Like a Virgin? Teens Think So

While Colorado school districts work to adopt the new science-based sex education standards into their curricula, a new groundbreaking study finds that teens have very loose definitions of “abstinence” and “virginity.”The study published in the August 2007 issue of Journal of Adolescent Health yields surprising results on how kids respond to abstinence pledges and interpret vague language in sex education classes.

More than 1,100 teens of representative gender, age, ethnic groups and sexual experience were asked several questions (at right) to gauge how they personally define virginity and abstinence in terms of specific sexual behaviors.

Virginity is maintained after participating in:

  • genital touching (83.5%)
  • oral sex (70.6%)
  • anal sex (16.1%)
  • vaginal intercourse (5.8%)

Virgin status, as far as adolescents are concerned, may also  be related to whether orgasm is achieved. While that variable was not measured in this study, other research with college students has found clear differences in how “sex” is defined based on whether the behavior resulted in achieving orgasm.

This apparent dichotomy may also explain why some sexually experienced youth still attribute virginity to girls who have had vaginal sex after a first encounter because its less likely that the girl will experience orgasm.

The study also finds that abstinence is viewed quite differently by adolesecents than virginity.

Abstinence is maintained after participating in:

  • genital touching (44.2%)
  • oral sex (33.4%)
  • anal sex (14.3%)
  • vaginal intercourse (11.9%)

The researchers theorize that the differences may be related to a universally shared definition of vaginal intercourse as “going all the way.” Since most abstinence-only and science-based sex education focus heavily on intercourse prevention as a moral lesson and/or a method to avoid unintended pregnancy, teens across the board have a fairly fixed sense of how it relates to virginity.

Abstinence, on the otherhand, appears to be linked to the time frame in which sexual behavior occurs. Whether a teen engages in genital touching or oral, anal or vaginal sex may be immaterial. It’s all about how recently it happened.

Young people also appear to apply a broad definition of “abstinence” to other non-sexual behaviors, such as drug and alcohol use and viewing explicit media.

Further, the vague language used in classrooms or by parents to describe a range of sexual behaviors may result in teens responding that they are not sexually active to health care professionals because they interpret the term as either applying only to vaginal intercourse or not engaging in sex recently.

Though it generated enormous national controversy, the frank Council on World Affairs discussion on sex and drugs at Boulder High School last May might just be the right approach to  encourage young people to avoid risky sexual behaviors.

The researchers conclude that the need for “educational programs to discuss a wide range of sexual behaviors, including genital touching, oral and anal sex, and their potential psychological and physical risks, especially given recent findings suggesting that some adolescents estimate little chance of contracting STIs from oral sex.”

This study was conducted by the Prevention Research Center and the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and is the first of its kind in interviewing adolescents in middle and high school on definitions of sexual behavior. Previous work has focused exclusively on college-age men and women.

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