February 16, 2005

Q&A: Defining Virginity And Pre-Marital Sex

A reader asks about how to define virginity and issues to consider around having pre-marital (or non-marital) sex

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

Different Definitions of Virginity

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;

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.

Older generations, however, viewed oral sex as even more intimate than intercourse, and many were surprised by these findings.

The Hymen and Virginity

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 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, probably through physical exercise, masturbation or tampon use.

In addition, in some cultures, where being a virgin can be a matter of life or death, some women have reconstructive surgery to make their genital area appear “virginal.”

Why Is Virginity So Important?

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?

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.

Pre-Marital or Non-Marital?

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) can legally marry throughout the United States. 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.

Issues To Consider

There are many issues involved with deciding when to be sexual with another person including: your emotional readiness; risk for unintended pregnancy or infections (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 — 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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