“Like a Virgin”—Whatever that Means!

Now that you have that catchy, classic Madonna song stuck in your head, I want to talk to you about virginity. More specifically, this blog is going to talk about adult virgins. Among American adults aged 25 to 44, 2.3% of men and 1.6% of women are virgins, defined as having never engaged in heterosexual (penile-vaginal) intercourse (Chandra, Mosher, Copen, & Sionean, 2011). These percentages are even higher for single adults in this age range: 14% of single men and 9% of single women would be considered virgins (Eisenberg, Shindel, Smith, Lue, & Walsh).

There has been some limited research on adult virgins, and I plan to add to this literature with multiple studies as part of my doctoral dissertation. However, studying virginity is no easy undertaking, and this is largely due to the fact that virginity as a concept is difficult to define. In the stats I described above, anyone who reported not having yet engaged in penile-vaginal intercourse was considered a virgin, but hopefully you can already see the issues with this definition!

For starters, penile-vaginal intercourse is only one way to “have sex”. In fact, even though it seems straightforward, defining what it means to “have sex” is actually pretty hard to do! In one study, a sample of college students was asked “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behaviour you engaged in was…” (Sanders & Reinisch, 1999). Probably not surprisingly, nearly all participants said “yes” for penile-vaginal intercourse. Around 80% said “yes” for penile-anal intercourse, and 40% for oral-genital contact. Although less frequent, some participants even responded “yes” for deep kissing, manual and oral touching of breasts, and manual touching of genitals. Is a person still a virgin if they’ve never had penile-vaginal sex, but have engaged in oral or anal sex? Does it depend on the person? I don’t have an answer to these questions, but I hope they make you think about, and perhaps challenge, your own definitions of virginity and sex. 

The perspectives of sexually and gender diverse (SGD) individuals (including, but not limited, to those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) for defining virginity have been examined. Unfortunately, the research on definitions and perceptions of virginity in this population is extremely limited, but the research that does exist suggests some differences from heterosexual individuals. In one focus group study, SGD participants were asked about their definitions and perceptions of virginity (Averett, Moore, & Price, 2014). Many gay men described their virginity loss occurring as a result of anal penetration with another man; in contrast, many lesbian women defined their virginity loss in terms of vaginal penetration with a man. Some participants saw the possibility of multiple virginity losses: once as a result of heterosexual intercourse, and again with one’s first same-sex partner. Most participants agreed that virginity among SGD individuals is difficult to define, and that different people may have different definitions. Overall, virginity is not much discussed in the SGD community; there is more of an emphasis on an individual’s “first time” with a same-sex partner, and virginity is viewed as more of a heterosexual concept. 

Clearly, narrowing down what it means to be a virgin (or even what it means to have sex) can be extremely difficult. So why bother conducting research on adult virgins at all? Well, there’s still a lot about this population we don’t know, like the extent of their sexual experiences or their attitudes toward sex. As well, previous research tells us that, compared to sexually experienced heterosexual adults, adult virgins report feeling more stigmatized due to their sexual status, and single adults with a range of sexual experiences report a low likelihood of entering into a relationship with a virgin (Gesselman, Webster, & Garcia, 2017). Given this stigma, it is also important to investigate non-virgins’ perceptions of virginity, in order to better understand their attitudes toward virgins. Hopefully, with some additional research, we will be able to shine some light on what it means to be a virgin in adulthood, and reduce stigma and misconceptions. Stay tuned for future research studies—and results—from the SexLab on this topic!

Meghan McInnis, MSc, Doctoral Student

 

References

Averett, P., Moore, A., & Price, L. (2014). Virginity definitions and meaning among the LGBT community. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Social Services, 26(3), 259–278. http://doi.org/10.1080/10538720.2014.924802

Chandra, A., Mosher, W. D., Copen, C., & Sionean, C. (2011). Sexual behavior, sexual attraction, and sexual identity in the United States: data from the 2006-2008 National Survey of Family Growth. National Health Statistics Reports, (36), 1–36. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr036.pdf

Eisenberg, M. L., Shindel, A. W., Smith, J. F., Lue, T. F., & Walsh, T. J. (2009). Who is the 40-year-old virgin and where did he/she come from? Data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6, 2154–2161. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01327.x

Gesselman, A. N., Webster, G. D., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Has virginity lost its virtue? Relationship stigma associated with being a sexually inexperienced adult. Journal of Sex Research, 54(2), 202–213. http://doi.org/10.1080/00224499.2016.1144042

Sanders, S. A., & Reinisch, J. M. (1999). Would you say you “had sex” if…? JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 281(3), 275–277.