12/7 Sitting with my 85 year old mother in a coffee shop one afternoon and she spies an old classmate from high school. They chat and conjure memories. The woman wobbles, cane in hand away. Mom strains her neck towards my face opposite her. “She wasn’t a virgin”.
“What?” I say confused.
“You know…She was loose.”
My mind reeled, after all those years that was all my mother could say!?
Let me assure you that the double standard (what men can do vs. what women can do) still exists. I doubt it will ever disappear. But the value placed on virginity has shifted dramatically since even I was in college.
The rule was – at least the rule I heard- was that you did not sleep with anyone unless you were deeply committed, perhaps engaged. It’s the rule that my Italian family subscribes to. My niece explained it to me. You date, you get to know each other, you fool around a bit but sex is off limits. It was four years before they announced their engagement. Somehow the engagement is the go ahead but never to live together. The wedding was a few months away and she threw out the birth control and became pregnant on her honey moon. She informed me this is the way it’s done. Intriguing. Italy has one of the lowest teen pregnancy, STD and divorce statistics in the world.
In the 1950’s in the US the average age women lost their virginity was around 20; today it’s closer to 16. The Guttmacher Institute (guttmacher.org) reported that 75% of teens have intercourse by the time they turned 20 and the US reports the highest static for engaging in sex before age 15. We also have the highest rate of teen pregnancy and STD’s. Being a virgin in college may make you an anomaly. So far are you in the minority it may serve up ridicule on a silver platter.
Sexual decisions do not occur in a vacuum. They are made in the context of our social world; family, religion, social backdrop and friendships. Which brings be to the surprising fact; the biggest predictor of losing one’s virginity is peer pressure. Why? Because virginity is a dirty word. There must be something so terribly wrong with anyone who has not had sex by forty said the movie with the similar title. When Dr. Cindy Meston questioned women about their reasons to initiate sex some responded as if it were something they had to just do, like getting vaccinated. Many felt they were embarrassed to admit they had never had sex as if it were a badge of dishonor! Of course that is not the only reason to initiate sex but it is a popular one. The effect of revealing ones virginity if you are a guy has far more negative consequences. The film The Forty year old Virgin centered around his getting vagina as if it was the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Virgins today have taken cover in the new movement of pledging. Pledging involves an oath to swear off sex until married. It doesn’t work so well- I’ve left a reference below so you can look a the research. There are problems with this approach. First, sex is defined differently. Most women do not consider oral sex to be ‘real sex.’ Second, if you fall off the pledge wagon you might feel quite guilty. Third, what happens to the huge majority who want to tone their sexual lives down because they are realizing sex does have a lot of negative repercussions. The sad fact is that there is no real middle ground. No gray area. You either are a virgin or you are not. If you are a virgin it means NO SEX. If you are not a virgin it implies you are sexually active. Another reason females jump on the sex wagon is to keep a relationship. Once a woman loses her virginity with her partner there is no turning sex off in the relationship. You cannot go back.
So here are some facts to turn over in your brain. Most women regret their first time, find no pleasure in it, did it in June, did it to keep a relationship, did it just to do it and most felt a huge drop in their self-esteem, (Joyner and Undry 1998), self-worth and body image (Vasilenko and Lefkowitz 2011). They also get a wallop of sex guilt. As bad as they felt emotionally few recognized their health risks; STD’s or unwanted pregnancy. Men cited increased bravado, feelings of masculinity, greater self-esteem, higher body image and of course pleasure. You didn’t need me to tell you that did you?
Why can’t the idea of virginity and sexuality meet each other in some way. I just watched the movie Friends with Benefits. She had the five date rule, which backfired. So in talking to my girlfriend who has the worst track record in the dating world I suggested a new approach. I called it the friends first without benefits. I like this approach of being friends first, ff. You are not a virgin but you make an oath, to yourself, that you will not get involved sexually until the relationship builds on a more sturdy platform. You keep a foot back in your virgin world. Isn’t that an easier approach? What do you think?
I thought of all the teens that had made all kinds of sexual mistakes that could be pledging… Her reply? That will have to wait for another blog.
Dr. Dawn Marlena Hopper
Sara A. Vasilenko, Nilam Ram, Eva S. Lefkowitz. Body image and first sexual intercourse in late adolescence. Journal of Adolescence, 2011; 34 (2): 327 DOI: 10.1016/j.adolescence.2010.04.005