“And after he came, I gave him a high-five and said, in Batman’s voice, ‘Good job,’” my friend said, finishing her tale of the first time she had sex. I had all sorts of thoughts, but mostly, I wanted my experience to be like that.

Way before I knew what sex was, I knew there were things women weren’t supposed to do or be before marriage. As a kid, I saw “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls.” There’s a scene where the husband storms out of the hut screaming that his wife had already been deflowered. At the age of 5, I knew that she’d done something bad.

I learned about sex at a church camp, probably because it was easier for my parents to give someone else the responsibility of the talk. In eighth grade, my friends and I were lectured about why we should wait until marriage to have sex. Topics included “I waited for someone special and it was worth it” and “How Pastor XYZ found the love of their life by remaining pure.” These good intentions shaped my views for the worse.

In 2013, India’s Supreme Court finally ruled out the two-finger test. Apparently, if a doctor could fit two fingers inside a rape victim, that meant she’d consented to sex. The country of Georgia still has a tradition called yenge, where the groom shows a bloodstained sheet to his relatives as proof of virginity.

These virginity tests are only expected of women. While physical probing by medical professionals don’t happen so obviously in the West, we still have sexist ideologies that probe our minds. Just look at the hymen myth.

For 20 years of my life I believed the hymen was a marker of one’s virginity. Believing this also created all the expectations I had around sex — until I saw Laci Green’s “You Can’t POP Your Cherry” video in 2012. In this video, Green talks about what the hymen physically is and gives tips for having sex the first time.

Watching the video as a college student made me reconsider several old beliefs:

  1. Am I even losing anything if the marker of virginity — a hymen that blocks the entrance — doesn’t actually exist?
  2. If, on average, a hymen doesn’t exist as a barrier, then why do I believe it’s normal for the first time to hurt?
  3. Why is the language around virginity so violent?

Throughout high school and college I expected a girl’s first time to involve pain or blood, but since the hymen doesn’t exist as a physical barrier, then scientifically, there’s no way to tell someone is a virgin. So is it possible that we lie and say that pain is normal in effort to police women and their bodies?

How to talk to your partner about sex »

The discussion on virginity has had mixed messages. Yes, there’s always a political, religious, cultural, or educational context, but even in those situations, we’ve adopted an aggressive or possessive tone (or both). Words like “deflowering” or “popping her cherry” or “breaking your hymen” are casually thrown around. People say “losing” your virginity like it’s a bad thing, but there’s also no agreement on what losing means.

Some focus on when you have sex for the first time. One study suggests that experiencing sex too early has negative outcomes on sexual health. It also suggests that late initiation (at age 21 and older) does too, which contradicts the conclusion from a 2012 study by the University of Texas at Austin. After following 1,659 same-sex siblings from adolescence to adulthood, UT Austin researchers found that those who married and had sex after the age of 19 were more likely to be happier in their overall and sexual relationship.

Learn more about healthy sex »

The problem with using science to set parameters is that this experience is about feelings. The whole argument of “when” loses its clout when a person’s virginity should be about the how.

Expectations around “losing your virginity” (often formed through friends, upbringing, and media exposure) affect the experience far more than we think. More than once, friends have told me, “The first time always sucks.” After my friend told me how she “lost” her virginity (the hilarious incident ending with a high-five), I felt jealous. She was so confident and nonchalant. I, too, wanted to avoid the classic “attached after sex” narrative.

She also shared that her gynecologist was horrified by the state of her vagina. It was torn and sore for two weeks, which I thought was normal at the time because I thought virginity was a physical barrier. Maybe she should’ve told her partner about being a virgin, but virginity didn’t matter to her — whether in the context of her life or if it should’ve changed how he treated her (rough sex shouldn’t be the go-to without consent). Her advice for me: “Make sure you’re drunk when you have sex the first time. It helps you loosen up so it won’t hurt as much.”

It shouldn’t have to be the advice she thought best to give. But it was, thanks to the virginity myth. All she wanted, as a good friend, was to make sure I had an experience nothing like hers.

Maybe it’s because we rarely address how we should feel about sex in general before sex even happens that women are so misguided in their expectations. One survey looked at heterosexual initiation and found that women who were psychologically satisfied with their first time also felt less guilt. They highlighted that developing a sexual relationship with care and trust brought more satisfaction in people 18 to 25 years old.

Having an inconsistent narrative that ranges from honeymoon moments to the violent language of “breaking in” can damage anyone’s expectations and experience, first time or not.

Another study asked 331 undergraduate students about the first time they had sex and their current sexual functioning. They found that people who had a more positive first-time experience had higher levels of satisfaction. The implication is that even though your first sexual experience is just a life milestone, it can still shape how you approach and view sex years down the line.

Some feelings that I think should be taught? What it’s like to feel safe. Relaxed. Ecstatic. Joy because you’re gaining an experience, not losing an identity.

Learn the basics to safe sex »

When I first mentioned I was a virgin to the guy who would eventually be my first, he said, “Oh, so you’re a unicorn.” But I wasn’t. I never was. Why do people label virginity in a way that makes people feel unwanted after the first time?

As a “unicorn,” I mostly felt confused because people apparently wanted me. A virgin at 25 was supposed to be a unique and rare find, but also too much long-term maintenance. And when I did finally have sex, I realized (and maybe he did, too) that everyone actually is just a horse. So let’s forget the unicorn metaphor because unicorns are just myths, too.

You know what’s real? Disneyland, since 1955.

The first time at Disneyland can feel like nirvana or be utterly anticlimactic. It depends on a variety of factors: what people told you about Disneyland, who you’re going with, the road trip there, the weather, and other things that are out of your control.

Here’s the thing, though: You can go again. No matter how your first time went, it doesn’t have to be your last. Find a better friend, reschedule for a less stressful day, or just count your first time as a learning experience because you didn’t know you were supposed to ride the slow ones first and Splash Mountain later.

And that’s kind of the magic of accepting your virginity as an experience and not a state of being. Even if the first, second, or third time wasn’t perfect, you can always choose to try again. Or you may choose never to go to Disneyland at all. Some people say it’s overrated, anyway. The happiest place on earth is where you feel most comfortable, even if it means you never have the urge to do it.

Keep reading: The health benefits of sex »

Christal Yuen is an editor at Healthline.com. When she’s not editing or writing, she’s spending time with her cat-dog, going to concerts, and wondering why her Unsplash photos keep getting used in articles about menstruation.