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Like a virgin

September 15th, 2007

Dr Petra

Cory Silverberg has found a really great piece of research ‘Defining virginity and abstinence: Adolescents’ interpretations of sexual behaviours’. It’s by Melina Bersamin and colleagues and published in the Joural of Adolescent Health. The researchers asked teenagers to rate what they believed to be sexual activity.

You can have a go for yourself,

“Is a boy/girl still a virgin if he/she has:
(a) touched someone’s genitals for a long time,
(b) given oral sex to someone,
(c) gotten oral sex from someone,
(d) had sexual intercourse,
(e) given anal intercourse to someone, and
(f) gotten anal intercourse from someone.”

At what point would you say someone had lost their virginity? When they’d engaged in some sexual touching? If they’d recieved oral sex? What about if they gave someone oral sex? How about anal or vaginal sex?

You might find it an easy question to answer, or maybe you’ll be uncertain. Certainly I bet if you ask friends or colleagues what they think equals sex from that list there’ll be some varied answers.

Which is exactly what happened in this study. The researchers found 83% of respondents believed people were still virgins after sexual touching, 70.6% said they were still virgins after recieving oral sex and 16.1% that they were still virgins after having anal sex. Fair enough, perhaps most of us would think that sexual touching isn’t the same as ‘having sex’. However what was even more interesting is respondents also felt people had still maintained abstinence if they’d had genital touching (44%), oral sex (33%), anal sex (14%) and vaginal intercourse (12%).

This raises a number of issues about what sex, virginity and abstinence means to young people. Particularly given how many education programmes worldwide focus on an abstinence only approach. If this study is to be believed it seems that many young people still think they’ve abstained from sex when they’ve had a number of sexual experiences (including penetrative sex). They also believe they’re virgins after a number of sexual activities.

This is an important issue for sex educators since simply teaching people to say no to sex, or encouraging them to wait for the right person may not be exactly the message teens are hearing. It may mean they’re engaging in a number of activities which they don’t see as ‘proper sex’ which may have the knock on effect of their also not seeing such activities as risky. If you don’t think you’re having sex you don’t need to think about condoms, safer sex or other forms of contraception.

It also raises questions about sex positive education. We know there’s already a problem where people see intercourse as ‘full’ or ‘proper’ sex which can deny the pleasure gained from oral sex or what we might call ‘foreplay’ (things like kissing, touching, rubbing, stroking). This research also indicated people don’t see petting or oral sex as full sex.

Finally these findings have implications around sexual coercion. If you don’t view sexual activities as ‘proper sex’ it may be easier for you to pressure a partner to try them. It may also be that you concede to certain sex acts as a means of keeping a partner happy while still feeling you’ve not had ‘proper sex’. This has been observed in other studies where teens have viewed anal sex as something that’s not proper sex or would count as losing one’s virginity meaning anal sex is engaged in as an alternative. Which is fine if it’s enjoyable and safe but frequent reports suggests it’s not always the case.

We need to ensure our sex education programmes inform people about the wide range of sexual activities that are available for us to enjoy, and give us the tools to enable us to enjoy these experiences safely and consensually. Studies like this are very helpful to give us a greater insight into the lives of teens – and the views that many of us regardless of age hold about sex.

You can read Cory’s take and find a link to the entire paper here.

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