Everything I used to think about sex is a lie. Here’s what I pictured:

1.  I expected my first time to be a hard breaking-of-something, a sharp pain and a rush of blood, all at once. After said something was broken, that was it. My virginity would be gone. Free from pain in future encounters, but not spared the embarrassment of the gore and tightness of my first time.

2.  Myself, confused and afraid, trying to please my partner in all sorts of ways I didn’t know how.

3.  I saw said partner judging me for not knowing what went where, or how to make things feel the way they’re supposed to.

4.  I pictured awkward kissing, gagging on bodily fluids, and a failure to reach climax. I thought that if I didn’t orgasm, I would be judged. I would have disappointed my partner.

Never, in the years leading up to my first sexual experience, did I consider how someone might make me feel good. None of these are happy images, and so, for years and years and years, I was terrified of sex. Turns out, I didn’t bleed much at all my first time.

And, instead of one sharp pain and then none, the discomfort was much more gradual—dull and then sharper, duller, and then duller again, until it didn’t really hurt at all. The way I thought about the “breaking” of the hymen by penetration was flawed, in part because of jargon surrounding the act of sex. We hear about “popping” cherries and about a penis “penetrating” a vagina. But, it’s actually more of a stretching kind of deal. Tears can repair themselves and tear again. Blood can happen more than just the first time.

Actually, the “first time” is different for most people.Sometimes people bleed, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it really hurts, sometimes it doesn’t at all.

It depends on the particular shape of the hymen, on the level of lubrication down under, on how relaxed the vagina is, on the pacing of one’s partner… the list goes on. (And, I’d like to acknowledge that I am speaking from a heterosexual woman’s perspective, because I can’t speak to more than that—this is most definitely not to exclude anyone whose sex life does not include these particular parts.)

And once I finally decided to ask other women about their own experiences, I found out that the female orgasm is not necessarily common, and a lack thereof does not constitute judgment from a partner at all.

What else was surprising?

Growing up and learning about sex—from TV shows, movies, teen novels, middle- and high-school conversations—I heard endlessly of blowjobs, handjobs, and, of course, the infamous penis-vagina connection.

All of the language surrounding who was pleasuring whom was one-sided (woman-helps-man-cum), and so my expectation was that sex was a world of penis pleasuring unknown to me; it was some club I wasn’t a part of.

If I ever did hear about a female being pleasured, it was with regard to lesbian intercourse, which is problematic for multiple reasons. (A female friend of mine, who has sex with women, told me people frequently ask her, “How do you have sex, then?” to which she always replies, “You’ve clearly never had good sex.”)

So, when my partner prioritized my comfort level, going slow, being gentle, and respecting my body—when he didn’t expect me to do anything fancy with his business or put anything foreign in my mouth, I was—sad as it is—surprised. That unexpected level of care for my pleasure, as opposed to his own, was empowering. This got me thinking, why is that? Why was the fact that sex wasn’t scary so shocking to me?

A lot of it was media, like I said.

But, scary enough, a lot of it was from my peers’ stories.

I know women who recount their first times as miserable, painful, and awkward. Usually, they say they wanted to “get it over with.”

In college now, and insecure about their virgin-status, they went into their first times with the intention of drinking enough to dull the pain and shield the awkwardness. Some went home in tears, barely remembering the night—but at least they weren’t “virgins” anymore.

Of course, if you want your first time to be with a stranger—if you want to “get it over with,” as they say—by all means, you do you.

Just be sure you’re commanding a consent-based environment. Be sure you’re commanding respect for your body, and that you’re ready. Be sure you’re doing it for you, not because of peer pressure.

Sex can be fun. Sex can be empowering. Sex can be a good thing, if you’re into it. If you’re having sex just for the sake of having it, if you’re having it in a fear-driven setting, you might as well have not had it at all.

I don’t want to box this into a “right” way of doing things—every person is entitled to their own sexual experiences and preferences. What’s important, though, is to expect to be respected during a sexual encounter. Hold your sexual partner accountable for your comfort and security. Sex can be a beautiful show of intimacy, and a lot of popular portrayals of the act and a stigmatization of the conversation around it prevents us from understanding that we should expect a mutual give-and-take.

I know this article is bound to be limited—I am only able to draw on my own experiences. I grew up in a Catholic family with a mother who, probably unintentionally, stigmatized sex (even the word was met with a gasp and a feeling of hush-hush), and during high school, I always felt on the outside of some great Unknown. I’m certain that many people reading this will have had very different experiences, and that my previous naiveté might be surprising to some—if so, so be it.

The fact stands that I was ignorant about a lot of things, despite the massive amounts of television and film I consumed, several years of public school education and formal sex education, and my first three years of college. To go so far, to reach 21 and still feel like sex was a big scary monster for which I was not prepared, to think that I wouldn’t be “good enough” or “attractive” enough because of my virginity, is problematic.

A short time ago, you couldn’t have paid me to write the Sex & the CT column.

Now, even though I know my parents are reading this, and my “sex life” is in print, I am proud to be writing this article—to be talking about something that I was afraid of talking about.

I’d love for it to be a comfort to people on campus who are afraid of sex, who are insecure about their virginity, especially in a university environment. Talking about sex, asking my friends questions, and being lucky enough to share it with someone who respected me all made me confident enough to write this long-winded disquisition for a very public audience.

At the end of the day, just do what you’re comfortable with. Do what makes you feel good, and do it when you’re ready.

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