Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The First Time; or, Practice Makes Perfect

In honor of wedding season, I repost this controversial piece from 2009. The comments on the original post are worth reading as well.

This being our anniversary, it's time to talk about sex.

When I was a newly-wed, I worked at a theater. One afternoon, as I was working on tech with two other girls, the subject of sex came up, and both were surprised to hear that I had been a virgin when I got married. That set them off reminiscing about their first times. For all our cultural and moral and experiential disparity, we could all agree on one thing: the first time had been awkward, painful, and kind of alarming. This was a bit surprising to me -- surely the heat of the moment ought to be more conducive to getting it on than after a long and stressful wedding day? Not so much, it seems.

There's this pervasive myth that sex always equals pleasure. Sex, so the thinking goes, should always be mind-blowingly fantastic, and if it isn't, something is wrong. How better to insult someone by denigrating his or her sexual prowess? To insinuate that a woman is "frigid" or a man can't get it up is, in essence, calling that person abnormal. Fictional characters do it with a frequency and ease that leaves a subconscious impression that anyone can just hop in the sack and perform with aplomb, or else something's wrong.

Modern orthodox Catholics are justly proud of the way that we've made strides in reclaiming sex from the secular culture and proving that we can do it better because we've placed it within its proper sphere. That's all quite well and good, but it also tempts us into the mindset of "awesome sex through understanding!". Ask a teen why he or she is saving sex for marriage and one of the answers will be, "Because I want the first time to be special." One of the implied benefits of NFP is a better sex life. Listen to a Theology of the Body presentation and you hear that sex is pretty much heaven on earth. A young couple, all in love and high on hormones, could be forgiven for thinking that since they've done everything the right way (waiting until marriage, taking all the classes, having a basic grasp of biology) they're on the way to instant bliss -- just add vows! Unfortunately for our eager friends, the first time is not guaranteed to be fabulous -- in fact, it's pretty much the opposite. For the woman, it's awkward and it hurts (a lot). I don't think I'm the only girl in history to have cried in pain and frustration on her wedding night.

For a while I felt gypped. Maybe if we'd gone on honeymoon right away! Maybe if I'd had more champagne! Maybe if we'd waited until the next night! But you know what? I don't think it would have mattered. There were plenty of times before we were married that I felt more "in the mood" than I did on my wedding night. I'm glad we waited -- not only because God intended sex to occur only in a marital relationship, but also because the bitterness of committing a mortal sin would have been compounded by the shock that sex for the novice is not all it's cracked up to be. I sold my soul, and I got was this lousy lay!

Since sex has a spiritual component, it's important to learn about the Theology of the Body. Since it has a biological function, one must understand the basic principles of Natural Family Planning. But as it's a physical activity, it's the same as any other athletic venture: if you want to be good at it, you've got to practice. For a while. With a dedicated partner. Sex is a learned activity, and it takes more than one roll in the hay to get the basic skills down, and that's before you kick it up to notches unknown. There are better things than instant gratification.


For those shocked and appalled at the idea of talking about sex with my theater compatriots: that conversation turned out to be one of the best evangelization opportunities I've ever had. Using Theology of the Body terminology and a bit of NFP, I was able to explain, to their great amazement, that the Church's opposition to birth control was because sex has an intrinsic meaning of unity and total self-giving that is violated by divorcing fertility from sex. "Wow," said one of them. "I always thought the Church just didn't like people to have sex." So there you have it.

UPDATE: From about half the comments and some private correspondence, it becomes plain that I need to clarify one thing here: all I'm trying to say is, as "a guy" puts it in the combox: "It's sort of surprising that for all we supposedly know about sex, we don't teach the fact that structurally a woman's first time just isn't made, by nature, to be automatically pleasurable. " Perhaps this post is only applicable to young Catholic newlyweds (or those who once were young Catholic newlyweds) who wonder on their wedding night, "Wait a minute! What are we doing wrong? Isn't this supposed to be a wonderful experience, mirroring God's love for the Church, etc.?"


Kate said...

I remember that post! And I think I may have commented at the time how I've often thought myself how horrible it would be to have that awkward, difficult moment with an equally awkward teenage guy in a car, or his parent's basement, or in a park, or any of the other places highschool friends of mine lost their virginity.

How grateful I am that I knew that the guy who was with me that time is the guy who had already promised to stick it out for the rest of our lives. We were immensely vulnerable to each other. We needed that trust and assurance.

Sex has a learning curve. It's true. So does love. So does compassion, and sacrifice, and figuring out what stuff is worth arguing over and what stuff to let slide. I'm glad someone was willing to jump in with me with both feet when we still knew nothing of any of it.

Foxfier said...

Since I didn't say anything the first time-
thought you should know that this has helped me figure out what on earth I'm going to say to my little girl when she's older. (hopefully not for well over a decade, but never can tell with out culture)

She won't have the advantages I had, growing up on a ranch and seeing the whole cycle of reproduction. Can't do the whole "sex has nothing to do with babies" BS when your parents' livelihood depends on that connection. ^.^
(My parents even explained that they chose totally different bulls for the heifers because, being animals, they would refuse to mate if the first time was too unpleasant. Mom explained that even though people are way different than animals, the first time or few times would hurt.)

HBanan said...

I think it's really nice that you are posting this. It's hard to find out any actual details of sex unless you go to a Planned Parenthood or similarly depraved website.

This is maybe too personal, so if you don't want to answer I understand. Does it hurt less, do you think, if the woman has used tampons? It hurt a lot the first few times I used them, even though the directions say it doesn't do anything to the hymen. I am kind of hoping sex would not hurt as much as it normally, is why I ask.

I am pretty good with dealing with pain (such as with vaccinations) as long as I know what to expect.

mrsdarwin said...

HBanan, I don't have a good answer for you on that, because after the first time or two I tried to wear a tampon I gave it up as an uncomfortable job. But I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that most men exceed the diameter and mobility of a tampon...

I'm not making light of your question, which I think is a good one, and I hope someone else can give a better answer. I'm just cracking myself up trying to write in euphemisms so that Google won't flag the blog for mature content.

Lauren said...

HBanan, my first time wasn't painful. I may just be an anomaly, but I thought I'd throw that out there. You can always get your hymen cut at the obgyn's office. This wouldn't make you less of a virgin by Catholic standards. Still doesn't guarantee that the first time will be all fireworks, but perhaps not painful.

S said...


My first time wasn't painful either and during a Gyn exam while I was engaged my (orthodox Catholic) OB/Gyn did say that it probably wouldn't be as I didn't have much of a hymen. I don't know if that was the result of using tampons, but it may have been. I was a competitive swimmer as a teen and so, despite finding them initially quite uncomfortable, I did use tampons quite a bit.

Anonymous said...

Going anonymous for this one :) but I really do appreciate that you have been willing to broach the topic of sex in a Catholic marriage here.

I wish I'd read this post before I first got married. Heck, I wish I'd known this to give advice to my friends who had sex long before I did, except with boyfriends. Thankfully I have one honest friend who warned me ahead of time that it would hurt, probably a lot! This definitely gives me some guidance in talking to my own kids about this in the future.

Hbanan, I tried tampons a few times and they hurt too much (there was a bad incident with one getting stuck after swimming with it in) and so I never wore them afterwards. So I dunno, maybe they do affect things? Sex still did hurt, though I did not bleed like some friends did. TMI I'm sure, but since we're all being informative and honest here, haha!

A 21-year-old virgin said...

I just wanted to say thank you for rerunning this. I probably read it in 2009, too, back when I knew abosolutely NOTHING. Sometimes even good Catholic girls' good Catholic mothers are not the right source for this kind of information. So, thanks for being the good Catholic mother who's actually willing to talk about it.

Anonymous said...

My first time didn't hurt, but it sure wasn't the fireworks I had expected. I felt a little cheated. But eventually, through diligent practice, we worked it out.

Anonymous said...

Going anonymous, too....

I received all the education I needed in this regard from the 18th-century erotic and semi-erotic novels I studied in grad school (in Rousseau's phrase, "books one reads with one hand"). I can't believe that with all the sex ed I got in school, it took Cleland and his less talented English and French fellows to give the straight facts on what it was like for the gal, and when/how she could expect to start enjoying it. A further benefit of a classical liberal arts education.

Bernard Woolley said...

Two contrarian points. First, our wedding night was not a hot’n’heavy, passionate event like out of the movies but it was certainly very tender, joyous and intimate – an occasion for which we have happy memories. There was some discomfort and some pain but not of the type that was described in this post or by some of the commentators. (Perhaps this was because I was told by a good friend to bring and use plenty of lubricant and maybe most people don’t know to do that.)

Second, I’ve found the idea that “the first time” is painful/awkward to be pretty widespread in popular culture. It seems to be the basis of various plot lines in a number of movies depicting high school (e.g. Fast Times at Ridgemont High). I am a bit surprised that somebody would first learn of this on their wedding night.

Anyway, great post and I’m appreciative of your candor.

Anonymous said...

My first time was hot and heavy and wonderful and then my heart was broken and it stayed broken for years. Then I met my husband to be.

Don't do what I did and go backwards. Wait until it's right and even if it physically hurts, it won't hurt your soul if it's done in the right context, marriage.

Laura said...

I don't think that the post is controversial at all and looking at the past posts I see that it was only one person who tought so. And you're totally right, women should know this beforehand.

Foxfier said...

Good thing you posted, I had a thought that I meant to add and forgot:
Sometimes TV shows or movies mention that it will hurt (as someone pointed out) but generally only as a plot-point for why an "empowered" girl would hesitate. Cue the sensitive, caring guy saying he'll be gentle, and nothing comes of it.

Character development, with implication that it's only if the guy is careless or rough.

Anonymous said...

An anonymous Catholic wife here . . .

I have to say that my first time wasn't very painful. There was one moment of real pain, then just a little discomfort. So I don't think we need to tell everyone that it will certainly hurt a LOT: I think that varies quite a bit from woman to woman.

For me, the shocker was that it didn't really feel good at all. It didn't really feel like anything. I had read books in preparation, and I knew that women were wired differently than men, but for some reason I was still surprised to find that actual tab a/slot b intercourse didn't feel pleasurable to me. It took awhile to learn the things that did feel good. The result was the first several times were not uncomfortable, but they weren't very fulfilling, except in the emotional sense of being united with my husband. (And I did enjoy seeing how much pleasure it brought him.)

I really really hate that fictional depictions of women having sex sometimes depict the women achieving orgasm the first time. I'm not saying that never happens, but it's sure not the norm! That would be the thing I would want to tell soon-to-be-married women: be prepared for it to take a while to get good. Focus on the sense of being connected, but don't expect ecstatic pleasure at first.

Sheila said...
This comment has been removed by the author.