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.
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.
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 virgins."
"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 happier."
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."
What Is the Impact of Virginity Pledges?
Teens who take virginity pledges become sexually active later than peers who don't; however, much depends on their age and environment, according to an NICHD study conducted by sociologists Peter S. Bearman, PhD, of Columbia University in New York, and Hannah Brueckner, PhD, of Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
The study, reported in the American Journal of Sociology, analyzed data collected in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health), a comprehensive survey of 90,000 students in seventh through 12th grades.
Pledgers were more likely than non-pledgers to be religious, of Asian ancestry, lower scoring on a verbal vocabulary test, and involved in a romantic relationship. Pledging had little impact on teens 18 and older, but 16- to 17-year old pledgers delayed sex significantly compared with non-pledgers.
In an environment in which a high percentage of students took virginity pledges, the pledge had little effect on delaying sexual activity. The researchers observed that the pledge had more impact if it is made by a minority.
While delaying sex can have a positive impact on reducing sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy, the research showed that when pledgers became sexually active, they were less likely than non-pledgers to use contraception.
What happens when a teen breaks the pledge? The research showed they experienced no greater loss of self-esteem than non-pledgers who lost their virginity.