Losing virginity is one of the most profound experiences of growing up.
While it gets a lot of play in books and movies, it's rarely been the subject
of serious study.
A Vanderbilt University sociologist has sought to make sense of our widely
varying experiences. She proposes that how you lost your virginity, who it was
with, and how it has affected later sexual relationships might be best
understood in terms of the expectations you brought to the event and how the
experience fit your expectations.
By Charlotte Latvala
Sick of bickering? Keep the peace (and get even closer) with these
After seven years of marriage, my husband and I have arguing down to an
exact science. We choose from Argument A (who screwed up the checkbook?),
Argument B (whose method of disciplining the kids is better?) and Argument C
(whose turn is it to take out the trash?). We're still fighting about the same
things we fought about years ago, but the bickering takes up less time; I
Laura M. Carpenter, PhD, interviewed 33 women and 28 men, aged 18 to 35,
about losing virginity. The predominantly heterosexual group also included
gays, lesbians, bisexuals, virgins, and born-again virgins. They represented
diverse racial and ethnic groups, social class backgrounds, and religious
traditions. Five were still virgins. From her research came the book,
Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, in
which she describes a framework for understanding what virginity loss means to
A group not represented in Carpenter's interviews is young people who take
virginity pledges. They're the subject of a study funded by the National
Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) of sexual activity
among teens who pledged of abstinence until marriage compared with teens who
had not taken such a pledge.
Defining Virginity Loss
While it's been traditionally held that virginity loss occurred with
first-time vaginal sex, that definition doesn't necessarily hold for gays and
lesbians nor for some heterosexuals. Carpenter heard various personal
definitions from the people she interviewed. Some considered first orgasm or
first oral or anal sex to be virginity loss. A lesbian who never had sex with a
man might consider herself a virgin. Then there's the category of
"born-again" or "secondary" virgins -- people who lost their
virginity but later pledge to be celibate until marriage.
Regardless of how they defined the experience, Carpenter says its
significance and impact derive from which one of three metaphors they attached
to the experience: as a gift, as a stigma, or as a rite of passage.
The 'Gifters' Seek Romance
The people Carpenter calls 'gifters' anticipate virginity loss in romantic
terms with a significant partner. Their virginity is a gift to be given only to
someone special. Often they've been reared with strong religious convictions
and believe it's a sin to have sex before marriage.
Gifters typically want the experience to be perfect. How satisfying it is
depends on reciprocity from their partner and a sense that the relationship has
been strengthened. If the experience doesn't meet their expectations, they can
be disappointed or even devastated. Some seek to become "born-again
"A lot of people want it to be special, and I respect that," says
Carpenter, who is assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in
Nashville, Tenn. "But you can get past the idea that because something went
wrong you're doomed forever."
She advises thinking of the experience as a chapter in your sexual
education. Consider what you can do differently the next time with the same
partner or with a different partner or what can make this better for you.
"People who can think about it in those terms ended up being a lot