The Sexual Practices of Young Americans
America is in a state of flux, a new Gilded Age taking shape. The “American Century” is over and capitalism is restructuring the U.S. from an analog manufacturing nation state to the digital financial global power. This transformation is having a major impact on young people caught like the proverbial deer in the headlights. This is especially evident in their sexual identity.
A recent Guttmacher Institute’s report found that the U.S. abortion rate dropped to its lowest level since the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. It found that the abortion rate fell 13 percent between 2008 and 2011. In 2011, the rate was to 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in 2011, well below the 1981 peak of 29.3 per 1,000; in 1973 it was 16.3 per 1,000).
Virginity until marriage still matters in America, but to a declining number of people. According to one estimate, only about 3 percent of American females and males now wait until marriage to have sex; a half-century ago, between 1954 and 1963, the number of virgin marriages was 11 percent. Today, not surprising, among those with strong religious affiliations the number of virgin marriages jumps to 20 percent.
A good number of young people are holding off engaging in sexual intercourse; have they discovered other pleasures? A sense of this trend was provided by a 2011 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study that found that between 2002 and 2006-’08, those aged 15 to 24 years claiming not engaging in sexual contact increased to 29 percent of females and 27 percent of males from 22 percent (both sexes). The unasked question: What else were they doing?
In a separate study, Guttmacker found that homoerotic experimentation among teenagers is not uncommon. In the 2006–‘08 period, 3 percent of males and 8 percent of females aged 18–19 years reported their sexual orientation as homosexual or bisexual. However, 12 percent of females reported same-sex behaviors (including oral sex) as did 4 percent of males (including oral or anal sex).
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American teenagers and young adults are situated at the eye of a sexual storm. They are buffeted by the ceaseless allure of the marketplace, its invitation to sexualize themselves as social objects and to enjoy eroticized fun with others. Yet, strong warnings urge them to hold off actual sexual intercourse until marriage, as much for moral reasons as to avoid a sexually transmitted disease (STD).
Unfortunately, the meaning of “sex,” “marriage” and “virginity” are not fixed, but rather terrains of social debate, struggle. Their changing definitions shape postmodern youthful sexuality.
Young people are 21st century beings, wired for a postmodern selfhood and social life. An estimated 20 percent of young people have engaged in sexting, postmodern teen erotic display and flirting.
A series of recent research studies provide further insight into American young people’s changing sexuality. A NIH research report defines “technical virgins” as those “who abstain from vaginal sex while engaging in these other forms of sexual activity [oral and anal sex].” It estimates 10 percent of adolescent girls and 15 percent of adolescent boys are technical virgins. Such “virginity” decreases rapidly as young people enter their late-10s and early-20s and engage in sexual intercourse; it found that only about 4 percent of 20–24-year-olds have had oral or anal sex but not vaginal sex. It also notes that in the early-1980s, about 15 percent of adolescent girls and 25 percent of adolescent boys had engaged in oral sex but not vaginal intercourse.
A 2007 NIH study, “Defining Virginity and Abstinence,” sheds light onto teen sexual practices, particularly activities they considered preserving their technical virginity. It reported that 75 percent of young people engaged in “wet kissing” and nearly two-thirds (61%) in manual stimulation of another person to orgasm. More revealing, they considered these practices abstinent behavior.
It also found the following:
§ 60% did not think that oral-genital contact constitutes having sex;
§ 81% believed that penile-anal intercourse does count as having sex;
§ 90% consider both anal sex and vaginal intercourse as “sex”;
§ less than 50% believed oral sex to be “sex.”
Pushing deeper, the study found:
§ 83.5% reported participating in genital touching;
§ 70.6% believed that girls and boys retain their virginity if they participate in oral sex;
§ 16.1% believed that an adolescent was still a virgin if s/he engaged in anal sex;
§ 5.8% indicated that one was still a virgin if he or she engaged in vaginal intercourse.
Looking at abstinence, it found:
§ 24% indicated that anal intercourse was abstinent behavior;
§ 37% considered oral intercourse abstinence;
§ 10% regarded vaginal intercourse abstinence.
In yet another NIH study, researchers found that abstinence-only sex education programs were not effective.
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Virginity has been, since the Puritans, a terrain of conflict. During the first two centuries of the nation’s founding, marriage was less formal than it is today. Much of the country was rural, made up of small villages, often isolated from one another.
During that period, there was a major battle over who had the authority to “marry” two people. Quakers believed that no one other then the couple themselves could commit to a marriage. The secular state government claimed civil authority over property relations while the various religious denominations that flourished throughout the country insisted that only their god could sanction a marriage. Many couples believed that getting engaged, making a commitment without the legitimacy of either state or church, permitted them to have sex.
Over the last four decades, the U.S. marriage rate has steadily declined. In 2011, the rate was 6.8 marriages per thousand; in 1970, it was 10.6. Nevertheless, virginity still matters to some, a testament to physical and moral purity. It signifies that someone – most often the female — hasn’t engaged in sexual intercourse before marriage. Such virginity is represented by the female’s unbroken hymen. (Hymen “reconstruction” surgery – “virginity repair” – takes place in the U.S., UK, India and other counties.)
Some sexual purists insist that the activities of those who consider themselves technically virgins are immoral; for them, sexually titillating activities, foreplay or mutual masturbation, let alone oral and anal sex, are forms of sexual immorality.
The battle over virginity remains a vestigial symptom of patriarchy, an example that young females are still considered property to be traded between clans or families to strengthen blood alliances. In the 21st century, such traditional values persist in parts of “underdeveloped” countries like Pakistan, India and Iraq.
These values linger on in the “developed” world, expressing contradictory impulses. One desire is to preserve traditionalist values, the authority of the father, masculine authority, whether biological or a god. The other desire is to contest the marketplace’s ceaseless effort to sexualize ever-young consumers, especially girls.
For the last couple of decades, Christian conservatives promoted and, finally under Bush-II, imposed their moral belief in abstinence as national sex education policy. It was a failure, failing to address the mounting teen sex crisis detailed in the NIH and other studies. Given historical trends, the rate of sexual intimacy among “underage” people is likely to increases. Amidst the social restructuring now remaking the nation, the crisis of teen sexuality is likely to only get more exacerbated.