Virgin territories: The social construction of virginity loss in the contemporary United States

Laura Marie Carpenter, University of Pennsylvania


In this research, I focus on virginity loss to examine how people in the contemporary United States use the resources of cultural ideas and personal experiences to make sense of themselves as sexual beings. Sexuality is shaped (constructed) by social processes at the cultural and individual levels; thus virginity is socially constructed. By concentrating on the present-day U.S., I show how social construction operates in a context where cultural notions about sexuality are highly diverse. I explore patterns in the definitions and the subjective meanings of virginity loss by gender and sexual orientation, relating virginity loss to earlier and later sexual experiences. Data come from in-depth interviews with 61 women and men, ages 18 to 35. About two-thirds identified themselves as heterosexual and one-third as lesbian, gay, or bisexual. A majority believed that both women and men could lose virginity with same-sex partners; this belief was strongest among non-heterosexual and younger respondents. Women, especially younger women, were more likely than men to say that rape could not result in virginity loss and that people could be virgins more than once. Patterns by age suggest the influence of social movements such as feminism, gay rights, and conservative Christianity. Most respondents interpreted (framed) virginity as a gift, as a stigma, or as part of a larger process. Individual experiences—including sexual conduct before and after virginity loss and decisions about partners and timing—were patterned by interpretive frames. Adherents to the process frame were most likely to report satisfactory virginity-loss experiences. Sexual orientation and gender influenced interpretations of virginity, with women most likely to see virginity as a gift, men to view it as a stigma, and non-heterosexuals to approach it as a process. Yet, people who shared interpretations of virginity had similar experiences, regardless of gender and sexual orientation, suggesting that shared interpretive frames help account for the coexistence of differences and similarities. Analyzing early sexual experiences by interpretive frames can improve the precision of future studies. These findings also underline the need for researchers to reduce their reliance on first coitus as indicating the point at which sexual activity begins.

Subject Area

Families & family life|Personal relationships|Sociology|Womens studies|American studies

Recommended Citation

Carpenter, Laura Marie, "Virgin territories: The social construction of virginity loss in the contemporary United States" (1999). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI9937707.