Seven Years of Figuring Out Sex
On average, it takes seven years to experience all major sexual milestones – from first learning about sex to actually having it.
From the birds and the bees to the baby-bearing stork, parents have long resorted to myth to answer the timeless question: Where do babies come from? However our parents explained reproduction to us, our (mis)education in sex probably didn’t start – or stop – there. In fact, many of us gleaned our first awareness of sex from a far less authoritative source. On the school bus, we heard older kids speaking vaguely about “doing it.” Or perhaps while changing the channel, we caught an unintended glimpse of a steamy movie scene. Maybe a friend let us in on his or her newfound knowledge of the gross things grownups do, swearing us to secrecy.
No matter how we first learned about sex – let alone engaged in it ourselves – those experiences are likely to be formative. What we believe about making love can shape our adolescence, even if our wrong assumptions seem hilarious in retrospect. How do people across the world first become sexually aware, and then active?
In the project, we set out to determine how Americans and Europeans learned about sex, surveying 1,000 individuals. Which sex myths and misconceptions did they hold to be true at one point in time? We then asked them to describe how old they were at the time of their first sexual experiences, and how they felt about them now. Our findings shed light on how we come to understand and experience sex, and what happens when myth collides with romantic reality.
Learning About Lovemaking
Across genders and continents, one trend holds true: When we first learn about sex, friends are the most likely messengers. The data were especially strong in Europe, with friends first informing 61 percent of men and half of women. Women on both continents were more likely to first learn about sex from other sources, however. Female respondents in both America and Europe were more significantly likely to hear about sex first from a parent. Perhaps that’s because female puberty necessitates conversations with a parent about menstruation, creating the possibility of communication around other elements of reproductive health as well.
Among those who learned about sex via media, a movie or television show was still the most common source. An Oxford University study, however, reveals many children today are exposed to sexually explicit content online, particularly on mobile devices. Perhaps this troubling phenomenon will mean the internet will eclipse traditional media as the first source of sex awareness in the coming years.
Awareness and Activity: A Sexual Timeline
Now that we’ve analysed how we first learn about sex, let’s explore how old we are when we receive first hand lessons. On average, both men and women in America seemed to become aware of sex earlier than their European counterparts. That awareness translated to earlier sexual activity between ages 14 and 16, with both American and European respondents experiencing a first kiss around the same time. However, U.S. respondents reached “second base” a year ahead of Europeans on average. That gap apparently narrows in the following years, with both sides of the Atlantic identifying similar ages at which they reached “third base” and first had intercourse.
In most cases, averages for women and men were within a year of each other – with one notable exception. In both the U.S. and Europe, women first viewed pornography roughly three years later than their male counterparts. Perhaps that statistic relates to an enduring double standard in porn consumption: The idea that it’s permissible for men, yet shameful for women. A recent study found 20 percent of women who view porn somewhat regularly still feel shame and subsequent embarrassment.
Misconceptions About Conception
Along our journey of learning about sex, drawing from various sources and early experiences, we reach some strange and silly conclusions. It’s easy to wonder how we ever believed these tall tales, given the benefit of hindsight.
Yet many of the myths our respondents said they believed at some point have persisted for generations. Take our most commonly believed myth, the correlation between shoe and penis size. That rumour was so pervasive, two British urologists set out to “establish if the ‘myth’ about whether the size of a man’s penis can be estimated from his shoe size has any basis, in fact” in a 2002 study published in the British Journal of Urology. Their answer? No correlation between the two variables whatsoever.
Other top myths seem more problematic because they represent a significant risk of unplanned pregnancy if actually applied. We hope those myths are dispelled by the time we experience intercourse, lest we mistake pools and plastic wrap for effective contraceptives. But our survey also demonstrates the prevalence of more serious misconceptions and prejudices about reproductive health. We’ve outlined them below to correct the record.
Many of these potentially harmful myths are the result of unfortunate ignorance about how STIs are actually contracted. Our hope is that sexual health education, received in school or elsewhere, helped many of our participants correct their understanding of sexual wellness before they engaged in any potentially risky behaviours. Even for adults, a refresher review of STIs – and how they’re transmitted and treated – might prove useful in informing healthy choices.
Other myths on this list seem rooted in prejudice instead. The phrase “sleeping around” alone implies a judgemental approach to each person’s choice in his or her sexual partners, but an STI test is a great choice for anyone who’s sexually active. Similarly, the apparent stigmatisation of the morning-after pill is a troubling trend, although one that may change in recent years as its use becomes more common.
Second Guessing the First Time
Given our tendency to suspect sex information while we’re young, how do we reflect on our first time having sex? Were we informed enough to choose, or prepared for the emotional consequences of this physical act?
When we asked survey respondents, women were far more likely to say they felt regret about their first time. That held true on both continents, but was particularly so for American women, 45 percent of who expressed regret. This difference between male and female respondents was consistent with findings from the British National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which noted 42 percent of women regretted their first experience of intercourse.
That same study found 22 percent of women felt their partner was more willing to have sex than they were, suggesting they felt pressured by their partner to have intercourse. We put that question to our participants who said they regretted their first sex experience: Why did they feel that way?
While our results confirm pressure from a partner contributed to regret in many cases, we also saw a more traditional top-reported cause. For men and women on both continents, a lack of true love for their partner was the leading reason they regretted their first time. Apparently, many of us still feel deeply that sex and love should be intimately connected, at least when it comes to losing our virginity.
Our participants’ regrets about intoxicated first sex experiences also proved interesting. While college campuses across the globe discuss the intersection of alcohol and consent, our male participants were actually more likely to voice regret about being drunk during their first time. A quarter of European men regretted their first time for this reason, while 14 percent of American men said the same.
No Room for Myth in Medicine
Whether you find common sex myths hilarious or horrifying, there’s no question accurate information is essential to your sexual wellness. ZAVA is your source for swift, confidential, and caring medical services, administered completely online. We take pride in aiding and informing you during every step of your care. From diagnosis to next-day delivery of your medication, we’re here to help.
We administered a survey to 500 Europeans and 500 Americans. Respondents answered questions about common sex myths and early sexual experiences.
The data we are presenting rely on self-reporting. There are many issues with self-reported data. These issues include but are not limited to: selective memory, telescoping, attribution, and exaggeration.
Fair Use Statement
If you want to spread the word about sexual education, we welcome you to use our findings and images for noncommercial purposes. We ask that you credit us for our work by providing a link to this page.