Virginity Loss: 4 Factors Determine When People Are Ready to Have Sex

"Age is not an intervenable factor, but these conditions of first sex may very well be."

There is no age that universally determines when someone should or shouldn’t start having sex, but age plays a major role in how people feel about losing their virginity. This week, the authors of a study published in the journal BMJ Sexual and Reproductive Health used population data to argue that age has little to do with when someone is actually ready to have sex. Instead, they think that “sexual competence” boils down to four factors that they argue sets someone up for success, both mentally and physically, when they decide to lose their virginity.

In the study, first-authored by Melissa Palmer, Ph.D., an epidemiologist specializing in population health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, the researcher lay out a four-pronged model of sexual competence that impact how well someone’s first time goes: They explain that sexual competence is defined by contraceptive use, decision-making autonomy, the equal willingness of both partners, and feeling that it was “the right time.”

"“These are conditions that we, as researchers think are more likely to be compatible with positive, broad sexual health."

“I think figuring [when someone is ready to have sex] out at a personal level is very complicated,” Palmer tells Inverse. “What we’re suggesting here is that this might be a useful measure in public health research for assessing that readiness at first sex. These are conditions that we, as researchers think are more likely to be compatible with positive, broad sexual health.”

In essence, the researchers argue that the perfect recipe for a good first sexual encounter involves contraception, two equally willing partners, the feeling that they’re able to make their own decision about it, and a general feeling of readiness. These aren’t overly complicated ingredients, but at least one of those conditions was absent from the first sexual experiences of nearly half the women and a third of the men when Palmer’s team surveyed 15,162 individuals between the ages of 16 and 24 about their first sexual encounters. If their first sexual encounter lacked any of those ingredients, the researchers concluded that they probably weren’t ready to have sex.

Age isn't the only factor that determines how ready someone is for sex. 


When they analyzed the results of the survey, Palmer and her co-authors found some age-related patterns in sexual competence, patterns that could explain why so many first sexual experiences lacked those four key ingredients. For both women and men, they found that the percentage of those deemed not sexually competent decreased with age. For example, 77.1 percent of 13- to 14-year-old girls were deemed sexually incompetent, compared with 44.9 percent of 16-year-old girls. For men, she found that 64.7 of 13- to 15-year-old boys were sexually incompetent compared with 34.3 of 16-year-old boys.

“If we look at the age of first sex, and whether or not they met these four criteria we used to categorize people as sexual competent or not, we see that as age increases, so does the likelihood of having positive experiences of first sex,” Palmer says.

Still, there was no age when someone attained 100 percent sexual competence, which means that it’s important to consider other factors that influence how sexually competent someone is when their first time arrives. “There’s more going on than just age when it comes to determining this measure of sexual competence,” she says.

Other Factors That Determine Sexual Competence:

For both men and women, Palmer found that a lack of sexual competence was associated with some social or economic factors: “living in a more deprived area,” “lower education levels,” “not living with parents at age 14,” and having sex before the age of 16, for instance.

But some of the results also had to do with the partners that people chose. Those with lower sexual competence scores reported “having not been in a ‘steady’ relationship at first sex, being unsure of their partner’s virginity status at the time, and having an older sexual partner.”

Being in a steady relationship with their first sexual partner was associated with higher levels of "sexual competence" in Palmer's participants. 


Any of these factors, she adds, can contribute to an imbalance in the four factors that they believe set someone up for a positive first sexual encounter. For instance, a lack of sexual health education can impact contraceptive use — though Palmer was happy to report that 90 percent of teens used contraceptives in their first sexual encounter. In the paper, she also suggests that economic factors might influence someone’s feeling of control — which could impact their autonomy when it comes to making an informed decision about sex.

The big takeaway, Palmer adds, is that it’s not enough to just look at age when it comes to helping people enter into healthy sexual scenarios their first time around. Waiting a little longer might increase the chances of having a more “sexually competent” experience, but it’s not really actionable for researchers. Palmer is interested in findings ways that public health researchers can intervene and help people have more positive experiences when they have sex for the first time.

“Age is not an intervenable factor, but these conditions of first sex may very well be,” says Palmer. “It might be about encouraging young people to consider what they believe would be the ideal scenario under which they become sexually active. It comes down to having comprehensive and broad relationships in sexual education.”

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