are fully on board. That’s what makes it possible for you to relax and be fully present in the experience.
So the essential thing is to listen to your thoughts and feelings. Pay attention to them. Any nagging worries or doubts are data about what should be resolved before you say Yes. Your feelings about the possibility of having sex, whatever those feelings are, are legitimate and important. If you don’t feel quite ready, you don’t need to have a reason for that; the feeling is sufficient. Your gut is giving you crucial information about what’s right for you.
Here are some things to ask yourself. As you do, think about the answers and notice any feelings that come up.
- Have I taken appropriate steps to avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection? Have my partner and I talked about those risks?
- Am I ready for this person to see me naked?
- Do I care about this person? Do they care about me?
- Do I feel pressured? Are they rushing me, or are they respectful of the pace I want to go?
- Am I confident they would stop if I changed my mind?
- Do I trust them to not tell the world tomorrow about what happens tonight? Will they protect my privacy?
- How much does it matter to me that this relationship continues after we have sex? Would I be upset if they didn’t text the next day? If I “catch feelings” after having sex, will the person still be around?
- Do I like this person’s touch? How does my body respond to it? Are they gentle? Do they seem interested in my pleasure as well as their own?
- Am I likely to have regrets afterward or feel happy about my choice?
Making a conscious choice about having sex makes it more likely you’ll have an experience you’ll feel good about. When you listen to your heart and mind, and your whole self is ready, and the partner and the situation are right (including everything you need to stay safe), that’s the right time for you. Because sex is too important and too personal to let anyone else choose for you.