The "First Time"
The Four Facet Model
When it comes to deciding when and how to have sex for the first time, there are a lot of factors at play. From an interpersonal perspective, everything from your gender, race, family and friend perceptions, and religious affiliations can impact your decision.
From a cultural perspective, key changes that shaped generational beliefs include the emergence of birth control, an increase or decrease in conservatism, the beginning of the HIV/AIDS crisis, the increase in acceptance of LBGTQ communities, and the second and third waves of feminism.
Many also question the impact media may have on ones “first time.” However, in Virginity Lost, researcher Laura Carpenter demonstrates that while mass media likely reinforces a person’s beliefs, it typically won’t install new ones.
Regardless, each of these elements affect people in different ways and move people into what researcher Laura Carpentered has described as four different categories, or the four-facet model. She explains that each of the groups of people having sex for the first time as Gifters, Stigma, Processers, and Abstinence-focused. When looking at this model, I have chosen five areas to highlight that differ between the four groups:
- Relationship Longevity
- Sexual Satisfaction
- Safe Sex
- Religious Affiliation
Carpenter’s sample size is small, so her study is not a comprehensive look at the nuances within each category of people. For that reason, I urge you to view these overall ideas simply as common characteristics, not set-in-stone rules.
Gifters commonly view first-time sex as a process of giving the “self,” holding the idea that someone’s “first time” is an extension of their identity. Furthermore, that first time is often seen as an experience of uniqueness and “non-renewability” (3). Gifters typically search for love, or for a long-term relationship, before giving their gift — though they may not necessarily wait until marriage.
Relationship Longevity: On average, Gifters that experienced sex for the first time with a significant other stayed with their partner for two or more years. This is longer than individuals in the Stigma or Process groups, who generally lasted around six to eight months (3). Even so, the longevity of a first partner or love is not always a positive. According to Carpenter, “efforts at maintaining unsatisfactory relationships are, in fact, one of the less savory consequences of perceiving virginity as part of the self” (3). Furthermore, Gifters often give their partners the power to determine how the experience went by following a number of cues, such as how the partner reacts to the gift, if they are exchanging that same gift, how they treat them after, and so on.
Sexual Satisfaction: Being sexually satisfied is not as important to Gifters as it is to those in the Stigma or Process groups.
Safe Sex: This group is more likely to incorporate safe-sex methods, such as condoms or birth control, than their counterparts. They also prolong the period of time spent with a significant other before a first sexual experience. Gifters typically wait six months into a relationship, while those in the Stigma and Process groups wait between one to four months before having sex for the first time.
Gender: Gifters skew female, which can be traced back to the ideology of property transfer and the double standard of giving oneself to a man (3).
Religious Affiliation: Protestant, evangelical, and fundamentalist Christians are likely members of this category, as well as the Abstinence-only group (3).
Those in this category see their lack of sexual experience as something to get rid of. They commonly view sex as an act that you have a small window of opportunity to do before stigma sets in — for many of them, college is considered “too late” to have a sexual experience.
The Stigma group often hides their sexual status from friends or partners if they feel they have passed their window of opportunity (3). Like Gifters, Stigmas are very vulnerable to their partner’s response, as well as outside influence. “Being labeled by more powerful persons ensures that virgins who see themselves as stigmatized are always at the mercy of others, especially their sexual partners,” Carpenter explains.
Relationship Longevity: In the Stigma group, there is not much of a stipulation for relationships or love prior to a person’s first sexual experience.
Sexual Satisfaction: This group also has the highest expectations for physical sexual satisfaction when it comes to first-time sex.
Safe Sex: Those in the Stigma group are the least likely to utilize methods of protection for safe sex (3).
Gender: Men are more likely to be in this category than women, as men are more stigmatized for not having sex. The double standard actually makes it easier for women to have sex for the first time than their male counterparts. For people in the LGBTQ+ community, a first-time sexual experience may be a means of trying to convince themselves or others that they are heterosexual.
Religious Affiliation: Most people in the Stigma group tend to not have religious affiliations as a core attribute in their family or personal beliefs.
For Processors, the first time having sex is seen as the start of a larger journey. It's common for people in this group to take incremental steps into their sexual experiences, also known as going through all the “bases” prior to having sex for the first time. This differs from the other group, as Gifters typically don’t engage in much casual foreplay, and Stigmatized group members tend to see foreplay as a kind of “consolation prize” (3).
Relationship Longevity: It's common for Processors to have first-time sex with a friend or romantic partner. In Carpenter’s study, two-thirds of Processors explored sex with that same partner for around eight months (3).
Sexual Satisfaction: This group is much more accepting of “imperfect” sex than their counterparts, and may spend less time working to achieve “perfect” experiences. Carpenter infers that this leads Processors to bounce back from mishaps or awkwardness easier than those in the Gifter or Stigma groups (3).
Safe Sex: Since sexual experiences are often done in an incremental order, preparation for safe sex is more likely for Processors than other groups.
Gender: Processors don’t differ much by gender or sexuality.
Religious Affiliation: Strong religious affiliation is uncommon. More specifically, Carpenter found that “no one in the process group grew up in a conservative Protestant and/or devoutly religious family” (3).
Those who believe in abstinence have the intention of waiting until marriage to have sex. However, many studies have found that participating in abstinence-only education delays the timeline of a first sexual experience, but not by much in comparison to other groups.
Relationship Longevity: This grouping had the smallest sample size; however, it’s common for people to break their abstinence, and move into one of the other groups.
Sexual Satisfaction: Sexual satisfaction is less of a focus for Abstience-only people then it is for members of other groups.
Safe Sex: People in this group are often subject to abstinence-only programs, which often leave out conversations on contraception. “Ignoring condoms and contraceptives, or of focusing on (and even exaggerating) their failure rates, pose particular problems,” Carpenter explains. “As a report by the Centers of Disease Control notes, people who are skeptical about condoms aren’t as likely to use them — but that doesn’t mean they won’t have sex.”
Gender: Carpenter notes that both men and women can identify as Abstinence-only, but so-called female “purity” is more socially honored than male purity. If you’ve ever heard about purity balls, which are events for fathers and their daughters, you know a little about what I mean here.
Religious Affiliation: Abstinence-only individuals are largely motivated by religious affiliations.
While each grouping has its pro and cons, my hope is that we educate people to view sex as a process. What’s more, encouraging people to find a partner that they trust and respect — and who trusts and respects them — can help establish equal footing in a first-time sexual experience. It’s also worth letting go of the pressure to experience sex for the first time, and instead see the experience as a small step in a lifelong journey.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Girls & Sex-Navigating the Complicated New Landscape. Simon and Schuster, 2016.
- Orenstein, Peggy. Boys & Sex: Young Men on Hook-ups, Love, Porn, Consent and Navigating the New Masculinity. Souvenir Press, 2020.
- Carpenter, Laura. Virginity lost: An intimate portrait of first sexual experiences. NYU Press, 2005.
- Image Series via @Theandsign