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Have you ever found yourself biting your cheeks at the mention of your ex’s name? Does picturing your partner being intimate with someone who came before you heighten every insecurity, or make you green with envy? Do you find yourself resenting your partner for showing someone else that same care and attention, a feeling quickly superseded by guilt and self-reproach?
Retroactive jealousy – an unhealthy interest in your partner’s sexual and/or romantic past – is common in romantic relationships. In a PRUDE survey, 56 per cent of those surveyed said they had experienced feelings of jealousy when thinking about their partner’s ex. When you’ve fallen head-over-heels in love with someone, it’s completely valid to feel insecure, overprotective, or anxious about how you compare to others. But how does this dynamic change when only one of you has ever had a previous sexual or romantic partner?
I’ve been with my boyfriend Cameron, who I met at sixth form, for over four and a half years. I love him unconditionally, but I loved before him, too. The only other time I have been in love was with my first boyfriend during secondary school. We were together from the age of 15 to 17. With no significant religious or cultural background, it’s no great surprise to learn that I lost my virginity to him, too.
Cameron, however, has never been in another relationship. He’d also never had sex before being with me. Having been with him since the age of 18, you could say I’m something of a serial monogamist. At two long-term boyfriends, I’ve still had more committed relationships than a lot of my friends. But my body count goes higher than this. My two single years of sixth form were good fun to say the least, not only because I passed my driving test and was old enough to buy a pint. It was a time of sexual liberation – my “hoe phase”, if you will.
I never felt any regrets. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I once told Cam, during the stress and loneliness of university, that sixth form was the best two years of my life. “Thanks a lot,” he responded sarcastically. Desperately trying to pull things back, I fumbled over the right words to rectify the sting I’d just delivered. “Only because it’s where I met you!” But we both knew this isn’t what I meant – not because I preferred being single, but because university was an overwhelming time for me. It was difficult for Cam to hear how happy I was when, in plain terms, I was sleeping around.
After that awkward interaction at the start of our relationship, we bolted that Pandora’s box shut, burying it deep under layers of love and affection that time soon healed. But for the sake of this article, I finally unearthed this detail that had been so long enshrouded. I wanted to know what bothered him more – knowing his partner has had sex with other people, or that I’d been in love with someone else? “I guess the first part really,” he replied. “Obviously because you don’t have those experiences and someone else does, it makes you a bit paranoid about satisfaction or performance.”
After quickly reassuring Cam that his performance is perfectly fine, it was time to express some of my own anxieties. Knowing that you are your partner’s first love can be great. It’s a romantic ideal that many aspire to growing up, and it means you don’t experience any retroactive jealousy. But it also comes with a tremendous amount of pressure. Will they get bored? Will they want to experiment with other sexual partners later in life? Do they resent me for having other relationships?
“It was something I thought about at first,” says Cam. “But after a while you don’t really think about it as much. Right now I don’t feel like I’m missing out, but I can’t speak for my future self. It’s not really who I am as a person anyway.”
Cameron is a huge introvert and struggles with social anxiety, something he partly attributes to why he never had a relationship sooner. It’s also something I attribute to lowering my own anxieties. “I know boys who are a lot more outgoing and confident who have cheated on their girlfriends at uni,” Cam explains. “Their personality heavily influences those behaviours.”
Personality is certainly a factor, but what about gender? The data out there is murky, partly due to the discrepancy between different countries, cultures and religions. The most recent data for the UK comes from a report by the World Health Organisation in 2006 which stated that the average age a woman lost her virginity is 17.5 compared to 16.5 for men. Consensus data from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention also suggested men have more sexual partners in their lifetime, with an average of 6.1 compared to women, with 4.2. Other reports estimate that figure is a lot higher, closer to 26 for men and 19 for women.
Like Cam, Georgina*, a 21-year-old Master’s student at Cambridge, is in a relationship with someone who’s had other sexual partners while she hasn’t. She shares a similar view to Cam. “When I met my boyfriend Chris*, I was 19 and he was 21. When we first got together, I didn’t know whether he had past sexual partners and at the time, it didn’t really matter to me. I guess I assumed because of his age and the people that I knew that he knew, that he would have. The first time that we were together I told him off the bat. And then after that, we took it really slow.”
“I never dated properly and I never experienced that kind of single life. There’s part of me, especially with the way it’s portrayed in the media sometimes, that’s like, ‘Am I missing out?’, then I realised that the part of me that didn’t want to have sex without being in a relationship is still very much there. It’s a thought that you entertain, but it’s never something that you entertain seriously.”
While all these anxieties are perfectly normal, in a healthy relationship, your love for one another should always prevail. In 2022, women should be able to enjoy a liberating approach to sexual relationships free from guilt, and men shouldn’t feel ashamed for having had only one sexual partner, even if that’s for a lifetime. Even if Cameron is my last and I’m his first of many, there’s nothing I’d change about my relationship – and that’s the way it should be.
Enjoyed this article? Read more here: My worst first kiss