by Laura M. Carpenter
New York University Press, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Jun 5th 2007
In this book based on her sociological research, Laura Carpenter sets out the contemporary meanings of virginity and its loss. She identifies three main ways of understanding virginity: virginity as a precious gift one can give to others; virginity as a stigma signifying a lower status; and first sex as a natural step in a human relationship that healthy people experience. She argues that most people' in the USA understand virginity loss using some combination of these three models. These models often influence when and how people decide to have their first sexual experiences, and are related to their religious, ethical and social views.
A central question for any research on virginity is how to define it. The most traditional definition is vaginal intercourse between a woman and a man, but some people have broader definitions that will include oral or anal sex. Generally gay and lesbian people who have only had homosexual sex will not define themselves as virgins. Carpenter's research was proceeding just the relationship between Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski became public, and she was concerned that this might have some effect on the public understanding of what constitutes sex. However, she saw no change in popular belief on the topic.
Since Carpenter's primary focus is on the social understanding of virginity loss, she conducted many interviews with people in their late teens, twenties, and early thirties. She quotes them as ways of explaining their understanding of virginity and sometimes explains their choices about when to hold off from sex or to have sex the first time. She also examines the phenomenon of "born-again" or "renewed" virgins, explaining it quite sympathetically. She reserves her main criticisms for sex education that focus exclusively on abstinence before marriage, when most people do not believe that this is the most appropriate behavior in relationships and most people do not actually practice abstinence before marriage.
Carpenter's claims seem plausible and her research methods seem reasonable. Her claims don't have any great precision, so it is hard to know how to assess her views. One might ask whether we could give a more definite characterization of what kind of gift virginity could be, or what kind of stigma it is. Similarly, one might consider more systematically how the different models of virginity loss relate to more general understandings of masculinity and femininity. The main connection Carpenter makes is between the model of virginity as a gift and people who hold religious views, because religion can use that model to provide a reason for people to refrain from premarital sex, while the stigma model provides no incentive to hold onto virginity and the process model provides only moderate incentive.
Even though this research seems fairly elementary, it is important because there has been little such investigation done in the contemporary USA. This work needs to be integrated into other work on the meanings of the sexual behavior of adolescents, especially the stigma of being labeled a slut and the double standard that is applied, mostly to girls and sometimes to boys. Carpenter says little about how the meanings of virginity relate to other meanings of being sexually active.
Nevertheless, Virginity Lost is well written and interesting. It is systematic and thorough, yet also makes references to popular culture and the use of quotations from interviews makes the book especially absorbing.
Link: Author website
© 2007 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.
Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Dowling College, Long Island. He is also editor of Metapsychology Online Reviews. His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.