6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Having Sex

My entry point into sex seemed utterly unremarkable. I was 18, a freshman in college and a little tipsy. My partner’s name was Tom, and I believed him to be a good kid based on the few things I’d gathered in the week since I’d met him. He had a kind face, a quiet demeanor and a gentle, nervous way of flirting. In other words, he seemed a little nerdy, which seemed just right. The sex we had was consensual, safe and terrible, not unlike a difficult run I might have endured during high school track practice a year prior: an unpleasant task I knew I had to complete, but without the endorphin rush or sense of accomplishment that often came with it.

I agreed to his advances because I had no interest in romanticizing virginity and was tired of being one myself, in a social sense. I also agreed because Tom made me feel comfortable, liked and cared for, which was all I required at the time. Tom didn’t return my calls after that, and he begged my forgiveness for that three years later outside a bar, then on my voicemail on three separate occasions.

I wasn’t overly haunted by my interaction with Tom, even if he was. Aside from recognizing it as cliche and being disappointed that sex turned out to mostly involve being in pain and keeping my face from showing that, I thought about it very little. The haunting feeling came later — much more recently, in fact, when I became sexually educated enough to understand the implications of my thinking that kind of sex was normal.

I learned a lot over the next 10 years, but I only started thinking more critically about my sexual life and identity in the past two. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. Endeavoring to learn more about sex, gender and power (and my role in those systems) has been a life-changing experience and has had further-reaching impacts than I could have imagined, including improving my sex life and my relationship with my self and body. Below are some of the things I wish I’d known before that fated night with Tom.

1. “Foreplay” is sex

When I was growing up, foreplay was discussed as a binary: You either did it or skipped it. It took a while for me to dismantle that way of thinking, see it for its misogyny and start defining sex as the whole experience — from the slow and thoughtful start that’s respectful of the body’s natural process and malleable to your and your partner’s mood all the way through to whatever end feels right. Sex is not a race to an orgasm, nor is it simply penetration; it’s a conversation. There’s value in taking your time.

2. The female orgasm is not a nuisance, a puzzle or a box to check

The cultural rhetoric around female anatomy being “confusing” can be alienating, and the idea that a “successful” female orgasm happens quickly while the male one happens slowly is stressful and male-oriented. When sex is viewed purely through the lens of finishing, it invites undue pressure into the situation on both sides. In that same vein, there isn’t a particular pattern or order of activities in a sexual encounter that is correct or fair, and defining it as such minimizes it (or makes it feel like homework).

3. Pursuing your own pleasure is important

With that in mind, it’s also proved increasingly important for me to remember my own pleasure and agency in sex. I was so well-conditioned to perform my gender that I did so during sex for a long time. I’ve since learned that good sex doesn’t require you to look, sound or move a certain way — sex is not duty! — it requires you to be present and equally committed to your own experience as much as anyone else’s. And if you’re not in the mood to bring that, you don’t have to force it. Ever ever ever.

4. Sex is messy, and embracing that is part of the appeal

Our culture is obsessed with bathing, far beyond what’s hygienically necessary. With that in mind: You do not have to shower before you have sex. You do not have to shower after you have sex. Your natural smell and hair do not need to be stripped away in order to have sex (at least not for aesthetic or “purity” reasons). Your body is worthy of love and attention just as it is. If your partner doesn’t think so, that’s worth a serious discussion. Sex is messy, intimate, sometimes funny — all you have to bring to it is presence, desire, energy.

5. Communicating is sexy (and also healthy)

I can’t believe how long I spent being shy about talking before/during/after/about sex. Such shyness — and more specifically, the culturally ingrained shame that inspired it — robbed my sex life of much-needed depth and color. Sex for me was never going to become truly fun and energizing until I surpassed that barrier. Too much shame makes sex an emotional labor. Now I understand how important communication is in an intimate relationship, from discussing your solo activities all the way through to rehashing how an encounter went. That’s how you learn about yourself and your partner, and that’s how sex gets better.

6. Good sex requires active participation and curiosity

I spent most of my sexually active years as a pretty passive participant, certain that having an orgasm was enough of an indicator that the encounters I was having were great. But I’ve since realized how important it is to stay engaged, active and curious when it comes to intimacy in whatever form it takes. As with any pursuit or relationship, you have to give a shit for it to thrive, change and grow, and that means taking the time to listen to yourself and your partner to better understand the multitudes you both contain. I’m happy to say I’m still learning.

Fostering a healthy relationship with sex required me to unlearn most of what mainstream society taught me and get comfortable with being vulnerable. I believe that’s a requirement for everyone, men as much as women. Most of us weren’t given the proper tools to have fulfilling sex lives, so it’s up to us to seize them for ourselves.

What do you wish you knew when you started having sex?

Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

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  • Aleda Johnson

    I wish I knew that you don’t have to do all these intricate positions a la porn to have mind blowing sex. While they can be fun sometimes, focusing on being in a position with olympic gymnastic accuracy is distracting and delays orgasm (Also, do I have tummy roles in this position??).

    Some of the best sex I’ve had in my life has been one, maybe two positions post-foreplay. And no missionary is not boring, **eye-roll**

  • Erica

    a little direction goes a long way, literally! “a little to the left, up, down a little…”

  • Madeline Louden

    Love this. Let’s all give more shits.

  • Victoria

    All of these!
    Not every man is only out for an orgasm and actually might want to stop sooner, just like women sometimes.
    It’s ok to work a little harder or in different ways to pleasure your partner, as long as they do the same and sex isn’t always ‘work’.

  • Caro A

    That it gets better! Especially when you take it more seriously- and when you do it for YOUR pleasure, and not just act as a tool for your partner. And I wish I had had more of a voice but I was so confused about what was happening to my body. I guess I wish I understood the nuances of it, which is pretty darn near impossible to do without doing it. ALSO, that sex is different every single time. Every time! Even when you just 1 partner. Sex is SO crazy! And good sex is !!!!!!!!!
    Kerri Miller is an MPR broadcaster here in MPLS and she ran a podcast called Smart Sex and I highly recommend it.

  • Jessica

    I remember one encounter with my partner where we were engaged in foreplay (mutually). I was very much enjoying myself. As I was performing oral sex on him, he orgasmed. Then as we were cleaning up,he sheapishly smiled, and apologized for finishing early and that we didn’t get to have sex. To which I replied, I consider what we just did sex. He was very relieved in my response, and agreed with me. I think the important thing is that the foreplay wasn’t one sided, we had been equally participating in each other’s pleasure. If I had really wanted penetration, I would stopped the oral sex earlier, but at that moment, it was very satisfying for me to continue. The important thing is how both people feel throughout the whole experience, not strictly how it ends.

  • probbbbbbbb don’t have sex on your back on the floor with a rough rug because the friction will somewhat pull one of your back moles off….

    • um, said one of my friends

    • BK

      okay as the owner of a swathe of back moles this has made me incurably terrified of rugs

      • As someone with a plethora of moles I want gone, this has me considering…

    • Amelia

      THIS EXACT SITUATION HAPPENED TO ME and the guy thought I got my period and got really freaked out

  • Adrianna

    The phrase “What they didn’t tell you about —“ highlights the problem: passivity. You’re expecting someone else to do the learning for you. I think some articles on MR, including the most recent “What they don’t tell you about having a baby,” reflects a lack of initiative for independent education and learning about other people’s life experiences.

    • orthostice

      I disagree – I read this as an essay on what Haley HAS learnt through experience aka ~her sexual awakening~, we’ve all got to start somewhere!!

      • Adrianna

        Fair point – I was thinking about the overall trend or theme in some articles. I also wish there weren’t generalizations such as “our culture,” when referring to one’s own individual experience. But I’m nit-picking as a former anthropology major.

        • S

          ‘Our culture’ is way overused by US based websites.

  • Eryn Lou

    Yes! In regards to #1, I’d add that the mindset around foreplay is not only misogynistic, but heteronormative.

  • Autumn

    On another note: when I started dating my current boyfriend I put it all out there at the beginning and said “this is what I like, this is what I don’t like/won’t do, this is how often I prefer sex, etc” so we were able to set expectations right away which I think was very helpful. I felt so adult haha

  • I wish I knew what I was getting into medically before I started having sex. As a woman, more often than not, I am tasked (burdened?) with keeping birth control in mind, pregnancy, and overall sexual health. Just to have safe, consensual, enjoyable sex I have to work against my own body. For example, I had no idea coming off hormonal birth control after 7 years (in favour of the copper IUD) would affect me the way it has –I’ve started losing my hair, my back is covered in acne, and don’t get me started on yeast infections. And that is not commentary against hormonal bc (which works for so many people!), just commentary on a medical and social culture that assumes the pill is a cure-all. I sometimes even have to think about pain itself when having sex, in a way my partner doesn’t have to.

    • Mollie Ward

      I recently read an article talking about how good sex for women and men can be on very different qualifying scales. As someone who has dealt with different forms of pain during sex, good sex for me so often is decided by whether or not it hurt. For many men, good sex is described by being fun, adventurous, and that the end was orgasm. I have a supportive and kind partner who doesn’t make me feel bad when I have to end sex because of pain, or if something changes with how I feel about sex, but it’s just not something he has to think about. Sometimes I feel mad that’s it’s always me who has to carry that, to make the call, to hurt, all that stuff. But it’s not his fault, it’s just a bummer.

    • Jeanie

      I’m so glad I never used hormonal birth control. It’s always been because my family has a history of getting blood clots, but with the information I know now, I’m glad that was the case. It’s great for some people, but they should know the risks too.

    • Noneya

      It could possibly be the copper IUD causing those symptoms. I was never on hormonal birth control, went on the copper IUD, and had all the symptoms you describe. Had the IUD removed, and all the symptoms disappeared. I wanted a non-hormonal birth control, but my body rejected the copper. Copper sensitivity is awful. Research the negative side effects of copper IUDs, you may change your mind on having it in your body. I know I did.

      • Thank you for the suggestion. My symptoms appeared before actually having inserted the IUD! That’s not to say it isn’t important to check the effects of the IUD, too!

  • Kate

    I wish I had known that sex, like many things, gets better with time and practice and that you have to put yourself out these, let yourself make mistakes, experiment, and not mind to much if it’s a little embarrassing along the way.

  • brabra1

    Your reasons for doing it for the first time remind me of my own. What I wish I knew: To my surprise, it actually is better with someone you love, not because you love them, but because when you are in a healthy, mature relationship with someone, it is easier to be open and communicate with one another.

  • Lyna

    I read “Mating In Captivity” by Esther Perel per Haley’s MR book club recommendation and this essay reminds me of the personal reflections I had after reading it. Highly recommend the book and I applaud this article. 👏

  • Jackie

    Haley, this article is amazing! Thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. It resonated with me so much! My experiences have been similar, and it’s been work unlearning what I feel like society dictates about sex.

  • Kate

    Condoms are a thing and can continue to be a thing for your whole sexual / reproductive life both inside and outside of relationships. You don’t have to be on the pill. If men say no condom, you’re free to invite them to go f*ck themselves. Literally.

    • amelie

      Amen. If there’s one thing I learned (especially since I quit the pill), is that men will assume you are on birth control and will try to ‘slip it in’ without a condom. Even friends / people I’ve discussed with how annoying that is! At least, that has happened with every bed partner I’ve had. They just didn’t consider the risks at all. I expect more of you, men.

      Also, I agree with all of your points Haley and I wish I knew ’em earlier too.

  • Ola

    There is a lot of good books about sex out there too, if anyone’s into that.
    Tantric Orgasm for Women by Diana Richardson is a hippy one but good one. It’s simple and has exercises and meditations. There is also version for men.
    Come as you are by Emily nagoski was great too
    Also good book, broader subject: The body keeps the score by bessel van der kolk.
    I’m sure there is more but that’s what I got on kindle.
    Thanks for sharing. We’re the same age and your point about being present, involved and focused on your own pleasure also came true to me recently.

    • Marion Yelle

      I’ve never considered looking at books for this. I’ve now placed holds at the library for these. Thank you!

  • Agnes

    Nothing. I grew up as a teen in the 80’s and I wasn’t told much at all. At all. And there was no internet. I discovered it for myself with my boyfriend. It’s MINE, and my partner’s, of course. Very little outside influence, and few inhibitions and hang ups. No ideas put into my head from anywhere. Pure discovery..

  • Amelia


  • Jeanie

    I actually did do this, but maybe it’ll help someone here. You can ask your partner to get tested for STD/talk about STD before sex and “it won’t destroy the mood.” If the other person can’t handle it then they’re not worth your time.

  • Stella

    I completely agree with all of this Haley, this is an awesome article. I especially agree with you when you say that communication is healthy and sexy. At the beginning of my relationship, during one of our sexual encounters, my boyfriend asked me “how do you want me to touch you?” and he said “show me where you want me to touch you.” I have never heard sexier words come out of his mouth. I’m only 19 and very new to sex, but my experience has been awesome because we communicate so well. I also think masterbation is an important part of sexuality––if I hadn’t been loving myself on the regular I probably wouldn’t know what I like.

  • Ciccollina

    This conversation is super on trend so I am really digging that you’ve joined the conversation Haley. Somehow, the topic of sexual assault has also opened the doors to us FINALLY talking about female sexual pleasure and I couldn’t be happier about that. #TimesUp on men treating our bodies like orifices or blow up dolls.

  • Eva

    Current college freshman. Needed this.

  • amy

    This is SUCH a great article!!! I wish I’d been able to read this before having sex. Unlike you, I also really wish I knew that viriginity was not some great thing to be proud about and having sex isn’t shameful. Maybe that’s obvious now to most people, but I thought it was so important to protect my virginity and it seems SO stupid to me now. Sex is great and fun and you learn what you like and want by actually having it! On the flip side, I also wish I knew that if a guy doesn’t respect your desire to wait then he’s definitely not worth it in the first place.