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When Did Virginity Go From Coveted Trait to Social Curse?

When Did Virginity Go From Coveted Trait to Social Curse?: Erika Stone /Getty Images

Erika Stone /Getty Images

It wasn’t too long ago that single American women who lost their virginity were considered unfit for marriage. Today, however, female virginity seems to have lost its coveted status. According to a new set of studies published in the Journal of Sex Research, led by Dr. Amanda Gesselman of the Kinsey Institute, not only is female virginity no longer an asset, but it is now viewed as a major liability.

In one study, Gesselman and her colleagues analyzed the responses of 5,000 heterosexual American adults who were asked whether they’d be willing to have a committed relationship with a virgin. Respondents weren’t very enthusiastic about the idea at all and, in fact, most said the odds of them doing it were very low.

Men were less open to the idea of dating a virgin than women, which suggests female virginity is more stigmatized than male virginity. Even virgins were less willing to date other virgins.

In another study, researchers asked 560 heterosexual adults about their own level of sexual experience and how stigmatized they felt by it. Just over a quarter of participants said they hadn’t had sex yet (defined in this study as vaginal intercourse), and these folks reported feeling the most stigmatized due to their (lack of) sexual history. People who had more partners, on the other hand, did not feel more stigmatized.

So how did we get here, especially considering that virginity was highly prized just a few decades ago?

We can probably partially blame changes in the norms surrounding sex outside of marriage. Historical data show that in the 1950s and 1960s, less than half of women reported having premarital sex by age 20. By the late 1990s, however, about three-quarters of women did. As a result, premarital sex has grown to be expected because of social pressures (you know, that Danny Zuko mentality of “Don’t worry about it, nobody’s watching.”) And when someone doesn’t follow a trend, people start to wonder why, with many assuming it’s a bad sign: Why hasn’t anyone else wanted to have sex with her?

One thing that has made premarital sex more normative is the increase in the average age at which people marry. Instead of marrying in their early twenties as most people did in the 1950s and 1960s, people are now waiting until their thirties. With marriage getting kicked further down the road, people no longer consider it realistic to expect a partner to hold off on sex until the honeymoon.

People today also want to marry someone who is the best sexual partner of their life. When dating website OkCupid surveyed a million users, 76 percent said they would need to have sex with someone before marrying them and roughly two-thirds of straight men and women said that any lifelong partner has to give them the most satisfying sex they’ve ever had. In other words, experience is a net positive, not negative.

That being said, there are still men who prize female virginity. For some, it stems from deeply held religious beliefs. For others, the allure of female virginity is more of a sexual fetish. (Look to the “virgin” and “deflowering” categories on porn channels for proof of that.) The overall trend in the United States is clear, however: Virginity has lost its virtue.


Justin Lehmiller, Ph.D. is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.


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