Do you remember the first time?

Do you bow to peer pressure and lose your virginity at the first available opportunity, or should you wait until the 'right' person comes along? Zoe Seymour talks to boys and girls of her generation out for a night on the town, and finds them coming to terms with their new-found sexual freedom
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The Independent Online

I remember my first time. I planned it all down to the last detail with my best friend. "Open the door in a towel with wet hair," she said. "He'll know then." I was 15, I'd been going out with my boyfriend for eight months, and I was desperate. My parents were away (they told me later they knew exactly what I was up to), and I set my room out with candles. It was uncomfortable (we were both virgins), and we gave up after a minute, but we decided we should give it another go. Afterwards, he turned to me and said: "Why do people do that once a week?"

I remember my first time. I planned it all down to the last detail with my best friend. "Open the door in a towel with wet hair," she said. "He'll know then." I was 15, I'd been going out with my boyfriend for eight months, and I was desperate. My parents were away (they told me later they knew exactly what I was up to), and I set my room out with candles. It was uncomfortable (we were both virgins), and we gave up after a minute, but we decided we should give it another go. Afterwards, he turned to me and said: "Why do people do that once a week?"

Seven years on, I'm standing in a north London bar surrounded by teenysomethings. It's a midweek night and there's a ska-punk band playing. Clusters of boys and girls are scattered around, laughing, whispering into each others' ears, falling over, flirting. Three boys are standing in the corner. They've got a late start at school tomorrow and they're on the pull. Matt, 16, is the most outgoing of the trio. His virginity is "long gone". He lost it at 13 to his 15-year-old girlfriend. "It seems a long time ago. It wasn't all that memorable - I was quite stoned, and I wasn't all that into her, but it wasn't a bad experience."

His friends Kieran and Jake are less forthcoming. After a bit of cudgelling, Kieran tells me he's only had sex once. "It was on a school trip in Florence with a girl I didn't know all that well. I wouldn't say it was romantic, because it happened in a dormitory bunk bed, and we weren't the only ones in the room." He didn't see the girl much after that, but he says he doesn't regret the experience: "It might not have happened if we had been sober, but I really wanted to have sex. A lot of my friends had lost their virginity and ever since I turned 13, I'd wanted to get mine out of the way. The girl I slept with wasn't a virgin herself (although I didn't find out until later - if I'd known I might have been a bit intimidated)." Kieran says he never had great expectations of what sex would be like. "I think girls worry more about finding the perfect person, the ideal situation and all that stuff. I just wanted to do it."

Jude, 18, certainly conforms to Kieran's view of what girls want. A virgin by choice, and proud of it, Jude is not the sort of girl who is short of a date on a Saturday night. I spot her by the bar. She looks a lot older than she is and she's incredibly beautiful. She looks incongruous amongst the crowd of spotty boys in their uniform of hip-hop trousers and skate shoes. "It's really annoying," she laughs, "because most of the people I know who are still virgins at my age are quite sad stay-at-home types, but I've had a lot of boyfriends and I've got loads of mates. I just don't see the point in having sex with a random bloke. I know lots of people aren't fussed, but I want my first time to be special. I'm quite a confident person, so I don't feel like I need to have sex just because my friends have."

Jude's stance has led to problems with boyfriends. "They always think that they're going to be 'the one', which I find quite funny. I'm like 'so, you're the one, are you?'"

According to Juliette Wilkinson, a psychosexual therapist, Jude's standpoint is quite rare: "The majority of teenagers regard virginity as something to be got rid of - they want to be able to shake it off. So long as it isn't traumatic or painful, it'll do."

So what's causing this impatience in younger and younger age groups? Teenage girls are now four times more likely to lose their virginity before they get to 16 than their 1970s counterparts. And the boys aren't far behind. Sheila Hancock, of the reproductive healthcare charity Marie Stopes International, says: "Sadly, we see a lot of pregnant teenagers - sometimes children as young as 11 come to us - which is why it's so important that effective birth control is made available to school children."

Looking around me tonight, it's impossible not to agree with her. Everybody is drinking - pints for the boys and Bacardi breezers or vodka-lemonades for the girls. And you can bet their parents have made sure they know all about the dangers of alcohol. They can take or leave this advice, and, likewise, most of them have had some form of sex education. But it's questionable how much of it they take to heart.

Worryingly, even when contraception is accessible, it isn't always used. Neil, now 17, abandoned condoms the first time he had sex. "They were just too much of a turn off. I knew how to use them thanks to my dad's embarrassing tuition, but once we tried them, it ruined the experience. I knew we were safe because both me and my girlfriend were virgins, so we decided she should take the morning-after pill instead." Rick, 19, lost his virginity at 15 and had a similar experience: "Nobody tells you condoms are difficult to use, that they can totally kill your erection. The first time I had sex, it really worried me. I thought I was doing something wrong or was impotent. They should explain in sex education that you have to persevere with condoms."

The boys agreed that the sex education their schools offered was inadequate. Carole Sturdy from Brook Advisory says she is shocked by the ignorance of some teenagers. "Sex education in schools is very patchy - it doesn't cover feelings and emotions enough and focuses far too much on the biology of sex - kids get bored and switch off. There are still a lot of people who believe that you can't get pregnant first time. A quarter of all UK teenagers under 16 are sexually active. It's important that they know what they're doing."

The teenagers I spoke to seemed relaxed about homosexuality, but it was clear classmates who had come out were in a tiny and conspicuous minority. Chloe, 17, said: "None of my friends are openly gay. My friends and I have been called lesbians by the boys because we are quite tactile and they couldn't handle it. It's difficult at our age to be gay because everyone else is straight so you couldn't openly come out."

Luke, 17, said: "We have a laugh about it. We call each other gay as a way of taking the mickey, if someone hasn't had a girlfriend for a while. But I don't have anything against gay people, and I don't think many of my friends do. Only two people in my school have come out."

Most of the kids I talked to had parents who were fairly open about sex. Rhiannon, 16, says "I don't talk to my mum a lot about sex, because I don't need to, but when I'm off for a night out, she'll say 'there are condoms in the bathroom cabinet'."

Contrary to what one might expect, all the girls agreed that it was friends who came from the strictest backgrounds who slept around the most. "I've got a friend whose dad is a vicar, and another girl friend who has this incredibly staunch Catholic family," says Rhiannon. "Both of them sleep around - sometimes they'll shag two blokes in one weekend. It's really weird though, because neither of them talks about sex as much as the rest of our mates do. If I ask the Catholic friend about any physical detail, she gets squeamish."

In contrast, 17-year-old Rosie is disarmingly open about her feelings. She says she "kind of regrets" that she has been sexually active for the past two years. "Now I feel that when I start going out with someone new, sex is inevitable - it's like there's no real point in waiting. I know I enjoy it, we're both up for it... I've done it before, so I'll do it again, even if it's not with the right person."

But it is a real test of willpower to hold-out for the right sexual circumstances in today's social climate, where there is incredible peer pressure as well as a media climate where sex is a marketable commodity. Even Jude, with her strong sense of self worth, is struggling with the "virgin" tag. "I'm going on my year off this summer, and I'm starting to feel like I really should have sex before I get to university. I'm getting bored of waiting, even though it irritates me to admit it."

Zoe Seymour works for 'She' magazine

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