We're Having Sex Later Than Ever. So Is It Time To Rethink Virginity?

mbg Contributor By Leigh Weingus
mbg Contributor
Leigh Weingus is a New York City based freelance journalist writing about health, wellness, feminism, entertainment, personal finance, and more. She received her bachelor’s in English and Communication from the University of California, Davis.

Photo by @juansphotos / Twenty20

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When it comes to sexuality, we're living in an interesting time. On the one hand, many of us are living sexually liberated lives in which the stigma surrounding sex is practically gone. On the other, thanks to smartphone use and the rise of texting and apps like Snapchat, teenagers aren't dating nearly as much—and as a result, they're having sex later.

In fact, the number of sexually active ninth graders has dropped by 40 percent since 1991, and on average teenagers are having sex for the first time in 11th grade. This is a full year later than the average age of the generation that preceded them.

While there are absolutely positive elements of the rising age of "virginity loss"—for example, the teen birthrate is at an all-time low—there's another interesting problem emerging: More women and men are entering their 20s without having had penetrative sex.

No, that number isn't a huge one, but recent data from the CDC indicates that virgins make up 12.3 percent of women and 14.3 percent of men between the ages of 20 and 24, and that number dips below 5 percent for women and men between the ages of 25 and 29. And this leads to a unique kind of anxiety surrounding sex—or lack thereof.

"Settling into my mid-20s, I thought I was immune to having the kind of anxiety that comes with growing older...but when it comes to my sex life, which is nonexistent, I'm starting to panic," writes one man in a VICE blog post. "I'm approaching the twilight of my youth, and I still haven't done the deed. Better act fast, I think to myself, which is a terrible mentality to have."

This panic surrounding "late-in-life virginity" raises the question: Is it time to rethink our definition of the word virginity altogether?

Defining virginity for yourself.

Traditionally, the moment you have penetrative sex for the first time is defined as the moment you "lose your virginity." But how does one account for other sexual acts, such as kissing, oral sex, and more? "We really must speak more broadly about sex as a whole range of intimate possibilities, not just penetrative sex," argues Debra Campbell, couples therapist and author of Lovelands. "The idea of being a 'virgin' is really a bit outdated. It's something that used to be important for the same socio-economic and religious reasons as marriage, but times have changed."

Carmen McGuinness, board-certified behavior analyst, agrees that having a set definition of what virginity means is a little silly. "Whether one is hetero- or homosexual, I believe virginity implies the loss of sexual naiveté on a physical level," she says. "I think it becomes confusing and unhelpful to think of it as the loss of a thin sheath of flesh. So, when two individuals join sexually, regardless of their sex or sexuality, if it is the first time for one of them, it is reasonable to say she or he has lost their virginity."

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But make sure you're emotionally ready for sex.

Yes, reclaiming the word virginity and giving it your own definition is probably one of the more empowering things you can do—especially if you're a 20-something dealing with anxiety surrounding virginity loss. But McGuinness warns that sex is still extremely emotional, so waiting until you feel ready emotionally is important, not matter what your age.

"Certainly our bodies are ready first, and this is often well before our emotional readiness," she explains. "This mismatch has to do with evolutionary changes in longevity. At the present state of evolution, our body time clock doesn't necessarily match that of our emotional time clock. So, it's very important that we're emotionally ready for that kind of intimacy. By definition, intimacy involves vulnerability—and we must take into account our readiness to be vulnerable when deciding if we're ready for sexual experiences."

Want to take a deeper dive into the sex lives of others? Here's how much sex real couples are actually having.

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