A recent study examined 23 years of college students’ explanations for their virginity.1 [It’s worth noting from the outset that “virginity” is a loaded term, one that’s replete with religious and moral overtones, but there’s no great alternative. Scratch “abstainer” and “sexually inexperienced,” as these simply are inaccurate descriptors for most people who have not had an experience of sexual intercourse].
Over 7,000 students completed a questionnaire that asked for details about their sexual histories. This survey remained fairly consistent over the years. A total of 1060 students in this 23-year time frame reported being virgins and provided information about their reasons and feelings about it. Each year, 200-350 students (around 15%) reported being virgins. The reasons varied across individuals, across genders, even across ethnicities, but not so much across time.
Here are the most common reasons:
As you can see, “not enough love” and “fear” were the most commonly reported reasons for maintaining virginity, followed by “personal beliefs”, “insecurity”, “an unwilling partner”, and “lack of desire.”
Five of the six reasons for staying a virgin remained constant during the study. Only one reason for virginity changed over the 23 years that the researchers surveyed college students: Fear! There was an uptick in fear as a reason for maintaining virginity in the late 1990s to 2000, during the peak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, after which fear as a reason steadily declined. The most recent assessment shows fear at its lowest levels.
What changed? Well, fear of unintended pregnancy remained high across years, higher than fear of STIs generally, or HIV/AIDS specifically. Fear of STIs and HIV/AIDS peaked in the mid to late 1990s then decreased steadily thereafter. The researchers think this change relates to (apparently) successful public health and university efforts to increase awareness of vulnerability to STI infection during these years. The impact of those communications didn’t last, likely because medical advances over the past two decades have changed the profile of infection for many STIs, especially AIDS, transforming it from a fatal disease to a treatable, if not curable, illness.
Most of the students who reported being virgins were somewhat open to the idea of becoming non-virgins, and reported slight pressure from others to have sexual intercourse. However, it is important to note that the primary emotions associated with being a virgin were pride and happiness; few sit around feeling bad about being a virgin and most felt pretty good about it.
1 Sprecher, S., & Treger, S. (2015). Virgin college students’ reasons for and reactions to their abstinence from sex: Results from a 23-year study at a Midwestern U.S. university. Journal of Sex Research, 52, 936-948.
Dr. Lucia O’Sullivan
Professor of Psychology – University of New Brunswick
@LuciaOSullivan on twitter
Lucia’s research centers primarily around sexual communication and decision-making among young people, sexual health, functioning, and changes in the roles and interactions defining the intimate relationships of adolescents and young adults. A particular focus of her work in recent years has been the impact of technology and social media on intimate relationships, and has studied topics as far reaching as infidelity, fandom, romantic scripts, pornography, oral sex, and kissing. She is the Canada Research Chair in Adolescents’ Sexual Health Behaviour and has a long history of international collaborations on issues relevant to youth sexual and reproductive health.