The Average Age of Virginity Loss in America Is an Absolute Mess
When I was in high school, my friends and I sat on the bleachers one afternoon, shyly discussing which boys in our graduating class we’d like to have sex with. We were guessing based on how kind they were, whether they were in a band vs. marching band, and whether they owned a car and could take us on a date (or somewhere secluded enough to actually do the deed). One girl turned suddenly toward our group, clearly annoyed with our naiveté. “Just don’t let him put it in your butt,” she practically spat. “He’ll say it feels good, but it doesn’t.”
I was shocked for days. Weeks. My friends and I were intoxicated with the mere suggestion of maybe having sex one day, and another girl in our class had already had some guy’s penis in her butt and hadn’t liked it. The difference in our sexual experience made me feel like I was humiliatingly behind — was I supposed to be familiar enough with sex to prefer some acts over others? The disconnect between our experience and what our peers go through still disturbs people my age, a decade later, because many of us want to feel that our behaviors, particularly sexual, fall into the norm. So among Americans, when and how do most people lose their virginities? The answer, as with most things sexual, is complicated.
We can begin, as most discussions of sex in America do, with data from the Kinsey Institute. The Kinsey Institute repurposes and discusses 2017 data from the CDC, which says the average age of “first intercourse” (more on what that means later) in men is 16.8, while women, on average, have intercourse for the first time at 17.2.
The Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health corroborates this data, though it simplifies the number and says most Americans, as we did in the 1960s, first have sex around age 18. Unlike previous generations, however, we don’t tend to marry the first person we have sex with, and we continue having sex at varying rates until our late twenties, when the majority of young Americans who get married decide to do so.
Of course, these statistics are based on a heteronormative (and many would say misogynist) definition of virginity. To solely define the loss of virginity in terms of whether you have penetrated someone’s vagina with your penis doesn’t leave much room for those who don’t want penetrative sex to describe or validate their experiences. Jacques Derrida called this phenomenon — basing the entire world’s understanding of the human condition around the specific experiences of men — “phallogocentrism.”
Though many organizations have tried in recent years to develop a more nuanced definition of virginity — one that makes room for sexual behaviors which don’t involve a penis — no one definition has really taken root in the zeitgeist. It’s difficult to get people of varying genders to agree on a definition when there are even inconsistencies across generations: In 1999, the Kinsey Institute reported that only a slight majority of Americans over the age of 60 believed sex using a condom counted as sex. That means, many Olds think you can go buck wild having hot “not sex” with whoever you want because the purpose of that activity isn’t procreation. That explains why the casual sex rate at retirement homes is reportedly through the roof.
More confusing data emerged from that Kinsey Institute study: 11 percent of the survey respondents didn’t consider an act “sex” if the man involved didn’t have an orgasm. What was that term again? Oh yeah, phallogocentrism. Not only does a penis have to be involved in this instance for people to call it sex, but that penis has to ejaculate semen in order to earn its role in the proceedings.
Hanne Blank, author of Virgin: The Untouched History, told Broadly in 2016 that queer women tend to define the loss of virginity with whether one has experienced an orgasm with the help of a partner. It sucks to police the attempts of a marginalized group to define its own experience, but once orgasms are introduced into the virginity equation, things get even stickier. In 2014, the Journal of Sexual Medicine reported that less than 63 percent of women experience orgasms with familiar partners. Women having sex (of any definition) with new partners are far less likely to have an orgasm; the American Sociological Review reported in 2012 that less than 40 percent of women surveyed said they had an orgasm with their last casual sexual partner. If we’re searching for a way for women to define virginity loss without men, an orgasm isn’t the place to hang our hats, either, simply because the female orgasm doesn’t come as easily as the male one, even in loving, supportive situations.
Also, interestingly, even activities that most people surveyed by the Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality called “not sex” were considered acts of cheating if enjoyed with someone other than one’s partner. So, by that definition, masturbating next to someone to orgasm doesn’t count as losing one’s virginity, but if one were to masturbate with someone who isn’t their committed partner, they’ve cheated — at least, 95 percent of the survey respondents thought so.
In a hilariously titled project called the Had Sex Study in 2010, the Sexual Health journal found that 45 percent of people surveyed considered any manual-genital manipulation to be “sex” (though even the definition of “manipulation” is up in the air — if you smack someone in the balls with your hand, is that sex? if you shake someone’s penis once, firmly, like a handshake, is that sex, or are we going with a Good Charlotte definition? 71 percent of people surveyed called oral sex “sex,” and only 81 percent of people thought anal sex was “sex,” which means 19 percent of the survey respondents think all gay men are virgins.
In addition to not knowing how to catalog and define sexual experiences which don’t involve penises, our society hasn’t figured out why virginity is even a worthwhile topic of study. When the concept was coined, it was a metric by which men could judge the worth of a woman — if she was a virgin, she’d fetch a higher dowry for her hand. Now that the transactional nature of marriage between a man and a woman’s father has changed, no one’s entirely sure what to make of virginity. In fact, modern dating has seen The Virgin become less of an attainable prize for men and more of a social pariah. Centuries ago, if a woman had enjoyed a penis inside her vagina prior to meeting you, she was a whore. Now, if you’re a guy in your late twenties hoping to get married, and your girlfriend tells you she’s a virgin, the media (and casual conversation between peers) would have you believe that you’re in a tricky situation.
Even this last vestige of misogynist culture seems ready to die out, as the millennial generation already has fewer partners in their lifetime than our forefathers. In 2015, a study by San Diego State University determined that Generation X and Baby Boomers tended to cram in more sexual partners before getting married at an earlier age than millennials do, although the millennial generation doesn’t tend to put the same constraints on itself as far as young marriage. Perhaps because earlier generations felt pressure to get married as soon as possible, they auditioned a bunch of candidates (10-11 on average) before settling down with one in their early 20s. Because the average age of virginity loss has pretty much stayed the same across generations (17-18), that means our parents and grandparents were fucking around like rabbits for three or so years before cooling off, whereas, on average, we tend to take our time committing to anyone, and we have a whole lot of casual sexual activity, which many of us are hesitant to call sex at all.
If you’ve read all this and you’re comfortable with “virginity” being an increasingly dubious term, but you’re still concerned about your place in the sexy-human data set, there are a couple concrete ways to quantify your experience. Slate has two handy calculators to determine whether your number of sexual partners is above average, and whether you have sex as often as your peers do. However, because of all the reasons explained ad nauseam above, neither of these calculators explain what exactly survey respondents consider “sex” — that means you’re still free to consider whatever acts you want when plugging in your own answers.
If you liked this article, check out this video on how the average age of virginity loss in the U.S. is a complete mess.