Sex Ed

How Virginity Became a Stigmatized Status in the U.S.

May 3, 2021 by Justin Lehmiller

It wasn’t that long ago that virginity was a highly coveted trait in a romantic partner. Sexual inexperience was valued, whereas being sexually experienced was often considered a dealbreaker, especially for marriage. How times have changed!

Research suggests that virginity has lost its coveted status in many Western cultures (note that views on virginity vary cross-culturally and that virginity is still considered a prized status in many parts of the world).

In a recent study of 5,000 heterosexual adults in the United States, both men and women reported that they would be unlikely to enter a relationship with someone who is a virgin—and, in fact, men (compared to women) said they would be even less willing to date a virgin [1].

Also, people who were virgins themselves said they would be less willing to date a virgin than someone who is sexually experienced. In other words, even virgins said they didn’t want to date other virgins.

In a second study of over 500 heterosexual adults, those who had not yet had sex felt the most stigmatized about their sexual history, whereas having more partners was not linked to feeling more stigma (which is an interesting finding in and of itself, considering how much we hear about the concept of “slut shaming.” This isn’t to say that slut-shaming doesn’t exist, of course—more on that below. It’s just that, at least in this study, being inexperienced was linked to feeling more stigma than being experienced).

So why has there been such a major shift in attitudes toward virginity? In part, it’s due to the fact that sex outside of marriage is now considered normative. The vast majority of people today do it, and few people are sexually inexperienced by the time they get married.

Plus, people are waiting longer than ever to get married (and many are choosing not to marry at all), so it’s no longer considered feasible to wait until marriage to have sex. This is especially true when you consider that the average age of first marriage in the U.S. is now approaching 30. This probably helps to explain public opinion polls showing that the vast majority of American adults (about three-quarters) now say that sex outside of marriage is morally acceptable.

What people today want in a marriage partner has also changed to some degree. Our expectations are higher than ever. People don’t just want someone who will be their best friend, but also the best sex partner of their entire life. As a result, having a partner with at least some experience tends to be seen as desirable.

The results of this research are consistent with other studies that have come out recently. For example, in a study where people were asked to rate their willingness to start a relationship with partners of varying levels of sexual experience, participants rated those with 0 partners and those with 8+ partners as less desirable than those a partner count in between.

In other words, most people say they want a partner who is experienced—but not “too experienced” (remember what I said earlier about “slut shaming?”). There seems to be a Goldilocks phenomenon at play here—people want someone with just the right level of sexual experience, not too little or too much.

With all of that said, there’s nothing inherently wrong with being sexually experienced or inexperienced—and being experienced doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re more sexually skilled. Having had sex and being good at sex are different things. Also, keep in mind that being “sex positive” means not judging people with different sexual attitudes, behaviors, or values.

Also, it’s worth mentioning that the term “virginity” itself is falling out of favor for many reasons, including because it implies that something is “lost” when someone has sex, or that having sex somehow makes you less “pure.” For this reason, the term “sexual debut” is increasingly being used instead, especially in scientific writing on the subject. I still use the term virginity in non-academic writing like this sometimes only because “sexual debut” isn’t as widely recognized and understood yet—but I don’t subscribe to the idea that having sex for the first time necessarily mean you lose something or are “changed.”

So what do you think? How important is sexual experience in a relationship partner to you? And have you ever felt judged before due to your level of sexual experience?

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[1] Gesselman, A. N., Webster, G. D., & Garcia, J. R. (2017). Has virginity lost its virtue? Relationship stigma associated with being a sexually inexperienced adult. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(2), 202-213.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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