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Why more and more young people are holding on to virginity

We investigate whether porn and social media are truly factoring in to why one in eight 26-year-olds are virgins today

The Next Steps longitudinal study in UCL drew international media attention recently when an article by the Times highlighted a surprising revelation in the data: one in eight 26-year-olds are virgins, apparently. The Times and various other outlets attributed this new trend to a predictable range of causal factors: reliance on social media generating intimacy issues, hypersexual culture and pornography producing performance anxiety around sex, and so on. But can Facebook and Pornhub really explain such a huge social change? Dazed decided to dig deeper to find out what young people really think about sex and virginity.

Richard is a 27-year-old gay man who lost his virginity at the age of 24. Marriage equality has been legal for three years in Ireland, where Richard lives. Many gay people in western countries are now so confident in their liberation that the organisers of Sheffield Pride recently issued a statement declaring that pride was a “celebration, not (a) protest”. With this in mind, one could be forgiven for thinking that sexual orientation should play a relatively minor part in young people’s intimacy problems. But Richard was only one of many young gay men who reached out to Dazed confessing that “self-hatred” has prevented them from being sexually intimate with others for much of their youth.

For Richard, lack of sex was coupled with a total absence of other forms of intimacy too. His early twenties were consumed by an “internal sense of fear and discomfort” about his sexuality, despite what he perceived as mainly positive external messaging. The theoretical account of social media addiction doesn’t really encompass Richard’s experience.

“I can see why it both is and isn’t bollocks”, he says. “For me, I broke the curse by downloading Tinder. Part of the problem with having an all-straight friend group meant that I never went to any kind of queer events or clubs or bars, and would have been far too intimidated to do so alone. At least with Tinder you know for sure who is and isn't gay. The lack of face-to-face interaction helped. I know I can come across a lot better in text when I have time to formulate responses. I’d be far more nervous in person and wouldn't trust I could make a good first impression.”

In Richard’s case, technology was a helpful shield that allowed him to cautiously push the boundaries of his fear of intimacy with another man. Rather than being the root of Richard’s trepidation about sex, they acted as a buffer which dulled the anxiety of face to face flirtation and ultimately facilitated the transition to in-person intimacy. Richard even wishes that he had been more integrated in social networks at the time: “I suspect I actually may have found things a little easier if I had been on queer Twitter at the time”. For Richard, networks like these would have provided a much needed sense of normalcy and belonging.

Richard points away from technology and toward economic factors. “I lived at home throughout college”, he tells me. “Had I been living away, that probably would have forced more independence and sped up this whole process”. Young people are increasingly being priced out of major cities by soaring rent prices and housing crises in places like London, Manchester, and Dublin. Rising house prices mean they  feel compelled to save money on rent by living with parents in order to be able to put their income towards a house.

Could living at home for longer be stifling millennials’ sex lives? For queer people especially, big cities have always been a haven away from suffocating hometowns where they can find the nurturing embrace of gay spaces and the freedom to find themselves. If queer people are deprived of this historically key stage of self-discovery, perhaps it’s unsurprising that many of them are staying celibate for longer. Even for straight people, the prying eyes of parents could still be a big deterrent for sexual activity.

Steven McKay, the academic who conducted the analysis of the data for the original Times article, agrees that economics and family dynamics could be important factors. He tells Dazed: “More young people live at home than used to, and ages at marriage have been rising for some time. More parents are actively involved in their children’s lives.”

“Social media provides an additional means for people to connect. There is little evidence that it subtracts from social relations”

McKay, who is a distinguished Professor in Social Research at the University of Lincoln, also concedes that theories of technology and social media addiction may not offer a completely satisfying explanation of the virginity trend, and are not based on any actual causal relationship in the data: “In the UK context, these are all theories. In the data I was using there was no attempt to ask questions about WHY sexual behaviour was as it was”.

The trend in the UK echoes similar trends in the US, where “the share of young adults who report having had no sex in the last year rose from about 12 per cent in the early 2000’s to 18 per cent in 2014-2016”. But Emily Erikson, who is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Yale University, echoes Richard’s skepticism that social media is to blame.

She tells Dazed that if a causal relationship does exist between social media use and virginity rates, the causality is likely to be operating in the opposite direction: “It is much more likely that social media use is an outcome of the delayed sexual transition than a cause”, Erikson explains. “For example, if someone is looking for a sexual partner, they are more likely to use Facebook to try to reach out to potential partners. If they have a partner, they are more likely to spend time with that person and less likely to post attractive photos of themselves.”

“Social media provides an additional means for people to connect. There is little evidence that it subtracts from social relations”, she concludes. She also casts doubt on the idea that porn and hypersexuality are the answer. “The idea that a culture of hypersexuality breeds a fear of intimacy is pretty hard to track. I think there has been longstanding and widespread consensus that pornography increases sexual activity. If it actually delays and decreases sexual activity, I guess the anti-pornography crusaders have been a little misguided”.

Erikson corroborates the proposition that economics might be a big factor: “I think it is much more likely that basic demographic pressures that have to do with wealth, education, and life course issues are causing the delay.”

Moving away from an endless back and forth debate about the potential direction of causality of innumerable social factors, perhaps we should be asking ourselves more fundamental questions. Is the concept of virginity itself a legitimate or useful metric? Virginity is historically defined in close association with the breaking of the hymen, and as such is a deeply heteronormative concept which privileges heterosexual, vaginal-penile penetration as the only “real” type of sex. It has been used as a weapon of misogynist oppression: in the 70s in Britain, virginity tests were forced on immigrant women seeking to obtain visas through marriage, and even in the last 10 years an Egyptian court had to outlaw them after they were used against female prisoners.

Jane*, a 23 year old straight woman, reached out to Dazed and identified herself as a virgin. In the course of interviewing, it transpired that she is currently in a physically intimate relationship with her long term boyfriend. They use anal and oral sex instead of vaginal sex, which has always caused her physical pain.

“There is only one narrative on virginity that society has created and I and others don't fit that bill for one reason or another”

“People have this preconceived societal notion of what virginity is,” Jane tells Dazed. “I have friends who've had penetrative sex but never tried anal; does that mean they're more experienced than me? There is only one narrative on virginity that society has created and I and others don't fit that bill for one reason or another. We may have tried other forms of intimacy or don't feel the need for that form of sex.”

Dazed reached out to UCL to inquire exactly how virginity was measured in the study. The question posed to participants was: “Have you ever willingly had sexual intercourse with someone?”, to which respondents could only answer yes or no. This style of question indicates a deeply flawed research design. Since the concept of virginity has a complicated history and means different things to different people, an open-ended question, which allowed participants to write a sentence or choose from a list, might have yielded more useful data.

Jane self-reported to Dazed as a virgin. It’s likely she would have answered “No” to a closed question like the one in the study, despite having a healthy sexual and romantic life; the fact that this one question is then being cited as evidence for intimacy issues in young people is troubling. Clearly the validity of virginity as a social research concept and the research design of this particular study are in question. Jane has no intimacy problems, but her data point is being used to argue that young people do.

Jane argues that “sex is people being intimate with one another in the most primal way; it doesn't matter what parts you have or use in the process”. Simone*, who is 19 and a non-binary lesbian, also has their own definition. “Having an orgasm with someone else is having sex, or just enjoying them sexually in other ways,” they tell Dazed.

“I have vaginismus which means it’s physically impossible for me to have penetrative sex or to use tampons,” they continue. For them, the heteronormative, phallocentric definition of virginity erases their experience. Some experts are beginning to adapt the academic lexicon to encompass more diverse experiences of sex. Clinical sexologist Dr. Lindsey Doe refers to a “sexual debut” instead of “virginity”.

While social media, technology, and porn may well be creating distance between us and our peers, this certainly isn’t the full picture of why virginity rates are rising among millennials. Such diverse factors as queer identity and housing prices may be contributing to unusual trends in youth virginity. Most importantly though, we should be asking ourselves why we are still looking to such heteronormative and reductionist concepts as virginity to tell us about young people’s lives. An outdated metric like virginity often obscures more than it reveals.

*Names have been changed