This study was conducted to assess how adolescents and young adults of varying ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual experiences define virginity and abstinence. Data was used from the third of three waves of a National Institute of Child Health and Human Development-funded study on media exposure and adolescent sexual behavior.
The researchers recruited 925 participants from 10 California counties. Their average age was 16.3. The young people were randomly divided into two groups: one group answered questions about abstinence and the other answered questions about virginity. The two groups were asked the following questions: Is a (boy/girl) still (a virgin/abstinent) if he/she has (a) touched someone’s genitals for a long time, (b) given oral sex to someone, (c) gotten oral sex from someone, (d) had sexual intercourse, (e) given anal intercourse to someone, and (f) gotten anal intercourse from someone? Participants were also asked questions that pertained to their identified ethnicity (white/non-white), gender (male/female), age, and prior sexual experience.
Melina M. Bersamin, Ph.D.; Deborah A. Fisher, Ph.D.; Samantha Walker, Ph.D.; Douglas L. Hill, Ph.D.; Joel W. Grube, Ph.D., “Defining Virginity and Abstinence: Adolescents’ Interpretations of Sexual Behaviors,” Journal of Adolescent Health 41.2 (August 2007): 182-188.
The study showed that there is much debate among young people today over the definition of the terms “abstinence” and “virginity.”
- 83.5% of adolescents believed that an individual was still a virgin if he/she had engaged in genital touching.
- 70.6% of adolescents believed that an individual was still a virgin if he/she had engaged in oral sex.
- 16.1% of adolescents believed that an individual was still a virgin if he/she had engaged in anal sex.
- 5.8% of adolescents believed that an individual was still a virgin if he/she had engaged in vaginal intercourse.
- Females were more likely than males to say that an individual who had participated in genital touching or oral sex was still a virgin.
- Adolescents who reported prior experience with one or more sexual behaviors were more likely to define individuals who had engaged in these behaviors as virgins.
- Adolescents who reported experience with genital touching, oral sex, and anal sex were between three and eight times more likely to define individuals who had engaged in these behaviors as virgins.
- 44.2% of adolescents believed that an individual was still abstinent if he/she had engaged in genital touching.
- 33.4% of adolescents believed that an individual was still abstinent if he/she had engaged oral sex.
- 14.3% of adolescents believed that an individual was still abstinent if he/she had engaged anal sex.
- 11.9% of adolescents believed that an individual was still abstinent if he/she had engaged vaginal intercourse.
- Adolescents who reported experience with genital touching and oral sex were more likely to define individuals who had engaged in these behaviors as abstinent.
There was more disagreement among adolescents over what constitutes abstinence than virginity. For most adolescents, vaginal or anal intercourse is a marker for losing one’s virginity, whereas abstinence appears to be a broader concept that includes avoidance of other sexual activities. This is evidenced by the fact that 55.8% of adolescents reported that a person who engaged in genital touching was not abstinent versus 83.5% that indicated that such a person would still be a virgin. These differing definitions leave open the possibility that some youth may identify as virgins but not abstinent or as abstinent but not virgins. In light of this discrepancy, the authors suggest that youth may think of abstinence as a status one can move in and out of (dependent on how recently one has had sex), whereas virginity is based more on whether one as ever engaged in vaginal or anal intercourse.
The authors also found that sexually experienced participants were more likely to categorize sexually experienced individuals as virgins or as abstinent. They suggest that this may be a result of adolescents’ rationalizing their own behavior while trying to maintain their virginity status.
This report shows that among adolescents there are differing understandings of the terms “abstinence” and “virginity.” While this could certainly reflect our society’s lack of consensus about what constitutes sex, it is also an important lesson for parents, sexuality educators, healthcare professionals, and all other adults who provide youth with information about sexuality. Although many adults might see the concepts of abstinence and virginity as inextricably linked, the authors illustrate that teens see differences. For example, many adolescents in the study believed abstinence means no genital touching or intercourse of any kind but some felt that one could engage in all behaviors except vaginal intercourse and still identify as a virgin.
Clearly any teaching about abstinence or virginity—especially if these concepts are being presented as a method of preventing unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases—must include a detailed discussion of these concepts. It is unlikely that all youth, let alone all sexuality educators, would agree on one uniform definition for abstinence or virginity, but a frank discussion of the different meanings will better prepare young people for future relationships.
This research also points to a glaring flaw in the abstinence-only-until-marriage programs that have been supported by the federal government for the last 20 years. These programs hold virginity up as a goal and suggest abstinence will prevent pregnancy and disease often without defining these terms. Moreover, many of these programs rely on virginity pledges, which are often vaguely worded and poorly defined promises of “purity.” Because the terminology is not clearly defined, students are left with varied understandings of what the pledge (and thus their promises) entails. Previous research has shown that among those young people who have not had vaginal intercourse, virginity pledgers were more likely to have engaged in both oral and anal sex than their nonpledging peers, suggesting a desire to maintain their technical virginity.1
The current study shows that more than anything, our young people need clarity and breadth that reflects the diversity of human sexuality in their education classes, not a narrow and false discussion dominated only by mandates to “Control Your Urgin’ Stay a Virgin.” Honest discussions and critical thinking skills will clearly do more to protect our young people than vague intimations about purity.
- Peter Bearman and Hanah Brückner, “After the promise: The STD consequences of adolescent virginity pledges,” Journal of Adolescent Health 36.4 (2005): 271-278.