Life as an Extreme Sport

Does How We Lose Our Virginity Shape Our Entire Sex Life? In a Word, No.

This morning’s sensationalist headlines are claiming that new research, published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, says that how we lose our virginity will shape our entire sex life.

For more than one of us, I’m sure, that’s the kind of headline that makes eyebrows climb and perhaps a slight whispered “oh, god, no.” And certainly, statements that the authors are making about this study seem to indicate that there’s reason to worry:

“While this study doesn’t prove that a better first time makes for a better sex life in general, a person’s experience of losing their virginity may set the pattern for years to come,” said author Matthew Shaffer, who suggested that thought and behavior patterns may be formed the first time we have sex and then guide future experiences.Taken from Lindsay Abrams’ coverage inThe Atlantic.

Shudder. But, in her coverage, Lindsay Abrams’ notes that there is one massive flaw in this study: none of the participants had been having sex all that long, and all of them were between the ages of 18-22. And, in fact, that’s enough of a flaw that I went and dug up the rest of the study, to see just how accurate the notion that first sexual experiences do actually influence our future sex life, happiness, pleasure, and so forth.

The good news is, the study is so fundamentally flawed no one should do more than roll eyes at it, and sigh as you watch Jezebel and other pop culture sites cover the study results while sending up some sort of Lena Dunham-esqueHat tip to Lindsay for the cultural reference. My age appears to be catching up to me. panic flare.

Let’s take a look at the numerous issues in this study. First (and more than one person would argue foremost), the sampling size is horrible: all participants were undergraduates recruited from psychology courses at the school, who were offered both extra course credit for participation and entered into a raffle to win gift cards. For better or worse, students do self-select themselves into courses based on interests, personality types, etc – a lack of hard scientists, for example, may have significantly skewed the data presented, as I’m sure did the promise of extra credit and financial reward. Likewise, the final numbers (206 women and 113 men) may have been more balanced had there been more effort at reaching a more balanced study population.

But balance is off here in more than one way: all study participants were required to have had their first sexual experience (“losing their virginity”) be a heterosexual experience. Was your first time with a same-sex partner? Are you bisexual? Any non-heterosexual students need not apply – apparently how your sex lives are shaped is too complicated.

And oh, hey, were you raped?

Hate to break it to you, but that’s an automatic disqualification from the study – even though all of the headlines you’re going to see about this are going to imply that the fact you were raped is going to irrevocably and forever shape your sex life.

So once the researchers had their voluntary, heterosexual, 18-22-year-old students for this study, where the median length of sexual activity was 2.27 years, the researchers then asked the students to self-report their sexual habits and experiences… for the following two weeks.

Oh. OH. So, you’re going to extrapolate from heterosexual college students who have been sexually active for, on average, slightly more than two years, and then make assumptions about the sexual lives of everyone? For the rest of their entire lives? Based on two weeks?

Well, apparently the researchers behind this study think that’s a perfectly reasonable study goal. Me? I’d like to talk to the editors for the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. We need to talk about study design and worthwhile results to publish. I’m pretty sure we need to start with the fact that when a paper discussion says

this study focused on the role this milestone event may [emphasis mine] play in future sexuality

or asserts that the two-year experience of ethnically homogenous, heterosexual college kids is representative of the entire span of human sexuality, forever, the appropriate response is not “accept,” but something between “revise and resubmit” and “reject.”