Young People Engaging In Sexual Activity Differ on Definitions of Virginity, Abstinence

New study uncovers inconsistencies in teens' perceptions of sex

Nov 01, 2007, 01:00 ET from Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation

    BERKELEY, Calif., Nov. 1 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ - Some teens believe
 they will stay virgins after engaging in oral sex, genital touching and
 even anal sex, according to a new study in the Journal of Adolescent
 Health. Also, nearly half of teens said intimate touching and oral sex were
 not considered sex.
     Respondents ranged in age from 12 to 16 years old and differed on their
 notion of both abstinence and virginity. More than 83 percent of surveyed
 young people said a person was still a virgin if he or she participated in
 genital touching, and 70 percent said they believed girls and boys keep
 their virginity if they participate in oral sex. This pattern was
 consistent across gender, age group, ethnicity, and sexual behavior
     "A large proportion of young people believe even an intimate level of
 sexual contact is abstaining from sex and being a virgin," said Dr. Melina
 Bersamin, Ph.D., lead study author. "Perhaps the overarching message is
 that there are different meanings associated with terms such as 'have sex,'
 abstinence, and virginity. When working with adolescents, it is important
 to specifically define what we mean by sexual behaviors to ensure a common
 understanding. This applies to doctors taking sexual histories, instructors
 delivering sex education or abstinence programs to youth, and to scientists
 conducting research."
     The study, carried out by the PIRE Prevention Research Center in
 Berkeley, interviewed middle and high school students regarding their
 perceptions of sexual activity and what constitutes "virginity" and
 "abstinence." More than 900 adolescents from 10 California counties were
 interviewed using an in-home computer-assisted interview technique in which
 the young people answered questions directly on a computer, thus maximizing
     Researchers found definitions of abstinence among the young people were
 somewhat different. More than 44 percent of the youth respondents believed
 that a person who engaged in genital touching was abstinent while 33
 percent believed that oral sex still constituted abstinence. Additionally,
 more than 14 percent of survey participants defined abstinence as including
 anal sex and nearly 12 percent said abstinence could include vaginal
     "Perceptions of sexual behavior differed somewhat based on the
 individual's own level of sexual experience. Those who had engaged in a
 particular behavior are more likely to believe that engaging in this
 behavior did not preclude being defined a virgin," Dr. Bersamin said.
 "Differences in definitions of abstinence were somewhat complex. Female
 respondents were more likely to view females who engaged in genital
 touching as abstinent. Older adolescents were less likely than younger
 peers to say girls and boys who engaged in vaginal intercourse or anal
 intercourse as abstinent."
     Ethnicity also predicted abstinence definitions. Specifically, white
 adolescents were less likely than non-whites to view those who engaged
 vaginal and anal intercourse as abstinent. Study authors emphasize that
 physicians and educators who work with adolescents need to be specific in
 their terminology if they are to communicate accurately with young people.
 These findings also point to the need for educational programs to discuss a
 wide range of sexual behaviors, including genital touching, oral and anal
 sex, and their potential psychological and physical risks. This is
 especially important given recent findings suggesting that some adolescents
 estimate little chance of contracting sexually transmitted diseases from
 oral sex.
     For more information or to obtain a copy of the published report,
 contact Michelle Blackston at (301) 755-2444 or PIRE
 (Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation) is a national nonprofit
 public health research institute, supported primarily by federal and state
 research and program funds, with centers in seven locations around the

SOURCE Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation