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.
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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 people.
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.