In an issue about “beginnings,” there’s inevitably going to be an article about this. The first time. That first time. The one everyone talks about, the one you thought about when you read the title of this piece.

That’s because the first time you have sex is special. And yet—it’s also not.

Here’s what I mean by that.

The first time you have sex is special because sex is a powerful and amazing thing. And it’s true, total cliché though it may be, that the absolute best sex is with someone you really care about and who really cares about you. It brings a whole different dimension of enjoyment and pleasure to what is already enjoyable and pleasurable in its own right.

And yet, though I would love for you to choose your first time carefully, and to do it with someone extremely special, the fact of the matter is that the vast majority of us end up with a first time that is accidental, awkward, hilarious, of the moment, “just happened”—or, for a number of people, unfortunately and sadly, happened in ways that they didn’t want at all. (The stories in Kate Monro’s recently published book The First Time: True Tales of Virginity Lost & Found run the full spectrum and make for a fascinating read.)

Which is why your first time is also not necessarily special. And that’s all right.

It’s not necessarily special because, just as you should never judge anyone based on just one encounter, you should also not judge sex based on just one encounter. As everyone goes on to find out, great sex is about trial and error, learning about yourself and your own responses over time, understanding that everyone is different when it comes to what they like doing and having done to them, and half the fun is identifying what you really love and your partner really loves—and then doing an awful lot of it.

The first time we drive a car, our first day at school, our first day at a new job, everyone knows it’s an exciting first step, but still just that—a first awkward, imperfect step to getting better over time; to building up experience; to “practice makes perfect.” A first step with everything to gain beyond it.

And yet the first time we have sex is billed as something “magical” and “special,” that at the same time is about “losing”—our virginity, innocence, purity —not gaining (experience, skills, information, fun). Society teaches us this inherent contradiction that my friend Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity, sums up beautifully: “Sex is dirty: save it for someone you love.”

What are we supposed to do with that?

At the same time there are other sexual firsts that we don’t treat with the specialness they deserve. Here are some less widely talked about first times that can be, in my opinion, just as important as your very first sexual encounter:

  • The first time you give yourself an orgasm. Revelation! This first time is special because not only is it the gateway to years of fabulous, free and easily accessed entertainment (plus also a great sleep aid), but when you know how to make yourself come, you are much better equipped to show someone else how to make you come.
  • The first time somebody else makes you come. Which, alas, is not usually concurrent with the first time you have sex. But you’ll certainly remember it.
  • The first time you have sex and you really, really, REALLY enjoy it. (If that’s the same as the first time you have sex, well done you!)
  • The first time you have a one-night stand and you really, really, REALLY enjoy it. That’s because, while the best sex is with someone you love, you can also have a very good time with someone you don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that, and there’s nothing wrong with a great one-nighter (as long as you keep yourself safe and use appropriate protection). As Woody Allen said, “Sex without love is an empty experience, but as empty experiences go it’s one of the best.”
  • The first time you realize that no matter what you think of your own naked body or however much you might want to change or shrink or expand bits of it, the person who’s lucky enough to have sex with you is just enormously grateful to be there and thinks you’re the biggest turn-on in the world. (This is always, always true.)
  • The first time you realize you really don’t care what anybody else thinks. This is directly related to this area, but also to many, many others in life, and this is a major first.
  • And finally: the first time you fall in love. The first time you fall in love is, unlike the more famous “first time,” always special. And it will continue to be special every time you do it—because, yes, even though it doesn’t seem like it now, you’re likely going to fall in love at least a few more times in your life. You’re going to get your heart broken again (and again). And yet your heart will miraculously mend so that you can use it again—and again.
    That’s why it’s so helpful the first time you realize: you loved them because you thought they were special—but they were only special because you loved them.
    Keep remembering that one. ♦