When Madonna released “Like a Virgin” in 1984 she dedicated the album to “all the virgins of the world.”  At that time, her fans (including me, a reserved high school girl infatuated by Madonna’s commanding sexuality) thought we knew what she was talking about. But if this album were released today, it’s likely that many high schoolers and others would have a more diverse understanding about Madonna’s message.

This is because several forces have been in the works for many years (at least in mainstream American culture) which have allowed people to envision “sex” — and hence, virginity —  as including more than the presence or absence of heteronormative, procreative, penile-vaginal intercourse. (Societies and cultures across time have always had a variety of meanings attached to various sexual acts, so this shifting and broadening perspective on “sex” is actually a global norm). A new study from researchers at The Kinsey Institute provides further empirical support that the idea of “having sex” is not seen as static or universal in contemporary US culture. The following comes from a press release from Indiana University, which houses the Kinsey Institute:

The study involved responses from 486 Indiana residents who took part in a telephone survey conducted by the Center for Survey Research at IU. Participants, mostly heterosexual, were asked, “Would you say you ‘had sex’ with someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in was …,” followed by 14 behaviorally specific items. Here are some of the results:

  • Responses did not differ significantly overall for men and women. The study involved 204 men and 282 women.
  • 95 percent of respondents would consider penile-vaginal intercourse (PVI) having had sex, but this rate drops to 89 percent if there is no ejaculation.
  • 81 percent considered penile-anal intercourse having had sex, with the rate dropping to 77 percent for men in the youngest age group (18-29), 50 percent for men in the oldest age group (65 and up) and 67 percent for women in the oldest age group.
  • 71 percent and 73 percent considered oral contact with a partner’s genitals (OG), either performing or receiving, as having had sex.
  • Men in the youngest and oldest age groups were less likely to answer “yes” compared with the middle two age groups for when they performed OG.
  • Significantly fewer men in the oldest age group answered “yes” for PVI (77 percent)

…   William L. Yarber, RCAP’s senior director and co-author of the study, said its findings reaffirm the need to be specific about behaviors when talking about sex. 

According to Yarber, because “There’s a vagueness of what sex is in our culture and media,” it is especially important for sexual health workers to be specific about what they mean when they talk about sex:  

“If people don’t consider certain behaviors sex, they might not think sexual health messages about risk pertain to them. The AIDS epidemic has forced us to be much more specific about behaviors, as far as identifying specific behaviors that put people at risk instead of just sex in general. But there’s still room for improvement.”

These study results appear to show that respondents have a broad range of understandings of sex: Men and women across generations are likely to count “sex” as including oral, anal, and vaginal activities. And while many assume that sexual change always starts with youth, this study indicates that the attitudes and behaviors of older men (who were LEAST likely to count penile-vaginal activities as sex) as not what we might expect. 

Given the disconnect between popular culture and people’s lived experiences around sexuality, I have a proposal:

  • To Madonna: I think that you should re-release “Like a Virgin” in 2014, 30 yrs after its original release, and partner with sexual health organizations like SIECUS and the Guttmacher Institute to critically discuss the various meanings and cultural associations attached to being a “virgin” as well as being “like a virgin.”
  • To sexual health workers: By entering into a cultural conversation around the varied meanings that people attach to virginity and sex, you would open up a needed, and much broader conversation about sexuality, health, and the various pathways to living a vibrant life. (Plus, come on, how cool would it be to partner with the goddess herself?!)


Study citation:

  • Sanders, S., Hill, B., Yarber, W., Graham, C., Crosby, R., Milhausen, R., (2010) “Misclassification bias: diversity in conceptualisations about having ‘had sex,'” Sexual Health. 7(1), 31-34.