The first time you have sex with someone is a deeply individual experience. “Sex” means different things and comes with different emotions from person to person (and from hookup to hookup, TBH). It’s totally normal to feel excited, scared, nervous, horny AF, or even a little sad. That said, there are a handful of insights that can make your first time having vaginal sex comfier, more communicative, and more pleasurable, which are pretty universally great things for sex to be. Here are nine first-time pointers, including some advice from sex therapist Vanessa Marin.
1. You don’t have to tell someone it’s your first time, but you might want to.
No new partner deserves a full report of your sexual history. Whether you’ve slept with 50 people or zero, that’s your business. I repeat: no one is entitled to your “number.” However, getting intimate for the first time can be… well, intimate. It you feel like you’re withholding something important to you, it could negatively affect your overall comfort level and ~vibe~. If you tell someone you’ve never had sex before and they freak, then they’re probably not someone you wanted to be with anyway. They should take that as their cue to be even more communicative with you.
2. Being safe can actually relax you.
Nothing is more distracting than worrying about STIs and pregnancy during sex. Even if it feels awkward, it is so, so, so important to chat with your partner beforehand about what you’ll do to protect yourselves. Use a condom even if you’re on another form of birth control to protect you both from STIs unless you are both monogamous with each other and STI-free (check out local clinics like Planned Parenthood for free/affordable testing).
3. Enthusiastic consent is a prerequisite for everything you do.
“Make sure you enthusiastically consent to each and every thing the two of you do together,” Marin says. “‘Enthusiastic’ is a key part of that sentence. Don’t just go along with something; make sure you’re excited about it.” Remember that just because you start an activity — for example, intercourse — you don’t have to finish or continue it: You have the right to pause or stop whatever it is. No. Matter. What. Same goes for your partner, of course: Check in with each other as things progress to make sure you’re both enthusiastic about what you’re doing.
4. Remember to breathe.
A big part of enjoying sex is focusing on the sensations you’re feeling instead of, for example, your nervousness (which is totally common to feel your first time, even if you know you’re ready to have sex). “Deep breathing is a fantastic way to let go of distracting thoughts,” Marin points out. As you’re taking those deep breaths, focus on how different parts of your body are feeling and how your partner’s body feels against yours — not just the obvious part (penis in vagina) but their fingers in your hair, hands on your hips, whatever it is.
The more aroused you are, the better sex is likely to feel, so don’t neglect foreplay — including oral sex, manual sex, and, yes, good, old-fashioned kissing. “You’re more likely to orgasm from oral sex or fingering,” Marin says, “so resist the temptation to think of these activities as the things you do before moving on to the ‘main event.’” Whether or not you do orgasm the first time you have sex, clitoral stimulation is the key to most women’s pleasure, and vaginal intercourse doesn’t usually provide very much of it.
6. Caring about your partner’s pleasure matters more than your technique.
It’s natural to worry that you won’t be “good” in bed your first time, but trust: what matters most is that you are invested in how your partner feels and vice versa, and that you two are communicating about it. “A lot of people get anxious about sexual performance, but perhaps the best quality in a lover is enthusiasm,” Marin says. “If you’re genuinely enjoying pleasuring him, he’ll notice it, and he’ll have a lot more fun too.” Simple questions like, “How does that feel?” and, “Do you like it when I [fill in the blank]?” give your partner a chance to express appreciation for what you’re doing or (gently) ask for something a little different. (As well as prompt them to ask you the same questions!)
7. Feedback is not the same as criticism, so don’t hesitate to give it.
A common concern is that if you tell your partner something doesn’t feel good — or something else would feel better — they’ll feel attacked. But if they care about your pleasure, they’ll be happy to hear how to help you feel it. In the moment, it can be hard to figure out what exactly you want, so it can be helpful to talk after the fact about what you enjoyed, what you could do without, and what you’d like to try next time. And if you don’t have an orgasm, don’t feel pressure to pretend to have one. Think of orgasming not as your responsibility but as a fun goal to work toward with your partner(s), together.
8. Lube is your friend.
Using lube sometimes gets a bad rap as a sign that you’re not turned on enough, but even if you and your body are saying “OK, let’s do this!” a little lube can make sex so much more pleasurable. Another benefit of using a water- or silicone-based lube with a condom (avoid oil-based lube, which can degrade latex) is that less friction means the condom is less likely to tear.
9. Your partner’s penis might not do everything the two of you want.
Whether premature ejaculation, a limp penis, or inability to orgasm strike, it doesn’t mean something is wrong with your partner or you failed them somehow. Comfort with a new partner often takes time and communication, and that goes for both men and women.
10. Temper your expectations.
Teen movies and TV shows sold us a pretty unrealistic vision of what having sex for the first time looks like. It’s always perfectly choreographed and mood-lit and romantic, and ends in an implied simultaneous orgasm. As if. Don’t expect fireworks the first time you have sex — sex is messy and human and flawed and often awkward whether it’s your first time or your thousandth. It’s the practice and the exploration that make sex fun.
A version of this article was published in April 2014.