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Virginity Lost, Experience Gained

Your expectations may determine how losing your virginity will affect you down the line.

The 'Stigmatized' See Virginity as a Burden

The stereotype portrayed in the movie The 40-Year-Old Virgin is often true. By a certain age it may be embarrassing to be a virgin, especially if you're a male. Carpenter says the 'stigmatized' care little about romance and relationships. They want to shed the burden of virginity, and they engage in sex for physical pleasure.

Most of the stigmatized people Carpenter interviewed had positive experiences of virginity loss. But because they were trying to hide their inexperience and because they were with a casual partner, the stigmatized were the least likely of those she interviewed to have protected sex. Most of them altered their view about virginity loss later on and adopted the view of 'processors.'

The 'Processors' Are Most Satisfied

About one-third of the people Carpenter interviewed considered virginity loss a rite of passage or a step in the process of growing up. Processors are likely to plan their virginity loss and to use birth control or condoms. They're also better equipped to take a bad first experience in stride and move on.

In most cases the parents of processors were permissive in their attitudes toward adolescent sexuality and assumed that their children would have sex before marriage.

Carpenter considers that attitude realistic in today's world. "It doesn't make sense to me to encourage people to wait until they're married in a world where we know that early marriage is more likely to lead to divorce, where the average age of first marriage is 26 for men and 24 for women, and puberty is 12 or younger."

Research Yields Surprises

Carpenter's research turned up two surprises, although she tells WebMD she's not as surprised as others are. First, women and men turned out to be more alike than expected. "The idea we have from TV and movies is that for women it's all about love and for men it's all about getting it over with. I did see that women were more likely to use the gift metaphor, and men were more likely to use the stigma metaphor, but plenty of women talked about the stigma and plenty of men talked about it as a gift.

"If men and women shared metaphors, the choices they made and the kinds of experiences they had were pretty similar. That's something that hasn't been noticed that much."

The second surprise was discovering how similar gay and lesbian experiences were compared with heterosexual's experiences, and the big difference by generation across the "HIV divide." Whereas older gays and lesbians were likely to have lost their virginity to a partner of the opposite sex, that was not the case for today's younger generation. "Gay/lesbian and bisexual youth who grew up after HIV had come into the spotlight in the mid- to late 1980s were a lot more aware that there are other gay people. … Younger gays and lesbians were likely to recognize they liked people of the same sex," says Carpenter.

Carpenter tells WebMD that a lot of people are perfectly happy about how they lost their virginity. "For people who think it could have been otherwise, they might think of it as a chapter in a bigger story. It shapes some future experiences, but it doesn't destine you to anything. Treat it as part of a longer education rather than this one single moment that was going to change everything for you."

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