The Way We Think About Virginity in America Is Finally Changing


If a recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research is any indication, the cultural taboos and stigma around the notion of "virginity" may disappear sooner than later. 

In research conducted by sociology professor Susan Sprecher of Illinois State University, both men's and women's attitudes about sex and virginity in particular seem to be converging. Losing one's virginity is becoming less awkward and more pleasurable than it was several decades ago.

Spanning 23 years between 1990 and 2012 and including a total of 5,769 mostly white, majority female participants, researchers asked students from Sprecher's human sexuality course to state the year they first had sexual intercourse and recall the emotions (given the options pleasure, anxiety and guilt) they associated with that event. 

Image Credit: Taylor & Francis Online

What Sprecher discovered was that women's pleasure has increased over time, while their feelings of guilt have decreased. Both pleasure and guilt remained virtually unchanged for men, while anxiety, which has increased for women just slightly, decreased for men over time. 

This is good news, given the uptick in attention given to events designed to preserve virginity, specifically female virginity, in America, like purity pledges and purity balls. These types of events, which literally link a person's sexual activity to their self-worth, could presumably add to the feelings of anxiety and guilt Sprecher and her team were investigating. As Julianne Ross noted for Mic earlier this year, "fostering a sense of dirtiness and shame surrounding sex" can even lead to potential sexual assault victims deciding not to come forward.

While the concept of "virginity" is at best outdated and at worst a sexist remnant of early Christian traditions, our "first time" is just as important, if not more so, than other firsts in our lives. In a separate 2013 study published in the Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, research suggests that our first experience of sexual intercourse can affect our entire sexual lives: "One's first-time sexual experience is more than just a milestone in development. Rather, it appears to have implications for their sexual well-being years later."

Statistical proof that women are finding sex more pleasurable and that there is an increasing gender parity when it comes to sexual encounters, Sprecher observes, is in part due to evolving cultural norms. She explains that "cultural norms for female sexuality have changed considerably, and girls can now be sexually active in romantic relationships. As a consequence, emotional reactions to the experience are likely to converge between genders, although there is no reason to believe that gender differences have disappeared."

Image Credit: Taylor & Francis Online

Anxiety aside, evidence that women's guilt has decreased and could continue decreasing over time is not only a sign of changing gender norms, but, Sprecher contends, reflects the extent to which norms around female sexuality are influenced by social and cultural events.

No wonder Beyonce is seen as such a threat to the male establishment: Her booty-shaking, ready-for-this-jelly-taking form of female empowerment through her bodily presence has, arguably, made the world a sexier place for women, and happily so.