The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

Technical Virginity Myths

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Scornful of abstinence education, the public health establishment fires numerous accusations to discredit efforts that uphold marriage as the ideal setting for sexual relations. One arrow in its quiver is the 2005 research “finding” reported on 60 Minutes that unmarried young people who have taken virginity pledges are more likely than their nonpledging peers to be “technical virgins,” meaning they are more apt to engage in all types of genital relations except intercourse.

While chastity champions concede that many virginity pledgers do not carry through with their intentions, a study by three sociologists at the University of Texas deconstruct any notion that abstinence education or pledging boosts rates of “technical” virginity. Looking at data on 2,158 unmarried young people, ages 15 to 19, drawn from Wave 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth, the researchers discovered that only a small minority of teens (about 12 percent) even fit into this category. Much larger percentages of teens are either virgins in every sense of the word (39 percent) or have engaged in sexual intercourse, which may or may not include other forms of genital relations (49 percent).

The Texas sociologists further found that when it comes to technical virginity, the difference between virginity pledgers and nonpledgers is slight: whereas 14 percent of pledgers are technical virgins, 12 percent of nonpledgers are. This difference exists only because nonpledgers are more inclined to engage in sexual relations of all sorts, including going all the way. Whereas 47 percent of nonpledgers have engaged in all forms of sexual relations, only 21 percent of pledgers have done so. Furthermore, only about one-third of nonpledgers are total abstainers, while nearly two-thirds of pledgers are total abstainers.

The Texas researchers also debunk the theory that religious teens embrace technical virginity to avoid violating the letter of the Seventh Commandment. While their study finds that religion and morality motivate a plurality of all virgin teens (about 36 percent), religious abstainers account for a smaller portion of technical virgins (27 percent). These percentages flip flop among teens that are primarily motivated by other factors to abstain. Teens expressing fear of pregnancy or STDs make up 28 percent of all teen virgins but 33 of all technical virgins. Likewise, teens that abstain because they are waiting for the right person or the right time represent 25 percent of all virgins but 32 percent of technical virgins.

Moreover, the study finds that religion actually counters the notion that one can go most of—but not all—the way, as rates of technical virginity were lowest among unmarried teens who abstain from sex for religious reasons. Only 17 percent of religious virgins fit the technical category, compared to 29 percent of abstainers who fear pregnancy and 22 percent who fear STDs. Also, 37 percent of abstainers who were waiting for the right time fit the technical virginity definition, as did 26 percent who were waiting for the right person.

Most of the differences between the religious and nonreligious motivations of technical abstinence reached significant levels (p.10 for fear of STDs; p.05 or less for all others) in multivariate tests. In other words, the impetus driving some teens to copy the sexual practices of Bill Clinton has little to do with the influence of religion or pledging and everything to do with what Mark Regnerus calls nascent “middle class morality” among more advantaged teens who calculate that going all the way might hamper future schooling, health, and socioeconomic prosperity.

So while the former Southern Baptist president defended his antics with an intern because he could not find a Bible verse that explicitly prohibits oral sex between unmarried persons, these findings suggest that religious teens today engage at a higher level of moral reasoning than public health experts give them credit for, perhaps due in part to abstinence education.

(Jeremy E. Uecker, Nicole Angotti, and Mark D. Regnerus, “Going Most of the Way: ‘Technical Virginity’ among American Adolescents,” Social Science Research 37 [December 2008]: 1200-15.)