To know more about Les 3 sex*'s editorial policy and texts selection, click here.
☛ Cette chronique est aussi disponible en français [➦].
Translated by Manon Defrasne
For a long time, youth sexuality was mainly examined through its associated issues, such as sexually transmitted and blood-borne infections (STBBIs), and unplanned pregnancies. However, things have changed since the 2000s; researchers are increasingly more interested in the positive aspects of youth sexuality, such as sexual satisfaction (Boislard, 2014; Tolman and McClelland, 2011). This change of perspective eventually paved a way to study reasons as to why some individuals’ developmental sexual trajectory, is out of sync with that of their peers. One of such unsynchronized trajectories is referred to as ‘late-in-life virginity’.
Studies on late-in-life virginity have largely focused on a variable-centred approach, allowing research to explain the reasons for heterogeneity in late-in-life virginity—namely, psychological characteristics that could predict late-in-life virginity. In this article, we will provide an overview of several predictive factors of late-in-life virginity. Spreading awareness on these reasons may allow workers and practitioners, who work in the area of personal sexual development, to improve their interventions and apply them to their own work ethic.
What do we Mean by Virginity?
“Losing one’s virginity” is an ambiguous concept given what we currently know about sexuality. This concept is used to signify the beginning of one’s active sex life or suggest that one has had sexual relationships; it is often defined according to a “heteronormative” standpoint.
On average, one begins their active sex life at the age of 17 (Boislard, 2013). According to Gesselman et al. (2016), the ideal age for one’s first sexual relationship is between 15 and 19. In the USA and other Western countries, up to 40% of young people over the age of 18 are virgins (Boislard et al., 2016).
Several studies have tried to answer the question, “What acts lead to losing one’s virginity?” (Bersamin et al., 2007; Bogart et al., 2000; Hans and Kimberly, 2011; Sanders and Reinisch, 1999). They found that most people consider penile-vaginal intercourse the sexual act par excellence, and about 80% of people believe penile-anal intercourse leads to losing one’s virginity (Barnet et al., 2017). In regards to oral sex, 25% of participants of Carpenter’s study (2001) reported that oral sex leads to losing one’s virginity. Randal and Byers (2003) noted that 23% of participants thought that oral sex leading up to orgasm results in losing one’s virginity.
In other words, although the concept of “virginity” is widely used colloquially and in some scientific literature, it seems that there is no consensus nor universal definition for it. According to many researchers, late-in-life virginity is defined as not having had any penile-vaginal intercourse before the age of 19; it has been associated with several psychological and social factors.
Psychological Factors Related to Late-in-life Virginity
One common reason for remaining a virgin is the fear of negative consequences (i.e. STBBIs, HIV/AIDS, and unplanned pregnancies). Indeed, the results from Sprecher and Treger’s (2015) supports this claim, suggesting that this fear is one of the most important reasons why participants may want to remain virgins. However, participants interviewed between 2005 and 2012 do not report this fear of negative consequences as commonly as those interviewed between 1995 and 2000 (Sprecher and Treger, 2015).
Asexuality is another psychological factor due to which one may remain a virgin. Asexuality is typically defined as a self-identifying label used by individuals who experience little to no sexual attraction (Association pour la Visibilité Asexuelle, s.d. ; Bogaert, 2004, 2015). This sexual orientation has several contributing specificities, including those who identify as demisexual, persons without any sexual attraction unless there is a strong emotional bond between them and their partner, and greysexual, persons who have little sexual attraction or only under special circumstances (Association pour la Visibilité Asexuelle, s.d. ; Decker, 2014). These individuals tend to be sexually active later in life than others (Bogaert, 2004; Haydon et al., 2014).
Social Factors Related to Late-in-life Virginity
For men and women, the chance of starting a sexually active life increases with the frequency of romantic dating during adolescence (Millet et al., 1997). Indeed, in Meschke, Zweig, Barber and Eccles’ study (2000), people from the “sexually inexperienced” group reported fewer dates than people from the “late-in-life” group (16 and older) and from the “premature” group (16 and younger). Moreover, teenagers in a relationship are twice as likely to be sexually active than teenagers who are not. (Bearman, 2001). Similarly, romantic relationships during adolescence increase the chances of being sexually active with each new partner by 16% (Bearman, 2001). Furthermore, we can assume that those who do not regularly visit socialising spaces such as universities, bars, and gyms are disadvantaged as to their opportunities of meeting new people, which can in turn delay their first penile-vaginal sexual relationship.
In addition, some people choose not to lose their virginity because their romantic relationships were not meaningful. Heterosexual individuals from the Sprecher and Treger study (2016) reported that “not feeling enough love” for their partner is one of the most important reasons not to lose their virginity. This reason is, however, reported more often by women than men (Sprecher and Treget, 2015; Sprecher and Regan, 1996). Likewise, participants aged 18 to 25 from a study by Cooke-Jackson et al. (2015), often mentioned that they wanted to wait for the right person and for a serious relationship before beginning their sex life.
What is more, no or low alcohol and/or drug consumption, which is generally related to poor social integration, is significantly associated with late-in-life virginity (Blinn-Pike et al., 2004; Eisenberg et al., 2009; Rossi et al., 2017). According to Rossi and colleagues (2017), sexually-abstinent people report using fewer substances than other participants.
On another note, migration can also lead to poor social integration in the host country. Thus, migrants tend to remain virgins longer than their peers. For women, immigration is significantly associated with becoming sexually active at a later age, while for men, the presence of a migration trajectory after the age of 10 is significantly associated with belated sexuality (Goldberg et al., 2017). Discourse regarding sexual behaviour, especially virginity, seems to be consistent and influential for women in regards to late-in-life virginity, regardless of whether their first social contact occurs in their host country or country of origin (Goldberg et al., 2017).
Finally, religion is part of how some people define their identity. It has often been reported as a factor for remaining a virgin (Berg et al., 2014; Boislard et al., 2016; Eisenberg et al., 2009; Hull et al., 2011). Sprecher and Treger (2015) report that religion is a consistent predictor of the reasons for remaining a virgin. Most participants of Cooke-Jackson and her colleagues’ (2015) study, for example, reported that their religious beliefs influenced their decision to abstain from sex.
Improving Our Knowledge Going Forward
This article offers a brief overview of knowledge on reasons for late-in-life virginity, which vary and are specific to each individual. This review helps sexologists and other sexual health specialists to better understand the various reasons that may lead someone to remain a virgin after the age of 19.
In order to improve and best target sexological intervention towards late-in-life virgins, it could be interesting for future research to look into the existence of psychological profiles among these individuals. Thus, facilitators and professionals will be able to better adjust to their patients’ profiles. Knowing the various reasons and profiles could help patients feel less invisible and help them avoid the stigma associated with remaining a virgin after 19, especially in the case of those who did not choose to do so.
To conclude, this article highlighted two new issues. First, there is no consensus on the definition of virginity in the literature, which is usually defined as a sexual relationship without penile-vaginal penetration (although penile-anal relations are also sometimes considered to be sexual acts leading to the loss of one’s virginity). Then, the majority of studies define virginity from a heteronormative point of view. Thus, we may wonder what the definition of virginity for sexually diverse individuals is, especially for women who have relationships with other women.
What acts do women who have sex with women consider to lead to the loss of virginity? For now, in light of current research and the available literature, the question remains unanswered.
Barnett, M. D., Fleck, L. K., Marsden, A. D. and Martin, K. J. (2017). Sexual semantics: The meanings of sex, virginity, and abstinence for university students. Personality and Individual Differences, 106, 203-208. DOI 10.1016/j.paid.2016.11.008
Bearman, P. and Bruckner, H. (2001). Promising the Future: Virginity Pledges and First Intercourse 1. American Journal of Sociology, 106(4), 859-912. DOI 10.1086/320295
Bersamin, M. M., Fisher, D. A., Walker, S., Hill, D. L. and Grube, J. W. (2007). Defining virginity and abstinence: Adolescents' interpretations of sexual behaviors. Journal of Adolescent Health, 41(2), 182-188. DOI 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2007.03.011
Blinn-Pike, L., Berger, T. J., Hewett, J. and Oleson, J. (2004). Sexually Abstinent Adolescents: An 18-Month Follow-Up. Journal of Adolescent Research, 19(5), 495-511. DOI 10.1177/0743558403259987
Bogaert, A. F. (2004). Asexuality: Prevalence and associated factors in a national probability sample. The Journal of Sex Research, 41(3), 279-287. DOI 10.1080/00224490409552235
Bogaert, A. F. (2015). Asexuality: What it is and why it matters. The Journal of Sex Research, 52(4), 362-379. DOI 10.1080/00224499.2015.1015713
Bogart, L. M., Cecil, H., Wagstaff, D. A., Pinkerton, S. D. and Abramson, P. R. (2000). Is it "sex"?: College students' interpretations of sexual behavior terminology. The Journal of Sex Research, 37(2), 108-116. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/3813595?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Boislard, M.-A. (2013). La sexualité. In M. Claes & L. Lannegrand-Willems (Eds.), La psychologie de l’adolescence : Perspectives scientifiques actuelles. Montreal: Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal.
Boislard, M.-A., van de Bongardt, D. and Blais, M. (2016). Sexuality (and lack thereof) in adolescence and early adulthood: A review of the literature. Behavioral Sciences (Basel), 6(1). DOI 10.3390/bs6010008
Carpenter, L. M. (2001). The ambiguity of “having sex”: The subjective experience of virginity loss in the united states. Journal of Sex Research, 38(2), 127-139. DOI 10.1080/00224490109552080
Cooke-Jackson, A., Orbe, M. P., Johnson, A. L. and Kauffman, L. (2015). Abstinence memorable message narratives: A new exploratory research study into young adult sexual narratives. Health Commun, 30(12), 1201-1212. DOI 10.1080/10410236.2014.924045
Decker, J. S. (2014). The invisible orientation: an introduction to asexuality. New York, NY: Carrel Books.
Eisenberg, M. L., Shindel, A. W., Smith, J. F., Lue, T. F. and Walsh, T. J. (2009). Who is the 40-year-old virgin and where did he/she come from? Data from the National Survey of Family Growth. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 6(8), 2154-2161. DOI 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2009.01327.x
Gesselman, A. N., Webster, G. D. and Garcia, J. R. (2016). Has virginity lost its virtue? Relationship stigma associated with being a sexually inexperienced adult. Journal of Sexual Research, 54(2), 202-213. DOI 10.1080/00224499.2016.1144042
Goldberg, R. E., Tienda, M. and Adsera, A. (2017). Age at migration, family instability, and timing of sexual onset. Social Science Research, 63, 292-307. DOI 10.1016/j.ssresearch.2016.09.021
Hans, J. D. and Kimberly, C. (2011). Abstinence, sex, and virginity: Do they mean what we think they mean? American Journal of Sexuality Education, 6(4), 329-342. DOI 10.1080/15546128.2011.624475
Haydon, A. A., Cheng, M. M., Herring, A. H., McRee, A. L. and Halpern, C. T. (2014). Prevalence and predictors of sexual inexperience in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behaviour, 43(2), 221-230. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0164-3
Hull, S. J., Hennessy, M., Bleakley, A., Fishbein, M. and Jordan, A. (2011). Identifying the causal pathways from religiosity to delayed adolescent sexual behavior. Journal of Sex Research, 48(6), 543-553. DOI 10.1080/00224499.2010.521868
Meschke, L. L., Zweig, J. M., Barber, B. L. and Eccles, J. S. (2000). Demographic, Biological, Psychological, and Social Predictors of the Timing of First Intercourse. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 10(3), 315-338. DOI 10.1207/SJRA1003_5
Miller, B. C., Norton, M. C., Curtis, T., Hill, E. J., Schvaneveldt, P. and Young, M. H. (1997). The Timing of Sexual Intercourse among Adolescents. Youth & Society, 29(1), 54-83. DOI 10.1177/0044118X97029001003
Rossi, E., Poulin, F. and Boislard, M. A. (2017). Trajectories of Annual Number of Sexual Partners from Adolescence to Emerging Adulthood: Individual and Family Predictors. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 46(5), 995-1008. DOI 10.1007/s10964-016-0571-6
Sanders, S. A. et Reinisch, J. M. (1999). Would you say you "had sex" if...? JAMA, 281(3), 275. Retrieved from https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/188367
Sprecher, S. and Regan, P. C. (1996). College virgins: How men and women perceive their sexual status. Journal of Sex Research, 33(1), 3-15. DOI 10.1080/00224499609551810
Sprecher, S. and Treger, S. (2015). Virgin college students' reasons for and reactions to their abstinence from sex: Results from a 23-year study at a midwestern U.S. university. Journal of Sex Research, 52(8), 936-948. DOI 10.1080/00224499.2014.983633