Popping the cherry. Cashing in your V-Card. Deflowering. There are lots of phrases that describe the loss of virginity. But what does virginity actually mean? Here’s what really happens the first time you have sex.

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Illustration by Brittany England

Simply put, a virgin is someone who’s never had sex. But the full-length definition is more complicated. Like, a lot more complicated.

Virginity means different things to different people

A lot of folks think the only legit way to become a non-virgin is through penis-in-vagina sex. But this definition leaves a lot of people out. The truth is, you don’t need a p + v combo pack to have sex. There are tons of ways to do the deed.

Others think sex is any type of penetration — vaginal, anal, or oral. Meanwhile, there are those who think finger-banging or using a sex toy count.

FYI: There’s no one one-size-fits-all definition. You can define virginity any way you want.

Pop goes the hymen?

There’s beaucoup confusion surrounding the hymen. Here are some fast facts to help debunk the myths:

  • The hymen is a loose piece of tissue that hangs around your vaginal opening.
  • It can stretch and tear. It doesn’t “pop” or “break.”
  • Your hymen can tear during non-sexual activities too.
  • It’s just another part of your body — not some mystical seal that defines your purity. Amen.

Are there ‘‘virginity levels?”

In “Mean Girls,” Regina George was “half a virgin” when she met Aaron Samuels. Does that mean they had butt sex? Oral? Only Tina Fey can tell.

But yes — some folks do believe you can be a “half virgin” or “full virgin” depending on the sexual experiences they’ve had.

Everyone’s first time is unique. The vibe can depend on:

  • your expectations
  • who you’re doing it with
  • where you’re having sex
  • what kind of sex you’re having

Here’s a deep dive into what can go down.

Does it hurt?

Your first time might feel uncomfortable or even weird. You should always communicate with your partner. Let them know if you’re in pain and tell them to stop. Don’t feel pressured or forced to continue.

Call your doctor if discomfort continues or if you’re in pain. Pain might be linked to a medical condition such as pelvic inflammatory disease (PID) or endometriosis.

Will there be blood?

If you have a vagina, you might bleed your first time. The amount of blood varies from person to person, but it’s usually a minimal amount. (AKA it prob won’t be like “The Shining.”)

You may also bleed a bit with anal sex. Penetration can create tears in your anus and anal canal tissue. Be sure to give the anus time to relax before full-on insertion. This can reduce your risk of bleeding.

Not as seen on TV

You prob have a fave movie sex scene. Like that iconic hand-on-steamy-window moment in “Titanic.” But real life sex is way different from what’s on the silver screen. Still, that’s not always a bad thing.

Movie sex scenes tend to take a long time to film. The actors are told how to position themselves or even how to moan. IRL you have way more freedom. Plus, you won’t have a room full of randos watching you go at it. (Unless that’s your thing — no judgement.)

Will you orgasm?

You may or may not climax the first time you have sex. Here are the deets.

Penis expectations

Hard facts: You might come a lot faster than you want to. And that’s OK! Research shows that around 1 in 3 people experience premature ejaculation. So, fear not #TeamPeen.

Can’t get it up?

You’re not alone. Erectile dysfunction (ED) can happen for lots of reasons — like anxiety, medical conditions, whiskey dick, etc. It’s also possible to get hard but not orgasm (even if you jizz). It’s nothing to be ashamed of.

Talk to your doctor if your ED persists. They can give you some tips or prescribe medication to help.

Vagina expectations

Don’t be bummed if you can’t come. There’s a chance you’ll climax the first time you have sex, but it’s not guaranteed. A 2011 research review showed that around 11 to 41 percent of people with a vagina have a tough time climaxing with a partner.

It’s not just about the ‘‘o”

You don’t need to climax to have a 10/10 sexual experience. There are lots of ways to get your jollies. The most important thing is that you feel safe and respected.

It gets better

Your first sex sesh doesn’t have to be the best sex ever — TBH it prob won’t be. Perfecting your Big O game takes practice. But it totally gets better over time.

You can change your mind whenever you want— even if you’re already going at it. And this rule goes for every time you have sex, not just the first time.

If you want something, say something

Having sex for the first time can be a little scary. So, it’s super important to be open and honest with your partner. Let them know if you have certain needs or desires. And ask them about theirs too!

Can you get pregnant?

Pregnancy can occur whenever an egg comes in contact with semen. So, play it safe and use and use a condom or other birth control methods like:

Pullout PSA: Don’t rely on the pullout method. It only has a 78 percent success rate.

Can ‘‘it” be too big?

Vaginas are designed to stretch. But that doesn’t mean a penis or dildo will always fit. Sometimes it’s too tight of a squeeze.

Pro tip: Give your muscles time to relax and use plenty of lube. This makes insertion easier.

Sex doesn’t permanently change your body. But you can expect some temporary physiological responses related to arousal. These include:

  • sweating
  • flushed skin
  • an erect peen
  • a swollen vulva
  • rapid breathing

Reminder: These reactions are short-lived. Your body will go back to its regular state once you’re done with your sex sesh.

There’s that sitcom cliché when someone can tell you’ve had sex just by looking at you. But unless you’re literal BFFs with Phoebe Buffay, no one will know you’ve done it. The only way people can tell is if you tell them.

But what about the hymen?

The hymen has been used as a way to determine virginity for centuries. But a research review showed that this exam isn’t accurate. Everyone’s hymen is unique. In fact, it’s not unusual to be born without one.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age for Americans to have sex for the first time is:

  • folks with a vagina: 17.3 years
  • peeps with a penis: 17.0 years

Seem young? Old? Keep in mind, that’s just the average. That means there are lots of people younger and older than 17-ish who are doing it.

Everyone has their own views on sex vs. love. Some people only want to sleep with someone they care about. Sex can bring partners closer together and expand intimacy. But that’s not always the case.

Sex doesn’t have to be about love, romance, or intimacy. It can just be really, really fun (and a great workout too!). Lots of folks enjoy casual hookups — and that’s A-OK.

Sex can change things

Having sex with a friend or partner can change the dynamic of your relationship — even if it was a planned event. It’s good to talk about things before and after the hookup.

Some good questions to ask are:

  • What does this mean for us?
  • Are we going to do this again?
  • Is it going to be weird now?

STIs PSA: You should also include questions about STIs and testing beforehand, if possible. You can say something like, “I care about you and want us to be safe. Let’s get tested before we have sex…”

Are these questions hella awkward? Oh yes. But they need to be asked. You might not always get the answer you want. But at least you’ll know where you stand.

Everyone has their own take on virginity. It might mean a lot to you or nothing at all. Either way, sex should always be about feeling respected and enjoying the moment. If your first time is a let down, you can always try again … and again … and again 😉.