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Losing your virginity is a unique experience. It can be hard to know just what to expect. What will it feel like, when should you do it, and how can you stay safe during your first time?

The words “virginity” and “sex” mean different things to different people, regardless of whether they have sex with people of the same or different genders. Whatever definition people use, many feel anxious about having sex for the first time.

This concern is totally normal, but rumors and myths that circulate among friends and on the internet can create unnecessary fears. Understanding what might happen during and after sex can help ease any worries.

In this article, we look at what might happen — both physically and emotionally — when a person loses their virginity. We also tackle some common myths about virginity and sex and talk about how people can prepare for their first time having sex.

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A person may ease fears about losing their virginity by learning more about what happens during and after sex.

Defining virginity is not straightforward — sex and virginity can mean many different things to different individuals.

When people say “virgin,” they often mean a person who has not had penetrative, penis-in-vagina sex with another person. However, this is just one of many possible definitions.

Not all people have penis-in-vagina intercourse. For them and for others, virginity loss may refer to their first time with oral sex, anal sex, or sex using fingers or toys. Some people feel that they have lost their virginity multiple times, by having different kinds of sex.

Notions of virginity and sexual activity also differ among cultures.

People usually notice physical changes during sexual activity. Some of these are the same for males and females, while other changes differ.

Sex feels good because of both mental and physical factors. The brain releases hormones that support sexual pleasure, and there are thousands of nerve endings in the genitals that can feel good when stimulated. Learn more about why sex is pleasurable here.

Before and during sex, the body releases hormones. These increase the amount of fluid in the vagina or stimulate the penis to become erect. A person may also feel their heart rate quicken and their body become more sensitive during sex.

Sexual contact may feel strange at first because it is an unfamiliar sensation. That said, sex — including the first time — should not be painful.

To avoid discomfort, be sure to openly communicate with your partner before and during sex, telling them what does and does not work for you. If sex is painful, tell your partner and stop or try something different.

To maximize pleasure and minimize the chance of discomfort, spend a lot of time on foreplay. This can mean kissing, caressing, teasing, or exploring. Foreplay will enhance arousal and prime you and your partner for an even more enjoyable experience.

But even though foreplay and a state of arousal can help the vagina and penis self-lubricate, people may still need to add lubricant to prevent uncomfortable friction.

Adding lube is a must during anal sex, as the rectum does not produce its own lubrication.

Psychologist and sex educator Emily Nagoski, Ph.D., says that lubricant — whether water-based or silicone-based — should be a bedside staple for anyone who is sexually active.

In her book, Come As You Are, Nagoski explains that lubricant helps reduce friction and increase pleasure. It also decreases the risk of any tearing and pain.

Lube increases [the] efficacy [of protective barriers, such as condoms and dams] and makes them more pleasurable. Lube is your friend. Lube will make your sex life better.

Emily Nagoski, Ph.D.

A wide variety of lubricants provide different textures, sensations, and flavors. A person can find these at drugstores or choose between types online.

One of the biggest myths about first-time vaginal sex is that a female’s hymen — a thin, elastic membrane that lines the opening of the vagina — will break, causing bleeding and pain. People sometimes call this “popping the cherry.”

The hymen comes in many shapes and types, and some people are born without a hymen.

During sex, the hymen can tear and cause minor bleeding. This is more likely to happen if the hymen is less elastic, such as during adolescence, or if it has a smaller opening. This bleeding is usually minimal.

However, the hymen may not tear during sex. It is flexible and does not usually cover the entire vaginal opening. If it did, menstrual blood and other types of vaginal discharge would have no way of leaving the body.

In many cases, a person’s hymen has torn before they have sex. Some strenuous activities, such as sports, can cause minor tears in the hymen.

Some people believe that a broken hymen is an irreversible sign of virginity loss. However, it is impossible to tell whether a person has had sex just by examining their hymen. This is because the hymen is naturally open in most cases and because its shape and size vary from person to person.

The authors of a paper published in the journal Reproductive Health in 2019 say that healthcare professionals should never rely on physical examinations of the hymen to assess whether a person has become sexually active.

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Tearing the frenulum is sometimes called ‘snapping the banjo string.’

Some people are worried that the frenulum — which is the short band of tissue that connects the foreskin to the head of an uncircumcised penis — can tear during first-time penetration. This is sometimes called “snapping the banjo string.”

This part of the penis is fragile. A person may tear it after having had sex many times or never — the frenulum can tear during nonsexual activities, such as riding a bike.

A torn frenulum can be painful and cause a small amount of bleeding, but this injury will heal on its own, just like any other minor cut or tear.

If this happens, just carefully wash the area and gently pat it dry with a clean towel. Avoid activities that could cause the wound to open again until it has healed.

People can feel a lot of pressure to have sex if they believe that there is a “right age,” or if they feel like everyone else is doing it. However, many people take their time in deciding when — or even if — they want to become sexually active.

The most recent data, collected in 2017, from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 47.8% of high school students in the United States had never had any kind of sexual contact.

So if you are worried about not having had sex — don’t be! There is no real right or wrong time to become sexually active. The right time is when it feels right for you — that is, when you feel an enthusiastic desire to explore that part of yourself.

If you never feel an urge to start having sex, that’s absolutely fine, too. And if you feel like starting your sex life, but then decide you want to abstain from one, several, or all types of sexual activity for a while — or forever — that is also normal.

Yes. Every time a person has sexual contact without using barrier contraception — such as condoms — there is a chance they can develop a sexually transmitted infection (STI). This includes their first time.

However, if neither person has had sexual contact with anyone else before, neither person will have an STI.

Some STIs produce no symptoms, so a person may not know if they have one. To be sure, anyone who has had unprotected sexual contact before — including oral sex or anal sex — should have a sexual health screening.

When it comes to preventing STIs, the best options involve physical barriers, such as female or male condoms, or dental dams for oral sex.

People can get condoms from their healthcare provider or drugstores, or they can choose between types online. Most brands are safe to use.

Learn about the safest condoms and tips for their use here, and learn how to choose the right condom size here.

According to the American Sexual Health Association, 1 in 2 sexually active people will get an STI by age 25, and around half of STIs affect people aged 15–24.

The most common STIs include:

Learn about the most common STIs and how to identify them here.

Yes, if you are having penis-in-vagina sex.

There are rumors that women cannot get pregnant when they lose their virginity, but this is not true. If you do not use contraception, penis-in-vagina sex carries a risk of pregnancy, even the first time.

Some options for avoiding pregnancy include using male or female condoms, taking contraceptive pills, receiving a regular contraceptive shot, and having a doctor insert an intrauterine device, or IUD.

Consent means that each person involved in sexual activity has agreed to take part in it.

If one partner is unsure whether they would like to have sex, or if they change their mind during sex, they should feel able to express this and to stop without any repercussions.

For an enjoyable first-time experience, partners should feel safe, both emotionally and physically. If you feel pressured into doing more than you want, it is not going to lead to safe, enjoyable sex.

If you are being coerced into having sex, tell this to someone you trust. People based in the U.S. can contact the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network hotlines, and this type of service is available in many other countries.

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The experience of losing your virginity is different for everyone.

People sometimes feel that losing their virginity will be a life-changing experience. Each person’s experience is different — some may feel happy, emotional, relieved, anxious, or they may have no particular emotional response.

There is no right or wrong reaction to having sex for the first time. How you feel could depend on the expectations that you had beforehand or on your personality, for example.

Some people feel that having sex changes their relationship. The change can take on many forms and this is normal, too.

Some people feel overwhelmed during or after sex. Remember that one sexual experience is just that — a single experience as part of a greater context, and it does not have to shape your identity or life course.

Future sexual experiences will all be different, depending on your growing experience of your body and sexual needs.

Losing your virginity does not need to be a stressful event.

Understanding what to expect and what might happen can help a person prepare, both physically and emotionally, for losing their virginity in any way that is right for them.

People decide to become sexually active at different ages, and some people never feel the urge. If someone does decide to have sexual contact, no visible physical changes can make a person stand out as sexually active.

Finally, when having sex — for the first time or any time — consent is crucial. Also, communicate about what feels pleasurable and use adequate protection to avoid unwanted pregnancy and STIs.