Study has bad news for virgins: Sexually inexperienced adults are stigmatized, less desirable

Research on virginity has found that sexually inexperienced adults feel they are more stigmatized than those who are sexually experienced.

The study of 5,847 adults, published in the Journal of Sex Research, also found that sexually inexperienced people in the United States were not highly desired as relationship partners — even by other sexually inexperienced adults.

PsyPost interviewed the study’s corresponding author, Amanda N. Gesselman of the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, about her research.

PsyPost: Why were you interested in this topic?

Gesselman: I was interested in this topic because it seemed to me that our cultural attitudes toward sexuality have been changing over the last decade—a ton of news articles come out everyday talking about the pervasiveness of hook-up culture, for instance. I wanted to see if this shift toward more positive attitudes about, or general acceptance of, premarital sex has changed how we view people who aren’t engaging in those behaviors that are now seen as normal.

What should the average person take away from your study?

In the three studies, we found that heterosexual adult virgins (i.e., people who are 18+ years old and haven’t engaged in penetrative intercourse) believed that they were stigmatized by other people—they thought they were seen as abnormal and treated as such by others—and that U.S. singles felt that they would be generally unlikely to consider a virgin as a relationship partner. While this may be depressing for any readers who are virgins, it’s important to keep in mind that this study had a hypothetical design. Those singles may be much more likely to consider an adult virgin as a relationship partner if it was someone they knew and had chemistry with.

Are there any major caveats? What questions still need to be addressed?

The study of whether singles would have a relationship with a virgin was hypothetical rather than observational (as mentioned above). We also don’t know the underlying mechanism. We don’t know why people may be perceiving adult virgins negatively. In Study 3, we tried to see whether adult virgins were discriminated against because people thought of adult virgins as unable to form social connections—so the prototype of a loner, or a “weirdo” who can’t attract other people. We altered the amount of prior experience with romantic relationships, to show that these virgins have had connections with others, but this didn’t work.

More work needs to be done to figure out the root of this effect. Last, we don’t know how this changes with sexual orientation. In these studies, we restricted our samples to only heterosexual participants to allow us to control what constitutes loss of virginity. We were able to define it as penile–vaginal intercourse, since prior research has shown that this type of behavior is what heterosexual people understand as “sex.” We’re working on a follow-up study looking at this difference now.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

While this study is about virginity, it does illustrate that society is generally becoming more sex positive. Virgins perceived themselves to be more stigmatized than did participants with lots of prior sex partners, and singles were more interested in dating people who have prior experience with sex. Sure, this isn’t good news for virgins, but most adults aren’t virgins. These data show a positive shift toward acceptance and even celebration of sexuality.

The study, “Has Virginity Lost Its Virtue? Relationship Stigma Associated With Being a Sexually Inexperienced Adult,” was co-authored by Gregory Webster and Justin Garcia.