Huffpost Good News

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Laura Stepp Headshot

What's Up With Young People and Virginity? Not What You Think

Posted: Updated:

Here's a shocker: Virginity is cooler than it used to be among teens and young adults. At least that's what entertainment giant MTV, creator of Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, is hoping as it aired this week the first of a series called Virgin Territory featuring 15 young women and men in their late teens and early 20s who haven't had sex.

Some of those 15 want to lose their virginity soon. Others are waiting until they're married or feel they're emotionally and psychologically ready. Dominique, a lively young woman dressed in a skin-tight white dress and on her way to a club, wants a sign of commitment. In the first episode, she says, "Literally, all of my friends are not virgins." But for her, "no ringo, no dingo."

Those of us who came of age in the late 1960s and 70s talked a lot about having sex, just as these women do. HIV and AIDS were not something we worried about. We could go to Planned Parenthood and get the pill. Sex, freely expressed and endorsed by popular culture, symbolized power, especially for women. "Girl," Neil Diamond sang, "you're a woman now."

When younger sisters and brothers came along, they upped the percentages of those having sex and talking about the sex they had. If they were lucky or, depending on one's point of view,unlucky enough to be a virgin, they didn't tell anyone except maybe their best friend. That reticence about revealing one's virginity is disappearing.

Don't get me wrong, a lot of high school students and young adults are having sex. They first have sex at 17, on average, according to federal government statistics. By age 22, 5 of 6 women and 4 of 5 men have had sex. Yet these young millennials also accept or even endorse virginity more than most people would think.

A survey commissioned by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, in collaboration with MTV, found that 69 percent of young adults (ages 18-24) say it is acceptable for someone their age to be a virgin. Nearly half (46 percent) say they "feel respect" for those their age who have not had sex and 34 percent say when they hear that someone they know is a virgin, they "don't give it a second thought."

What's more surprising in the survey of 18- to 24-year-old adults conducted by GfK Custom Research, is that virgins are not ashamed to admit they're virgins. A majority say they haven't ever lied about their status and that their friends know they haven't had sex. It seems unlikely that the proportion of virgins is going to increase, but apparently it's no longer something young people feel they have to hide. In fact, those polled said they wished popular media would feature more virgins.

Of course, many older adults won't believe that. When it comes to what older generations think of as outlandish behaviors on part of the young, they tend to think the worst. The hit song "What's the Matter With Kids Today?" from the musical Bye Bye Birdie is as current a complaint now as it was when the musical opened on Broadway in 1960.

If you don't believe me, scan the negative or disbelieving comments that will follow this column - or any other column that says positive things about the younger generation. (Among the kinder comments on a review of Virgin Territory, for example, was this one: "How do we know they are really virgins? This is not cool.")

One could argue easily that American youth today are not only smarter about sex (in particular, contraception) than earlier generations, but also bolder, kinder, more altruistic and less likely to use illegal substances. Is that the kind of material that will make TV ratings soar? Maybe not. But kudos to MTV for daring to do what few commercial studios do, and that is fill out the portrait of what's up with kids today.