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The 20-year-old virgin: Not as rare on campus as you may think

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Published: Friday, October 21, 2005

Updated: Sunday, August 17, 2008 14:08

According to the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles, which was conducted in 2000, a quarter of women and nearly a third of men lose their virginity before the age of 16 - which is the legal age of consent in Massachusetts and many other states.

The survey, which is administered every ten years, also found that the average age of first-time sex had dropped to 16 - the lowest level on record.

According to Sociology Professor John Conklin, the trend of losing one's virginity at a younger age is partially rooted in the feminist movement that began in the 1960s and pushed for gender equality.

"People started to believe that women should get pleasure from sex just like men always did," Conklin said. "There was a willingness to experiment sexually instead of just getting married."

The first FDA-approved birth control pill was put on the market in 1960. The first truly effective birth control method, the pill was perfected in terms of the strength of doses by the 1980s. This allowed for a separation of sexual activity from pregnancy - and, ultimately, marriage.

Because of the feeling of sexual freedom, "people were getting married at an older age," Conklin said.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau support Conklin's observation: in 1970, 20.8 was the median age at which women entered their first marriage. But by 2003, that median age had risen to 25.3.

"These extra years that people were remaining single made pre-marital sex much more probable," Conklin said. "This led to the idea that if people weren't waiting until marriage to have sex, they might as well experiment with sex at younger ages."

Regardless of the trend to become sexually active at a high-school age, many college students still choose to remain celibate. Reasons range from not having the opportunity to "lose it" to religious convictions to the fear of contracting sexually transmitted diseases - and college virgins do indeed exist.

"We certainly see students who are virgins, so it's not rare," said Margaret Higham, medical director of Tufts University Health Service.

In a small community, students who choose to go against the norm by remaining celibate could end up ostracized by fellow students. But, "I haven't run across students with social anxiety about [being a virgin]," Higham said.

Luanne Grossman, senior staff psychologist at Tufts University's Counseling Center, hasn't seen any such cases, either. "I'm not aware of any students coming to the Counseling Center because they want to remain virgins and are having difficulty withstanding social pressures to the contrary," she said.

Every interviewed student, however, commented that college males certainly have pressure on them to lose their virginity - much more so than college females. "If a guy is a virgin, it is against his masculinity, while if a girl is a virgin, it is never construed as against her womanhood," sophomore Kyle Sinick said.

There is no doubt that the college atmosphere pressures some students to experiment sexually. "Every year, we hear from students who hope that being at college would allow them to have certain sexual experiences," Grossman said. "Students who reach their senior year and have not had some sexual experiences can feel they are 'behind' developmentally."

But virginity is not the only scale of sexual experience for those students. "For some, this [desire for sexual experiences] takes the form of wanting to lose their virginity before graduation, but for others, it's more about having some significant or intimate relationship during these years," Grossman said.

Some students feel that the media has bombarded teenagers with so much sexuality that they feel obligated to become sexually active. "I think that we're definitely influenced by the media to be more sexually open," freshman Austin Hsiao said. "We face movies like 'American Pie' and 'The 40-Year-Old Virgin,' where being a virgin is considered a bad thing that should be corrected as soon as possible."

Other students, however, feel that films like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" and the "American Pie" series reflect, rather than affect, their audience's sexual attitudes.

"The media isn't responsible for how sex is more frequently discussed today than in the past," Sinick said. "The media only reflects the desires of the people it caters to."

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