Virginity vs. abstinence | Sex in the Suburbs

I don’t usually read Cosmopolitan magazine. However, in the name of research, I recently picked one up.

The women in the article titled "Why they're still virgins" (in a large red bold font) were ages 20-23. They varied in reasons given for why they hadn’t “had sex” yet. The big assumption in the article, and in our society, is that “sex” means penile-vaginal sex.

Many people, including a lot of high school students, don’t count oral or anal sex as intercourse. These people often don’t realize that the risk factors for disease are high with these activities, as they are with penile-vaginal sex.

Though pregnancy prevention is usually not of primary concern with oral or anal sex, a barrier method must be used consistently or properly to avoid bodily fluids being exchanged and diseases shared through oral-genital, oral-anal or anal-genital contact.

To dispel another common myth, anal sex is not limited to homosexuals. Students in my sexuality education classes tell me that they have classmates who are heterosexual and engaging in both oral and anal sex because they don’t consider it intercourse. One of the reasons this is appealing is that it allows them to still consider themselves virgins.

I do not condone or promote adolescent intercourse. However, I do encourage adolescents to think about their values, wishes, behaviors and potential consequences before they are in a hormonally charged situation. One thing I truly encourage them to think about is abstinence, and what that means to them. Abstinence is a choice that anyone can make on any given day, and to me, is much more important of a lifelong skill than a word like “virginity.”

People who choose not to engage in a sexual activity that they are not comfortable with for any reason are being abstinent. You can choose to be abstinent for a day, a month, a year, or a lifetime. You can choose to abstain from oral, anal or vaginal sex. You can choose to abstain from kissing or fondling. You. Can. Choose. This type of choosing doesn’t depend on your relationship status — single people, people in relationships, people who have had intercourse in a previous relationship, married people, gay people and straight people all can choose when to be abstinent and when to be sexually active.

To me, this is a concept worth focusing on. If we teach our youth to choose based on their values, their readiness, their beliefs, their relationship with a partner, their safety, their self-worth, their ability to be responsible and sexually healthy — then we are giving them many more useful life skills than if we say, “Just don’t. It’s wrong. And you won’t be a virgin anymore.”

Clinging to that word is causing some young people to engage in unsafe behaviors without realizing it. Others believe that since they’ve lost their virginity, they no longer can have boundaries about sexual activity.

Do I want them to be abstinent from intercourse in any form as young adolescents? Yes. And, I’m realistic enough to know that adolescents, by developmental decree, are working on separation. It’s possible — likely even — that they will not make all their decisions based on what I (or you) want for them. Given that, I insist it is our job to give them the information and skills to keep their self-worth intact, and stay safe.

In my experience, youth come into our classes often thinking that making a decision about sexual activity is primarily theirs and possibly a casual one. They leave knowing that it is not their decision alone — that another person is directly involved, and that it is helpful to consider potential consequences of others (friends, family, classmates) finding out the extent of activity they’ve chosen. They realize that values, decision-making, safety and health are involved in any decision about sexual activity — and that not only their values, safety and health are involved, but also their partner’s.

They realize that it’s actually a large and significant decision, rather than a casual one, and they are grateful for the opportunity to learn in a safe environment all they need to know to choose wisely.

Labels don’t keep people safe. Skills and information do. Choose wisely what you’re teaching.

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