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Someone else’s story: sexual experiences

I have a slightly different type of guest blog today – Edie Clark contacted me recently to tell me about the Clark Project, which is a website designed to gather information on dating, relationships and debut sexual experiences. I’m obviously a big fan of stories, and encouraging people to share their thoughts and feelings around sex – the good, bad, funny, difficult, and everything in between – so the idea of this project intrigued me, not to mention that the story she tells is a lovely one. I hope you like it, and that it reminds you of some of your own early explorations.

What did YOU feel like?

Janine carefully stroked the tip of the brush across the length of her thumbnail, applying one last layer of shiny polish. She had done her toenails earlier in the afternoon, and now all of her fingers and toes were perfectly sealed under a layer of bright orange nail polish. She held her hands out in front of her face and examined the results.

Joe didn’t like black nail polish. He preferred the traditional shades of red and orange. Janine had chosen “Orange Thunder” for this evening because she knew Joe would like it, and because she liked the name. She smiled as she thought about it. Orange Thunder was just the right name for tonight.

Janine, a freshman in college, was 18 years old and studying theatre. She had met Joe in her social sciences class and had been drawn to him immediately. They walked across campus and got ice cream cones after class on that first day; in the months to come there were movies, parties, study dates, and a canoe trip down the sleepy, tea-colored river that looped through the middle of their rolling, landscaped campus.

Since Joe and Janine both lived in dorms, they had few opportunities for privacy. Tonight, though, he was borrowing a car and they were going out to dinner at a romantic spot several miles from campus. Joe had rented a motel room, and they were going to have sex. It would be the first time for both of them. They planned everything together: Joe had purchased condoms and Janine had bought lubricant. They packed overnight bags with fresh clothing and snacks.

But now Janine had a case of the butterflies. She wondered if they had been wrong in planning everything ahead of time because now she was feeling nervous. Would it hurt? Would the condom break? And he had never seen her without makeup. What would he think of that? Would he notice that her thighs were too large? And there would be blood, right?

Janine shuddered, then shifted her thoughts.

Yeah, well, what about him? Maybe she wouldn’t like him. He had some measuring up to do, too, didn’t he?

Janine glanced at the clock on her nightstand. She had 45 minutes left before he would show up at the door, and she knew he wouldn’t be late.

Interestingly, almost everyone remembers exactly how they felt when they had sex for the first time. In fact, almost everyone I’ve interviewed as part of The Clark Project remembers their first sexual experience in great detail, right down to the color of the blanket, whether the door was locked, and how they felt afterwards. In Janine’s case, she still remembered the shade of nail polish she was wearing when she met with me, ten years after the fact, to discuss her experience. She remembered what she was wearing, what she had for dinner that evening, and even what kind of chips Joe had packed in his bag.

Why do the details of our first experience stay with us for so long – usually for a lifetime?

Sexuality is a powerful force, and the first time we have sex marks an important transition. The sex act, however you define it, is an explicit and intimate entry into the adult world. It can’t be undone. There’s no going back. When we have our virgin experience, we’ve turned a corner on a one way street.

Janine comes close to exactly fitting the profile for debut sex among college women. The average age for college bound girls is 17 years old, most of them have known their partner for six to twelve months, and very few of them expressed any regrets. When asked what they’d say to their partner if they could say anything at all, most of them told me they’d say “Thank you.” When asked what they’d change about their first experience, a few women said they wish there’d been a lock on the door, but most were happy with the way things unfolded. Though women seemed well-prepared in most other ways, about one-third didn’t use any kind of birth control other than withdrawal. About one-third of women reported reaching orgasm, and nearly all women reported feeling a greater sense of connection with the rest of the world. Only about 14 percent of the women I interviewed were still together with their first sex partner.

We’re in the beginning stages of collecting data as part of The Clark Project. If you’d like to participate in a confidential, 30 minute interview on the subject of your first sexual experience, we’d love to hear from you. Just send an email to EdithAClark@Gmail.com and let us know. We’ll get back to you and set up a telephone or a Skype appointment. We’re interviewing people of all ages, all genders, and all levels of experience, including no experience at all.

And, by the way, when I interviewed Janine and asked her to describe her feelings on that important evening, she blushed, then laughed. “You know, the waiter took pictures of us at dinner that night, and look at me.” She showed me an old snapshot of a smiling couple. “Look at that. With that white wrap on, I look just like a creamsicle. Seriously. There I was all dressed up, wearing orange, trying so hard to look special.To this day I can’t look at a creamsicle without laughing.”

Edith Clark is a retired public health professional with a B.A. in English and an M.S. in biostatistics and epidemiology. Her background is in survey research, and while most of her work has been with public health issues, she’s also worked with the education, criminal justice, and corporate communities. If  you’re interested in finding out more, or in participating in Edie’s project, please do visit the Clark Project website, or get in touch with her via the email address above.

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