A new book, Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences, explores the complexities surrounding how men and women view the act, how the circumstances surrounding virginity loss affect people long term and what it means for young gays and lesbians. Written by Vanderbilt University sociology professor Laura M. Carpenter, the book explores the personal stories of men and women from diverse social backgrounds. Carpenter said she wanted to explore the loss of virginity as a social phenomenon. "We all read and hear the statistics about at what ages men and women begin having sex, but it doesn't tell us what losing their virginity means to them. Nor do these figures tell us how teens and young adults made decisions about when, where and with whom to lose their virginity."
Although she found that every story was unique, most of the people viewed virginity in one of three ways - as a gift, a stigma or as a step in the process of growing up. The "processers" seemed to have the most emotionally satisfying, healthy and safe experiences, whereas "gifters'" well-being depended on having partners who reciprocated loving, appreciative feelings. For the five women in the study for whom that did not happen, the result was not only disappointment - even devastation - but also a feeling of sexual disempowerment.
The "stigmatized" interviewees had mostly positive virginity loss experiences. But the intensity with which most members of this group wanted to hide their inexperience, along with the circumstances and casual relationships in which many lost their virginity, resulted in worryingly low rates of protected sex. Men who saw virginity as a stigma felt particularly compelled to conceal their inexperience and felt vulnerable to humiliation and disempowerment at the hands of female partners. Derided as virgins or sexual incompetents, three men in the study avoided sex long after losing their virginity.
Educators who develop sex education programs for teens and young adults could benefit from the book's findings, says Carpenter. She suggests that viewing virginity as a rite of passage or a step in the process of growing up is the most conducive to physical health, emotional well-being and sexual empowerment. She says parents and policymakers would do well to encourage young people to approach virginity as a step in a process. "Growing up in a context of uncertainty, diversity and change, young people benefit from being able to understand virginity loss in ways that help them fashion specific social identities and that bring them one step closer to adulthood Given these benefits it makes sense to treat virginity loss as a significant and important life event," she said.