February 2, 2018

Q & A: So What Is Virginity, Anyway?

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This is a delicious fruit. What else did you have in mind?

Q: What constitutes a virgin? And what are your views on pre-marital sex?

A: There are many different definitions of what it means to be a “virgin.” Some people say that a virgin is someone who hasn’t had penile-vaginal intercourse.

If that’s true, then are you still a virgin if you’re having oral or anal sex but not vaginal sex? What about same-sex couples (for example, two vulvas but no penis)? Oral sex might not always count as sex, depending on the person and their viewpoint. In an early 1990s study conducted at The Kinsey Institute about 60 percent of college students reported that they wouldn’t say they “had sex” with someone if they had engaged in oral sex but not in intercourse.

Some people in earlier generations, however, viewed oral sex as even more intimate than intercourse, and many were surprised by these findings. [In Alfred Kinsey and team’s interviews, oral sex was more often reported as a kind of sex that occurred after people were already having intercourse with one another whereas in contemporary times, Americans more often have oral sex with a person before they proceed to intercourse; sexual repertoires can vary based on time and  also on culture and country.]

It used to be that people would examine a woman to see if she was “still a virgin” — specifically checking to see if her hymen (a thin layer of tissue covering part of her vaginal entrance) was still intact. If it was, they’d consider her a virgin. If the hymen was “broken,” they’d say she was not a virgin. Some cultures still perform these “virginity tests” even today. I’m not aware of any widespread “virginity tests” for men, however, which begs the question: Why is it so important to some people to monitor women’s sexuality?

As it turns out, checking a woman’s hymen as an indication of virginity isn’t a reliable tool. Hymens vary, and some girls are born with a very small or thin one. Others tear their hymen during childhood or adolescence, perhaps through physical exercise, masturbation or even occasionally through tampon use.

In addition, in some cultures or families, where being a virgin can be a matter of life or death (or family honor), some women have hymen reconstructive surgery to make their genital area appear “virginal” or may request “virginity certificates” from a gynecologist even though many gynecologists cannot tell if a woman has ever had sex before.

So in essence, virginity is defined in different ways. The question, perhaps, is why is it so important to consider people (usually women) to be “virgins”? What does that really mean?

Assuming Marriage Is A Thing …

Regarding premarital sex, people’s views about it vary greatly depending on their age, gender, religion, cultural background, the town they grew up in and their personal values and feelings. However, many women and men engage in sexual activity of various sorts, and at various times in their lives — kissing, hand-holding, sensual touching, oral sex, anal sex, sharing erotic stories, vaginal sex, mutual or self masturbation, the use of sex toys, and these are just the tip of the iceberg.

One issue with the term “premarital sex” is that it assumes that there will be a marriage — e.g. “pre” marital. But not everyone chooses to get married! And not everyone (such as same-sex couples) have always been able to legally marry throughout the United States, even if or when they wanted to, although same-sex marriage is currently legal in the U.S. The term “non-marital sex” is perhaps more inclusive.

The average age for first intercourse in the United States tends to be about age 17, and about 50-75 percent of older high school students (e.g. juniors or seniors) have had intercourse, though these numbers vary by community.

There are many issues involved with deciding when to be sexual with another person including: your emotional readiness; risk for unintended pregnancy or infections (which are notoriously high among college students and teenagers); the commitment level of your relationship; comfort with your partner; communication skills; values, personal beliefs and goals.

One of the most important issues is going as slowly as you want to about making a decision to be sexual with another person — particularly because this decision can affect so much in your life. If in doubt, don’t do it — there is always time to make a decision. There’s no need for “emergency” sex. And if not being sexual seems the best, then it is.

Some people choose to wait until they marry to have sex; others choose to wait until they are in love, in a committed relationship or simply feel physically or emotionally “ready,” whatever that means to them.

Abstinence is also a good and important choice for many people.

As researchers, we don’t advance a specific viewpoint on whether teenagers or young adults “should or shouldn’t” engage in specific behaviors.

However, we do study factors that shape decision-making about sexuality because, like your parents, friends, healthcare providers (and believe it or not, even your professors), we want to help you figure out what will contribute to your happiness and your health.

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