As a third of young women admit regrets about the way they lost their virginity… Having sex too young ruined our love lives
22:32 GMT, 11 July 2012
The boasts came thick and fast as teenager Kristen Dugdale and her friends sat chatting about boys in the local park one summer evening.
As one of her classmates shared the explicit details of her first sexual experience and another bragged about losing her virginity the previous week, Kristen felt isolated and increasingly out of step with her friends.
‘I was only 14, but they kept asking me why I hadn’t had sex, which made me feel as if I wasn’t grown up like them,’ says Kristen, now 21.
Kristen Dugdale as she looks now
Shortly after that evening, feeling the pressure to conform, Kristen gave in to her 16-year-old boyfriend Carl’s continual pestering for sex when her parents were out at work one day.
She had, perhaps rather naively, anticipated a romantic encounter. But the harsh reality was that losing her virginity so early turned out to be one of the worst experiences of Kristen’s life.
It has also had lasting repercussions, since she is convinced that having sex at such a young age made her far more promiscuous in later years than she otherwise might have been.
‘We had sex on the bathroom floor because it was the only room with a lock,’ she says. ‘It all felt so seedy that I regretted it immediately.’
Kristen’s regrets were magnified by the fact that Carl — who had used contraception — was uncaring and cold towards her as soon as they had sex, and left the house immediately afterwards.
Things went from bad to worse when Kristen confided in her friends that she had finally joined their ‘club’, only for them to admit they had been lying and were, in fact, still virgins.
‘Then Carl denied that we’d had sex,’ she says. ‘His friends were teasing him and I think he was ashamed to be associated with me, which hurt. For months, I dreaded going to school. I hated seeing Carl and worried that everyone thought I was a liar or a slut.’
Girls who think it’s right to refrain from sex while under 16 (the legal age of consent) are no more than ‘a significant minority’,
says a Girlguiding UK report
Kristen spent hours crying alone in her bedroom, unable to confide in her parents for fear that they would be furious with her.
As a vulnerable teenager whose concerns should have been centred on family life, friendship and starting her GCSEs, she instead found herself dogged by regret and rejection, humiliation and injustice.
Her story can only fuel concerns about the lasting damage on today’s younger generation who see having sex under the legal age of consent of 16 as all too normal.
In fact, becoming sexually active at an early age can have devastating lifelong consequences, according to clinical psychologist Dr Michael Mantell. ‘It’s a psychological disaster waiting to happen,’ he says. ‘It leads to empty relationships and low self-worth.
‘The experience creates worry, regret, self-recrimination, guilt, loss of self-respect, shaken trust, depression, stunted personal development, damaged relationships and relationship skills. It can also have a negative impact on marriage, should one ever take place.’
A recent survey of teenage girls conducted by Glasgow University revealed that in Britain — which has the third highest number of sexually active 13 to 15-year-olds in the world (only Denmark and Iceland have more) — more than a third of young women regret their decision to have sex so early.
Aworrying 38 per cent of teenage girls regretted losing their virginity, and a fifth said they felt pressured to do so.
Kristen’s early sexual encounter sparked years of promiscuity, and she is ashamed to admit she has had sex with nine men since Carl.
‘Losing my virginity so young made me more promiscuous,’ says Kristen, who lives in Mere, Wiltshire, and runs a business making shoes and accessories.
‘It devalued sex, and I don’t attach the same significance to it as friends who waited until they were older and in loving relationships.
‘I know many of my friends wouldn’t dream of having sex on a first date, but I’ve always taken the view that I’ve nothing left to lose.’
Kristen says she is sensible in some aspects, however. She always insists on using condoms, and has a sexual health check-up after every new sexual encounter.
David Spellman, a consultant clinical psychologist and family therapist, says that once a young person has become sexually active, they are likely to have sex with their next partner much sooner than with the last.
Kristen Dugdale as a 14-year-old – the age she was when she lost her virginity
‘It has become the norm in our culture to be embarrassed if you have not had sex, as if there is something wrong with you, but, in my view, young people should be discouraged from rushing into it.’
The prospects of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases loom large in underage sex. But psychological damage is just as real a threat, according to Dr Mantell.
‘Having sex carries a sense of “being adult” for teenagers,’ he says. ‘This leads to the notion they can do other things that adults do, which is why data suggests teenagers who begin having sex at a significantly earlier time in their lives than their peers are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviour.’
There are other worries too, says Dr Mantell. ‘Girls who become sexually active in their teens are more than three times as likely to be depressed as those who don’t.
‘A girl’s self-worth is often damaged and she can come to rely on external evaluations of herself — “If I looked better, he would have stayed longer,” or “If I gave better sex, he would have wanted more.”
‘She knows she’s been “used”, which affects her ability to express affection and appreciation, and will always leave her wondering if it’s only about sex, and not her own particular qualities.’
Kimberley Beaumont understands that lack of self-esteem. Becoming sexually active at the age of 14 has left her plagued by insecurities. She has never felt able to enjoy sex — a fact that has caused significant problems in all her relationships.
Kimberley had sex for the first time on her 14th birthday with her boyfriend of three months. Darren, who was 16, had been nagging Kimberley to sleep with him for weeks. She had put him off, saying that if they were still together on her 14th birthday, she would have sex then.
But losing her virginity one night at her boyfriend’s home after his parents had gone to bed would prove to be a dreadful experience for Kimberley, now 22.
To this day she has hang-ups about sex, and has not been able to forge a stable relationship. ‘That first night we were both virgins and hadn’t a clue what to do,’ says Kimberley, a mental health support worker from North London. ‘But neither of us wanted to be the one to give up so we carried on trying for most of the night, until I couldn’t stand the pain any longer.
‘It hurt so much I didn’t stop sobbing, or bleeding, for two days. We were too scared to tell our parents what we’d done, in case they were angry.
‘If I could turn back the clock, I’d tell my 14-year-old self to wait before thinking about having a sexual relationship.
‘If I’d been older I would have had the confidence to have stopped it far sooner and saved myself a lot of distress. The mechanics of sex may seem obvious, but with two young virgins they are anything but, which I’m sure is what made it so painful and upsetting. I thought losing my virginity would make me feel grown up, but it just reminded me I was still a young girl.
‘I felt completely out of my depth. Though we used contraception I knew nothing of the importance of lubrication, and it was impossible to see how something so painful could be pleasurable.’
Kimberley and Darren were in a relationship until she was 17 and continued to have sex. While it eventually stopped being painful Kimberley still felt too anxious and stressed to enjoy it.
She believes she was ‘playing’ at being an adult long before she was emotionally equipped for all that a physical relationship entailed. ‘That first experience set up very negative associations. Fear of the pain made me dread sex.’
Unpleasant early memories have a tendency of lodging themselves in the subconscious mind, surfacing whenever a person faces a similar experience again. And Kimberley’s first sexual experience continues to haunt her. ‘I’ve never seen the pleasure in sex,’ she says. ‘It’s as if I get stage fright and can’t relax enough to enjoy it.
‘I never instigate it and if I could avoid making love and have a kiss and a cuddle instead, I would. I’m sure that’s why all five of my boyfriends, including Darren, have cheated on me.
‘Men like to be desired and want to be with a woman who wants to have sex with them.’ Kimberley’s current boyfriend Joseph, 24, is serving abroad with the Royal Engineers. She sees him only twice a year, which she regards as a perfect arrangement.
‘Having a long-distance romance means I can prepare myself mentally for sex when we’re going to meet. That’s easier than worrying all the time about when it might happen.
‘I’m more relaxed sexually with Joseph than I’ve been with anyone because he’s more experienced and patient than my previous boyfriends.’
Psychologist Dr Mantell says when a girl experiences sex early in life and free of commitment, she learns an erroneous message that sex means nothing. ‘Her experience is that nothing happened as a result of her having sex, which creates the belief that sex and commitment have nothing to do with each other.
‘Later this can be carried into marriage, where the girl may believe that sex is not an important part of marriage when, clearly, it is.’
Dr Mantell says there is a physiological issue here, too. ‘Oxytocin is a chemical released into the system with sexual behaviour and is often linked to pregnancy and breast-feeding. It bonds people, one to another. When a young woman has multiple partners, some studies suggest her level of oxytocin is diminished, which can have longer-lasting effects — such as leading to bonding difficulties in marriage.’
Emily Hackett regrets her decision to have sex when she was 14. She says she and her first boyfriend Jamie — also 14 — did so simply because their friends had become sexually active. Three months later, Emily, who’s a dance student, discovered Jamie was seeing other girls behind her back.
It was a crushing discovery, and Emily struggled to understand how the boy to whom she had given something as precious as her virginity could be so cavalier about her feelings.
Their relationship ended, but by the time Emily was 16 she had slept with eight boys. She would have sex with a boy on the first night of seeing him, hoping that taking such a significant step would lead to a loving relationship. In fact, it had the opposite effect.
Emily explains: ‘Boys would say lots of loving things to seduce me, but when I texted them afterwards to arrange to meet again, they’d tell me they weren’t looking for anything serious.
‘I’d feel used and foolish, but I was so young and trusting that I’d make the same mistake with the next boy I met.’
Emily, from Gillingham, Kent, had a low opinion of herself and an unhappy relationship history when, four years ago, she met Conar Moorey, a 20-year-old hairdresser. She was thrilled that he wanted a committed relationship with her, and has grown in confidence during their four years together.
‘Being with Conar has taught me not all men are after one thing,’ Emily says. ‘But I wish I could go back in time and do things differently. My teenage years would have been much happier if I’d waited to have sex until I was old enough to understand the complexities of relationships.’
Those complexities abound in adult life, when sex becomes an intrinsic facet of love — and when we are emotionally equipped, at least to some degree, to cope with that.
Conversely, the teenage urge to taste forbidden fruit can turn what should be one of the most profound and pleasurable of human experiences into a minefield of worry, guilt and self-doubt.