ALEXANDER BROWN/THE HOYA

College students have sex. Older generations shake their finger at hookup culture while students themselves grapple to make sense of it all. Maybe they’re looking for love, connection, pleasure or some combination of the three, or maybe they’re looking for nothing at all.

Yet, for all the think pieces that focus on sex at college, most of them leave out an important demographic: virgins. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 61 percent of American 18-year-olds have had sex, and while that may be the number people focus on most, there’s another 39 percent of that group that are virgins. By age 20, the number of people who have had sex goes up to about 72 percent, leaving a quarter of that age group sexually inexperienced. There is no major difference between the numbers for men and women.

Within that population, there’s a lot of diversity. There are those who abstain for religious or moral reasons. There are those who haven’t found the right person. There are students for whom it’s simply not a priority, and there are those who have tried to lose it — with little success.

With sex such a frequent topic among college students — and, in some cases, a point of pride — it’s obvious why some who fall into the minority category might feel anxious about their virgin status. A quick Google search shows thousands of articles about the topic, ranging from adults recounting their own experiences as collegiate virgins to current undergrads explaining why retaining their V-card makes them uncomfortable. The website College Crush calls it “The Burden of Being a Virgin.”

Kate (COL ’16)* identifies as a virgin, and, while she admits that her inexperience may keep her from taking risks, she doesn’t consider it a “burden.” She hasn’t had sex yet mostly because she hasn’t found someone she wants to lose her virginity to.

“The option hasn’t presented itself. I would have to get to a very comfortable state before even considering it,” she said. Kate doesn’t see herself having sex before she’s in a long-term, committed relationship, which she has yet to find at Georgetown.

Kate isn’t sure how her sexual inexperience compares with her friends’ lives, partially because the phrase “hook up” can have so many meanings. To different people at different times, it can mean making out, oral sex or sexual intercourse. Some of Kate’s friends use the term interchangeably, making it difficult to distinguish the implications.

“You never really know what a person’s perspective is on [casual sex] because you don’t know what their definition is,” she said. “People talk about [their hookups] all the time. … What did you actually do, and what does that mean to you?”

Kate personally has no interest in the hookup scene, in any sense of the word.

“I don’t think I would ever meet a stranger and have sex with them, not at this point,” she said. And while her friends often make out with boys they meet at parties, she’s not comfortable doing that with someone she just met.

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For those in the LGBTQ community at Georgetown, the matter of remaining a virgin is further complicated by certain expectations and stereotypes.

Aaron* (SFS ’16), like Kate, also wants to wait until he trusts his partner completely before he has sex. That means that, although he has been in three relationships, he has remained a virgin.

“I don’t do anything [sexual] unless I’m in a relationship with someone because I personally like that emotional connection. I think it just heightens it,” he said. “I need to trust this person completely before I can make that jump to sex.”

 “There definitely is a big pressure to have lots of sex in the gay community,” he said. “I’ve had three long relationships, and so a lot of people think that within a couple weeks you’re having sex.” Aaron felt that pressure to hook up soon after arriving on campus.

“When I got to college, you go to the first Pride party or you go to Town [Danceboutique, a gay bar] and it’s all hooking up,” he said. “Someone told me if you talk to a guy for more than 10 minutes, you’re supposed to go home with him.”

Once Aaron made it clear he was not interested in hooking up, he quickly found himself labelled a “prude” and “bitch.” He thinks part of the problem is the way newly out members are brought into the community. More experienced gay men immediately want to hook up with these men, in order to “show [them] what being gay is.”

“What it creates is [that] all these people coming out, they only associate being gay with sex and not the romantic aspects of it and not the community aspects of it,” he said. Aaron believes that because so many newly-out gay men associate the community solely with sex, they don’t realize that they have the choice to opt out of that culture — partially because not having sex is rarely discussed.

“You don’t talk about [virginity] as much,” he said. “I’ve had to pretend I’ve had sex for some people because people just assume [I have], and I don’t want to go into it with strangers.”

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Giovanna Kimberly (COL ’16) sees sex as something other than a collegiate bucket list item. She plans to remain a virgin because she wants to be in a trusting relationship, and for her, this means abstaining from sex until marriage.

Her Catholic faith has been a large factor in this decision. While she was taught from a young age that sex was only for married couples, she needed to explore that idea for herself to make sure it was what she believed.

“I started to think of what I wanted and what that meant for me because I didn’t want it to be a rule imposed on me, but rather, the teachings of the Church become my basis, but I make my own decision,” she said.

“I believe in the sanctity of human sexuality and that sex is a culmination of the exclusive love between spouses,” she said. “Sex is the incarnation of the wedding vows [that say] I will love you freely, totally, faithfully and fruitfully, and when you have sex outside of marriage your body is making a promise, even if you are not.”

Still, Kimberly isn’t sure that many Catholic students at Georgetown share her feelings. She sees the culture of casual sex as harmful to students.

“Scripture talks about sex as the joining of two people into one, and we live in a society where casual sex is so prevalent. We’re always seeing joining together and tearing apart, and we wonder why so many people are so broken,” she said.

And Kimberly is not the only one concerned about the psychological effects of sex. Dana Drecksel (NHS ’17) has also made the decision to abstain from casual sex to do what is best for herself, not just what she may feel pressure to do.

“It’s more than just the physical connection, especially when it’s someone’s first time,” she said. “It creates this psychological bond and that if you’re just using that casually, you are losing something, and it has an emotional toll.”

For Drecksel, who is pre-med, it’s not just the mental aspects of casual sex that keep her from it. She worries about putting herself at risk for sexually transmitted diseases.

“On a college campus such as Georgetown, [STDs are] a big problem because we’re a closed campus in that people are having sex with other Georgetown students for the most part, and so if someone contracts something, it can spread really fast,” she said.

According to a study by the Stanford University Sexual Health Peer Resource Center, it’s estimated that one in four college students has contracted an STD, and the Center for Disease Control has stated that nearly half of the 20 million newly transmitted STDs each year are among people between the ages of 15 and 24.

Drecksel similarly chooses to stay a virgin because of her Catholic faith.

“By waiting until marriage, this is a sign of our commitment to one another, that we’re going to wait and withhold that bond and build other parts of the relationship,” she said.

While Jane* (COL ’14) has also remained a virgin for religious reasons, her decision to do so was less obvious. Until she started dating her current boyfriend, who is also Catholic, she had always thought the decision to remain a virgin was obvious. Then, however, she and her boyfriend realized that many of the Catholic couples they interacted with and respected — including their own parents — had engaged in premarital sex.

“The scare tactic that’s used sometimes is if you have sex then the relationship fizzles,” she said. “But then seeing healthy relationships between my parents and his parents, it can work. … Since sex didn’t seem out of the question anymore, it was very attractive to me.”

Yet, Jane’s boyfriend was adamantly opposed to having sex before marriage. Now, the pair is engaged in a constant conversation about what they want and what is right for them, though for now they have decided not to have sex.

“At first I was kind of disappointed because I really liked him,” she said. “But at the same time, going through life after making that decision, it was really [liberating] because we didn’t have to worry about when we’d do it. We didn’t have to worry about where we’d do it. We didn’t have to worry about social repercussions if someone found out.”

While many of Jane’s friends are virgins, she occasionally worries that other people judge her for her decision.

“Sometimes I wonder if people are thinking ‘there’s something wrong with her psychologically’ or ‘she’s Catholic; that’s the only reason she’s doing it,’ or ‘she’s bowing down to the patriarchy because she doesn’t want to have sex,’ which is a lie,” she said. “I do want to have sex. At the same time, I’m not bowing down to patriarchy either. … I still think for myself and ask questions and do the kind of reading I need to do to figure out what’s best.”

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Religious sexual ethics are not just reserved for heterosexual people. Tim Rosenberger (COL ’16) is gay and Christian — two identities that can feel at odds.

“For gay people with religious convictions, there’s this weird thing where the people in your religious community say you’re gay; why bother having sexual ethics?” he said. “Gay people say [the religious people] don’t like you, so why bother subscribing to their sexual ethics?”

Rosenberger says that many of the same reasons that straight people abstain are applicable to members of the gay community, like himself.

“Beyond religious reasons, a lot of gay people want exactly what straight people want. They really want to fall in love. They don’t want to just have a whole bunch of random hookups,” he said. “Although gay men specifically have this reputation for being really promiscuous, they have perhaps deeper emotional needs than the average straight man when it comes to hookups.”

GU Pride President Thomas Lloyd (SFS ’15) believes the issue of sexual ethics is particularly messy for members of the LGBTQ community.

“People who talk about authentically loving relationships — and those only being where you’re celibate before marriage  — [means] there’s no place for gay people in that framework because even if we get recognition of our marriages on a state level, we probably won’t still have it sanctioned by religious institutions,” he said. “When someone says I choose not to have sex, that feeds into the shame that … we’re prone to feel because we’ve been exposed to the message that no matter what we do, any expression of affection isn’t right.”

Another problem when discussing virginity is understanding what constitutes sex. While some only count penetrative sex as the act that “takes” someone’s virginity, the idea is heteronormative, as many lesbians and transgender people never have penetrative sex.

“People associate sex with penetration and so for queer women, there isn’t a clear definition of sex and what people consider sex,” Sabrina Katz (COL ’14) said. “A lot of queer women have different definitions of sex.”

She explained that two women might consider performing oral sex as having sex, but that heterosexual people or gay men might not consider it as such, although there is a large discrepancy of opinion on whether oral sex “counts.” Generally, she thinks the virginity conversation doesn’t resonate strongly with queer women.

“Having had sex or not having had sex is something people are talking about, but it’s never really talked about in the context of losing virginity because I think virginity is something that’s still considered very hetero,” she said.

Abby Grace (SFS ’16), vice president of H*yas for Choice, explained how issues of virginity are wrapped up in patriarchal norms.

“I’m from Mississippi, where there’s an insane amount of pressure put on something that’s just arbitrary,” she said “Why would you celebrate male sexuality but when a girl comes to you with the same outcome it’s met with condescension?”

“A lot of it comes out of very historical ways of looking at virginity that you’re only as valuable as your ability to bear children,” she said.

Nancy* (COL ’14), who is a virgin, also worries about the societal pressures placed on that status.

“This whole idea of virginity as something you’re giving someone, that is horrible,” she said. “That makes it so weirdly uncomfortable for girls and makes it so much bigger than it is for guys.”

Personally, Nancy hasn’t had sex yet because she hasn’t been in a committed relationship. While she doesn’t spend much time worrying about boys and relationships, she sees many of her peers agonizing over these situations.

“So many girls here are so amazing and so smart and then they say they don’t define their worth by how many guys they hook up with … but their actions are really different from that and they are defining themselves by that,” she said. “I think our age group is ashamed of being virgins.”

That shame is perhaps most acute for men. John Higgins (COL ’15) explained that his friends who are virgins are extremely embarrassed by the fact because it makes them feel emasculated.

“Guys feel a lot of pressure and competition,” he said. “It’s bad to be ashamed about anything, but there are certain things you can’t take out of being a guy.”

No heterosexual male virgins would talk on the record for this article.

So where does virginity fit here at Georgetown? How do we define it? Maybe virginity is a result of personal, spiritual or religious reasons against having sex. Maybe it’s simply because the right person hasn’t come along. Maybe it’s defined as everything but penetrative sex, or maybe by complete abstinence from sexual activities. Whatever the case, it is as much an aspect of life on the Hilltop as having sex, but it shouldn’t be defined by the pressure to get rid of it.

“Most students at Georgetown believe it’s a personal decision,” Grace said. “Pursue your own choices.”

 

*Some names have been changed because of the nature of this subject.

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