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Not Who You Are, But Who You Are With: Re-examining Women’s Less Satisfying Sexual Debuts


Gender differences in appraisals of first intercourse are among the largest in sexuality research, with women indicating less satisfying “sexual debuts” than men. Dispositional or “actor-level” explanations for this gender gap are pervasive, yet research has largely examined heterosexual debuts in which actor gender and partner gender are confounded. We assessed whether women’s less satisfying sexual debuts are better explained by actor gender or partner gender, comparing experiences of women who debuted with men (WDM) with those of men and women who debuted with women (MDW, WDW). Retrospective accounts of sexual debut were collected from 3033 adults. At first intercourse, we found that WDW had equal physical and emotional satisfaction to MDW, and more satisfaction than WDM, suggesting satisfaction gaps owing to partner gender, not actor gender. This pattern did not extend to a comparison event (first masturbation), where WDW and WDM had similar satisfaction, but less satisfaction than MDW, suggesting an actor gender gap. To identify sources of satisfaction gaps, we probed for corresponding differences in the circumstances of sexual debut. Sexual circumstances were more strongly implicated than nonsexual ones, with relative deprivation of glans stimulation explaining relative dissatisfaction at first intercourse, but not first masturbation, and orgasm explaining it at both. Findings challenge the view that the satisfaction gap at first intercourse reflects an inherent difference between genders. Indeed, they demonstrate similarities when partner gender does not differ and suggest strategies for ensuring equal sexual satisfaction—and equal sexual rights realization—at (hetero) sexual debut.

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The anonymized raw data used for this study is available upon request.

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  1. In this article, “gender” is used to refer to gender/sex, denoting biological features distinguishing male and female, as well as social, cultural, and psychological traits linked to males and females through particular social contexts.

  2. It should be acknowledged that penile-vaginal penetration can involve indirect glans stimulation for women, as well as some incidental direct stimulation (O’Connell et al., 2008)—even when not accompanied by direct manual stimulation of the glans clitoris.

  3. Interpersonal conditions more often refer to relationship characteristics than partner characteristics, but ecological models of sexual satisfaction include one’s intimate relationship and the partner it is with within this same level of analysis (i.e., immediate interpersonal conditions within the mesosystem).

  4. In addition to including sexual minorities, this definition includes sexual firsts that are limited to unidirectional genital stimulation but could nevertheless be argued to indicate the onset of sexual activity (e.g., first oral, manual, and object-assisted penetration with a partner). Indeed, unidirectional genital stimulation with a partner tends to precede bidirectional genital stimulation (Schwartz & Coffield, 2022), and might better reflect one’s sexual debut.

  5. To our knowledge, no efforts have previously been made to quantify satisfaction at solitary sexual debut or to compare it across genders.


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Special thanks to Dr. Shayna Skakoon-Sparling for help with participant recruitment.


This work was supported by a doctoral fellowship from the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada to DEP, a postdoctoral fellowship from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research to MNS, and an Insight Development Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada to DPV [4301600445].

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Correspondence to Diana E. Peragine.

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All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.

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Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study and ethics approval was received from the University Research Ethics Board of the first author.

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Peragine, D.E., Kim, J.J., Maxwell, J.A. et al. Not Who You Are, But Who You Are With: Re-examining Women’s Less Satisfying Sexual Debuts. Arch Sex Behav (2023).

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