- Virginity Lost: An Intimate Portrait of First Sexual Experiences
Americans have come to understand losing their virginity as a momentous occasion. But what, specifically, is the nature of its significance? Does its importance differ by gender or sexual identity? For that matter, in this age of heightened awareness of sexual diversity, can we even agree on what activities constitute one's "first time"?
With these questions in mind, Laura M. Carpenter sets out to explore the ways in which Americans understand virginity loss. Based on in-depth interviews of sixty-one people between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, she discerns three dominant metaphors that people use to understand their experiences. Approximately half of the interviewees at some point in their lives saw their virginity as a gift they could give to another person. This group tended to see their first sexual experience as being particularly important, something worth putting off until they had found the right person and the right circumstances. The second dominant metaphor of virginity loss, prevalent among about a third of Carpenter's sample, was of virginity as a stigma, to be shed as quickly as possible. People who held this conception tended to have their first intercourse at a younger age and share it with partners they knew less well. Finally, the third metaphor conceptualized virginity loss as a rite of passage, an important part of becoming an adult.
Carpenter explores these metaphors by offering five case studies of each construction. By describing a few people's experiences and outlooks in detail, she is able to explore various facets of each metaphor, such as how it plays out among different genders and different types of partners. This device also provides a human dimension to this sociological study; the result is an engaging style that keeps the reader's attention. In addition to the case studies, within the examination of each metaphor, Carpenter engages with the appropriate sociological and anthropological theories—of gift-giving, stigmatization, and [End Page 310] rite of passage respectively. Unfortunately, this approach is not as successful as Carpenter's other analytical strategies, as her discussion in this regard at times becomes rather forced.
Nevertheless, the book's overriding thesis—that the frameworks in which people understand virginity influence their sexual experiences—is well-argued and convincing. Moreover, Carpenter takes her analysis a step further, considering the implications of these findings for public policy, and it is this choice that makes Virginity Lost particularly noteworthy.
To begin with, the author correlates these metaphors to various aspects of sexual health, such as safer sex practices and emotional satisfaction with one's sex life. "Gifters" were the most likely group to practice safer sex during their first sexual encounter, most likely because they tended to choose as their first partners people with whom they already had strong relationships. This group also stood a good chance of having positive feelings about sex. However, because of the importance of this gift, to people who saw virginity this way, those who felt they had "given" their virginity to someone who later proved themselves unworthy were deeply hurt by the experience.
Those who viewed virginity as a stigma were the least likely to engage in safer sex practices, because they were the least likely to have established relationships with their sex partners. And while most of this group took a matter-of-fact approach to their first sexual encounters, many reported negative feelings, because they understood their lack of experience as an embarrassment. The third group, who saw virginity loss as part of the process of growing up, was nearly as likely as the gifters to practice safer sex, and also reported the most satisfaction with their sexual experiences.
Based on these data, the author advocates for the virginity-loss-as-natural process metaphor to become the guiding framework in contemporary sex education. She argues: "All in all, viewing virginity loss as a step in a process tends to enhance physical and emotional well-being, and to sustain sexual...