Different Concepts of Virginity
College is a time that many people have their first sexual experiences, or “lose their virginity.” Some people may report the experience as being positive, while others find it unpleasant or uncomfortable. A new study led by Terry P. Humphries at Trent University examined how subjective attitudes towards virginity as a concept affected people’s feelings about their first time.
The study sought to define and compare three conceptual frameworks of understanding virginity:
- In the gift framework, a person views their virginity as a special gift to be given to a special partner.
- The stigma framework views virginity as an embarrassing social trait, to be shed as soon as possible.
- The process framework is more neutral toward virginity, and understands it as an unavoidable part of the process of becoming an adult.
In the study, 215 respondents — 184 women and 31 men — were asked to choose which these conceptual frameworks they most identified with, and then were asked a series of questions designed to evaluate their first experience with sexual intercourse. For purposes of this study, “sexual intercourse” was defined as consensual penile-vaginal penetration, with rape and non-heterosexual encounters excluded from the final sample group.
Gifts vs. Stigma, Love vs. Like
In the gift model, individuals were described as “comfortable, or even proud, of their virginity both personally and socially.” Participants who subscribed to the gift model tended to spend more time in planning and talking to their intended partner about their first sexual experience. Gift-oriented individuals were also likely to have spent more time in a relationship both before and after their first coital experience.
In the stigma model, participants understood their virgin status to be a source of shame, “perceiving it as burdensome and embarrassing.” According to the study, loss of virgin status was the main goal of first sexual experience for individuals who subscribe to the stigma model. Participants who subscribed to the stigma model spent the least amount of time in communication, planning, and even partner selection for their first sexual experience. While gift-oriented individuals were more likely to characterize their feelings for their partner with the word “love,” stigma-oriented individuals generally said they “liked or were indifferent toward their first partners.”
In the process model, virginity was understood as “an inevitable stage of life necessary for the transition from youth to adulthood.” The loss of virginity was described as one of many rites of passage into adulthood for process-oriented individuals. Process-identified participants were slightly less likely than gift-oriented participants to describe their first sexual partner as a romantic partner or lover, and were also second most likely to discuss and plan the event with their intended first sexual partner.
The study found that men were most likely to identify with the stigma paradigm, where women were more likely to identify their virginity as a gift. Roughly 50% of participants of each gender described themselves as belonging to the process model.
Communication, Planning, and Safer Sex Practices
The study found that gift-oriented individuals spent the most time in planning and talking about their first sexual experience with their partners, and “may be more likely to practice safer sex at first intercourse,” especially compared with stigma-oriented individuals, who were in a rush to “get it over with.” Process oriented individuals were shown to be more likely to use 2 types of birth control (such as a hormonal method with condoms), while stigma oriented individuals tended to use condoms alone (possibly due to the majority of stigma oriented individuals being male, and therefore unable to use a hormonal method themselves).
But are they happy?
All three groups reported similar types of emotional responses towards their first sexual intercourse, including positive feelings like pleasure, happiness, and romantic feelings, as well as negative emotions like fear, anxiety, and guilt. While gift-oriented individuals reported more happiness following FCE than the other two groups, stigma-oriented individuals were more likely to report feeling relief. The occurrence of negative feelings after a first sexual experience, on the other hand, was about the same between all three groups. Gift-oriented individuals also reported a stronger impact on their personal lives both in relationship dynamics and their feelings of parental connectedness as a result of first sexual intercourse. Stigma and process-oriented individuals were about equal in reporting much less effect on their lives following their first sexual encounter. Overall, gift-oriented individuals were most likely to have the happiest and healthiest sexual encounters, followed closely by process-oriented individuals.
This study was somewhat limited in terms of its narrow definition of “first sexual experience” (as many people will experiment with other types of sexual play prior to engaging in coitus), the relatively small sample of male participants, and the exclusion of same-sex couples who do not engage in heterosexual coitus. However, the lesson we can take away from this study is that prior communication between partners, and planning for safer sex precautions in advance can help make one’s first sexual experience much more positive, regardless of one’s subjective attitude towards virginity.
Jain Waldrip is a recent graduate of Indiana University Bloomington with majors in History and Linguistics. She previously served as the vice president of SAGE (Sexuality And Gender Equality).