Sex: Expectations versus reality

Julia Robbins, Editor in Chief

“I think all sexual things are kinda weird,” Janice* said. “And porn also makes it seem like it’s going to immediately feel so good. When it happens, you’re like, it doesn’t feel that good. It feels okay, it’s kind of fun; the whole experience is fun because you’re fooling around with someone. But it’s weird, it’s uncomfortable, it’s scary.”
Others in the community share Janice’s sentiments that expectations don’t always match reality when it comes to sex. A number of factors from pornography to heteronormative attitudes influence student expectations about this often taboo subject.
Janice had sex for the first time last January, as a junior, with her boyfriend of two months. She wanted to have sex in order to “check the experience off her list” and know what other people were talking about when they were discussing sex, she said.
In an anonymous Record poll sent out to Upper Division (UD) students, 61.2% of 209 respondents reported that they have not had sex, and 38.8% reported that they had. The data correlates closely to that of the 2017 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found that 39.5% of all high school students had had sex. The national survey showed an increase in sexual activity with age, from 20.4% for freshmen to 57.3% for seniors.
Additionally, according to the Record poll, 31% of respondants reported having sex for the first time with somebody who they were dating or in a long term relationship with.
According to a review of “Sexual Hookup Culture” in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health (NIH), “over the past 60 years, the prioritization of traditional forms of courting and pursuing romantic relationships has shifted to more casual ‘hookups.’”
Janice, along with many other students quoted in this article, break from the aforementioned trend and the majority of poll respondents, in that she had sex for the first time with a longer-term partner.
After seven months of dating her boyfriend, Victoria* had sex with him before the start of freshman year. At the time, Victoria hadn’t known anyone else who had already had sex in her grade, but there were older girls at her sleep away camp that normalized the idea for her, she said.
Having sex is more normalized with growing older, Harold* said. Harold first had sex as a junior and only knew one other person that he could talk to who had had sex before. However, as a senior, it was seen as more normal to have sex, he said.
Maureen* said that part of the reason it is seen as more normal for seniors to have sex than students in other grades is that almost all seniors are above the age of consent, which is 17 in New York state.
After dating his girlfriend for about half a year, Frank* first had sex with her as a senior. “We laughed a lot,” he said, “People mess up so many times. People think about it as a serious thing. I really don’t think it is.”

Frank voiced a common theme of students when discussing sexual activity, which is that their preconceived notions of what sex would be like were often not what they experienced when actually having sex.
The reasons for why people have sex can also influence their experiences and how positive those experiences are.
Three days into camp the summer before freshman year, Brooklyn* had sex with a camper a year older than her who she didn’t know well. “I definitely have regrets about it because I certainly would prefer to say that my first time was with someone I loved, or at least liked,” she said.
While Brooklyn regrets not first having sex with someone she cared about, she thinks that if she thought about it a lot before hand, she probably would have become too nervous and not had sex.
Brooklyn is not unique in regretting how she first had sex. In a survey published in the British Medical Journal, 39.7% of women and 26.5% of men reported that they did not feel that they first had sex at the “right time.”
A reason that came up multiple times among students interviewed for this piece for why they first had sex was that they wanted to check the experience off their list.
“I just wanted to get it over with,” Delilah*, who first had sex during the summer before her junior year, said. While she didn’t feel any external pressures to have sex, Delilah wanted to have sex before going to college and had no emotional attachment to the person she had sex with.
Like Delilah, Trina* first had sex because she wanted to get it over with, and similarly was not romantically attached to the person who she had sex with. Trina’s first time having sex with a guy was in her junior year of high school, and this year, as a senior, had sex for the first time with a girl.
In 2016, data from the Center for Disease Control reported that 51% of gay/bisexual high schoolers had sexual intercourse compared with 41% of straight students. This data was presented alongside statistics showing that 35% of gay/bisexual students were “currently sexually active” compared with that of 30% of straight students.
While the statistics show a difference in the amount of sex that students of different sexual orientations are more likely to engage in, anecdoteal information also provides insight into differences between gay and straight sex.
“With the guy I felt like I had to play a more specific role,” Trina said. “With the girl I felt I could be more myself. Everything else that comes with heterosexuality, like power dynamics can still be there with people of the same sex, but you also have a lot more space to be free in the relationship.”
Trina attributed the expectations of heterosexual sex to the prevalance of these standards in pornography and media. She also described herself as not being romantically attracted to boy she had sex with, as opposed to the girl who she did like romantically.

There is a “misconception,” Brooklyn said, that ‘losing one’s virginity’ can only happen from heterosexual intercourse. “It’s fundamentally exclusionary. It’s like saying marriage is between a man and woman.”
Brooklyn added that people don’t have trouble defining gay male intercourse as sex, but do have an issue with defining lesbian intercourse as sex.
The notion that Brooklyn brought up is reflected in an article on Slate.com entitled “Is Lesbian Sex “Real Sex,” which discusses the notion that many people are unwilling to see sex as not involving male genitalia.
Coupled with different expectations of how gay versus straight sex is carried out, are expectations of how and when women should have sex compared to men.
“Girls are kind of scared to admit that they do stuff,” Victoria said. Due to this taboo surrounding sexual activity for girls, Victoria never felt any pressure to have sex, she said.
Conversely, some guys want to boast about their sexual experiences which can lead to lying, Victoria said. She said someone once lied about having sex with her, and it was frustrating when people believed him even after she refuted his claims.
Brooklyn proposed an explanation as to why people are less likely to believe men over women when it comes to statements regarding sex. Many girls still inherently understand having sex as giving something up which is “not the case for guys,” Brooklyn said. Therefore, people are more willing to believe a girl would lie about not having sex, she said.
In addition to the psychological issues that arise from sexual experiences, people can also face certain immediate physical discomforts from sex.
People don’t mention how much sex can hurt, especially the first time, for girls, Janice said. “It was hugely painful, especially the first time, it was really really painful.”
Janice’s experience with pain was not uncommon. According to a report published by the NIH in 2015, “about 30% of women and 5% of men reported pain occurring during their most recent sexual event.”
Of the 90 students who answered the question, “was your first time having sex a positive experience,” only 31.1% rated their experience a 5 out of 5, while 40% of respondents rated their ‘first time’ a 3 out of 5 or lower.
“The pain is more than just physical, there’s a lot of insecurity that goes into it. It’s scary to show someone your whole body,” Janice said.
Part of the insecurity that comes along with sharing such an intimate experience with another person can be tied to the often unrealistic standards that pornography sets for people’s appearences and how they should behave sexually.
In both the Record poll and interviews, many students commented that online pornography had shaped some of their attitudes and misconceptions about sex.
“Pornography does not frequently portray explicit consent, mutual pleasure, or the conversations that happen before and after having sex,” Health Educator Amy Mojica said. “It sets unrealistic expectations and should not be used as information on how to have a healthy sexual relationship.”
Additionally, several students, either in person or through the online survey, voiced opinions about how pornography creates unrealistic notions about what bodies are supposed to look like.
One student comment boiled it down to: “Not everyone is as perfect as the actors.” Another student wrote that the body standards that porn sets, “mostly towards females” are different than what most people are like.
Actors in pornography all have flawless bodies, Frank said. They don’t portray the reality of people having birthmarks, freckles, or anything besides what people consider to be an ideal body, he said.
Several students also noted how pornography can create false perceptions of what sex should feel like, or how people should have sex. These unrealistic standards reach the vast majority of students who view pornography.
In the poll, 30% of respondents said they had never watched pornography, while 34% responded that they watch more than once a week. One student wrote that they watch “a few times a day… Porn can be really addictive.”
One student summed up in the survey that “porn is not an imitation of real life and it can actually be really damaging to real world expectations/understandings.” Another student added that they are “mature enough to recognize that it’s entertainment and not reality.”
Several of these write-in comments noted that pornography sets higher expectations for how easy or pleasurable sex compared to reality. However one student noted that “sex in real life is so much more vulnerable and beautiful and imperfect.”
Several students also noted how they believe that pornography is gendered, both in the audience that it targets and in the stereotypes that it creates for how men and women should act during sex.
“[Pornography is] made for the male gaze and it’s not an accurate representation of anything,” Brooklyn said. She elaborated that pornography is made for men because “that’s what’s most economically profitable.” Women are taught that masturbation is a bad thing whereas men are expected to masturbate, which means that men are a demographic more easily profited from, she said.
Brooklyn also added that while she doesn’t watch pornography, a friend of hers said that no one watches porn for the male actors because they have “a blank face.” Women are held to a higher standard in porn that is often actualized through their moaning, she said.
This standard was observed in a comment from a respondent to the survey.
“A lot of times in porn, the pornstars will have dramatic orgasms that are not realistic,” the respondent wrote. “When I had sex with my partner for the first time, I finished in a few seconds and she told me I was weak. I thought that watching porn would help my performance in bed but it completely did not.”

On the other hand, one student wrote that “[porn] has taught me how to behave with my partner in order to arouse them more.”
That respondent was not alone in believing that actual sex would seem as pleasurable and easy as the sex portrayed in pornography.
“We have all these standards for ourselves of how sex should feel, how it should make us feel, how easy it should be to derive pleasure, but it’s not easy,” Janice said.
Janice’s sentiments were reflected in a different response in the survey: “Sex in porn often is much smoother and planned than sex in real life, and it puts some expectation on people to just naturally know what to do when having sex, which in reality requires a lot of communication and trying things out.”
The idea of pornography not teaching how to engage in respectful sex was seen in several comments about how pornography portrays an often severe version of sex.
The way people have sex in pornography is very aggressive, Frank said. “It feels violent, and that’s just not what it’s like at all.” Frank’s message was echoed by several students in the survey, one of whom noted that “porn is pretty violent.” Though another wrote that “sex in real life is way less exaggerated but still pretty dope.”
This portrayal of rough sex can lead men to only derive pleasure from more aggressive sex, Janice said.
Another student voiced similar concerns in the survey: “I think [pornography] often creates unrealistic expectations and degrades women – certain aggressive behaviors displayed in pornography translate into people’s real-life behavior.”