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Sexual semantics: The meanings of sex, virginity, and abstinence for university students

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Previous literature has explored the behaviors individuals assign to definitions such as “having sex,” “maintaining virginity,” and “being abstinent.” Known as “sexual definitions,” research in this area has shown considerable variability among university students for these terms; however, few extant studies have examined these three definitions together. A large sample of university students completed a cross-sectional survey to assess how they defined 14 sexual behaviors. Descriptive statistics were used to examine overall patterns in participants' responses. In order to examine gender differences, chi-square analyses were performed on each specific behavior, while Mann–Whitney U analyses were performed on each of the three definitions as a whole. While most participants believed penile-vaginal and penile-anal intercourse constitute having sex, do not maintain virginity, and are not abstinent activities, there was still considerable disagreement about the status of other behaviors. Furthermore, there were apparent discrepancies in how participants defined the term “abstinence” when compared to the terms “having sex” and “virginity.” Men were more likely than women to consider behaviors as being abstinent activities. These results suggest that clarity is essential for sex educators, clinicians, and health professionals when informing others on the potential risks of sexual behaviors.
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Sexual semantics: The meanings of sex, virginity, and abstinence for
university students
Michael D. Barnett , Lyndsey K. Fleck, Arthur D. Marsden III, Kelly J. Martin
University of North Texas, Department of Psychology, 1155 Union Circle #311280, Denton, TX 76203, United States
abstractarticle info
Article history:
Received 30 August 2016
Received in revised form 2 November 2016
Accepted 3 November 2016
Available online 10 November 2016
Previousliterature has explored thebehaviors individuals assignto denitions suchas having sex,”“maintaining
virginity,and being abstinent.Known as sexual denitions,research in this area hasshown considerablevar-
iability among university students for these terms; however, few extant studies have examined these three def-
initions together. A large sample of university students completed a cross-sectional survey to assess how they
dened 14 sexual behaviors. Descriptive statistics were used to examine overall patterns in participants' re-
sponses. In order to examine gender differences, chi-square analyses were performed on each specic behavior,
while MannWhitney Uanalyses were performedon each of the three denitions as a whole. While most partic-
ipants believed penile-vaginal and penile-anal intercourse constitute having sex, do not maintain virginity, and
are not abstinent activities, there was still considerable disagreement about the status of other behaviors. Fur-
thermore,there were apparent discrepancies in how participants dened the term abstinencewhen compared
to the terms having sexand virginity.Men were more likely than women to consider behaviors as being ab-
stinent activities. These results suggest that clarity is essential for sex educators, clinicians, and health profes-
sionals when informing others on the potential risks of sexual behaviors.
© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Keywords:
Sexual denitions
Gender
College
1. Introduction
What does it mean to have sex? Although this question seems sim-
ple, there is considerable variability among university students regard-
ing which activities individuals categorize as having sex(Byers,
Henderson, & Hobson, 2009; Hans & Kimberly, 2011; Randall & Byers,
2003). Furthermore, these distinctions are not always consistent with
how individuals dene virginityor being abstinent(Byers et al.,
2009; Hans & Kimberly, 2011; Sawyer, Howard, Brewster-Jordan,
Gavin, & Sherman, 2007). This area of sexuality research is known as
sexual denitions (Byers et al., 2009; Trotter & Alderson, 2007), which
has implications in elds such as sexual education and health promo-
tion, where there may be discrepancies between how educators and
the generalpublic dene sex (Hans & Kimberly, 2011). Sexual education
programs contribute to the understanding of sexual denitions such as
having sex(Byers et al., 2009; Hans & Kimberly, 2011);however, even
higher quality sexual education programs may be inconsistent when
informing individuals about which activities are considered having
sexand being abstinent(Byers et al., 2009).
The issue of sexual denitions received national attention when
President Bill Clinton stated at his grand jury testimony during the
Clinton-Lewinsky scandal that, because Monica Lewinsky had per-
formed oralsex on him and not vice versa, he had not engaged in a sex-
ual relationship or any sexual relationsof the sort (Tiersma, 2004).
Hans, Gillen, and Akande (2010) refer to the Clinton-Lewinsky eraas
a turning point in conceptualizations of sexual behaviors. This incident
served to raise public awareness of the ambiguity of sexual denitions
and prompted the question of which sexual behaviors count as fore-
playand which constitute having sex(Carpenter, 2001).
Prior studies have shown that there is a particularly wide array of
sexual behaviors that, if engaged in, people might claim that they had
had sex(Hans et al., 2010; Randall & Byers, 2003; Sanders &
Reinisch, 1999; Trotter & Alderson, 2007). However, there is a general
hierarchyof sexual behaviors when it comes to sexual denitions
(Horowitz & Spicer, 2013); namely,penile-vaginalintercourse, followed
by penile-anal intercourse, then, to a lesser extent, oral-genital contact
are considered to be more constitutive of sex than any other sexual ac-
tivity (Byers et al., 2009; Hans & Kimberly, 2011; Sanders & Reinisch,
1999; Trotter & Alderson, 2007). When Sanders and Reinisch (1999)
asked students which behaviors would count as having had sex,
over 99% of students endorsed penile-vaginal intercourse, 81% endorsed
penile-anal intercourse, and 40% endorsed oral-genital contact. Similar
patterns are found when it comes to dening virginity and abstinence;
penile-vaginal intercourse, penile-anal intercourse, and oral-genital
contact are the three most highly chosen behaviors in regardsto virgin-
ity loss (Carpenter, 2001; Hans & Kimberly, 2011) and not maintaining
Personality and Individual Differences 106 (2017) 203208
Corresponding author.
E-mail addresses: Michael.Barnett@unt.edu (M.D. Barnett), LyndseyFleck@my.unt.edu
(L.K. Fleck), ArthurMarsden@my.unt.edu (A.D. Marsden), KellyMartin3@my.unt.edu
(K.J. Martin).
http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.11.008
0191-8869/© 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Personality and Individual Differences
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/paid
abstinence (Byers et al., 2009; Hans & Kimberly, 2011; Sawyer et al.,
2007).
While penile-vaginal and, to a slightly lesser extent, penile-anal in-
tercourse are understood by most to be sexual activities, there are in-
consistencies in extant literature about the status of oral sex. While
some have reported ambiguities regarding the status of oral-genital
contact (Bogart, Cecil, Wagstaff, Pinkerton, & Abramson, 2000; Byers
et al., 2009; Horowitz & Spicer, 2013; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999), Hans
et al. (2010) reported that only 20% of their participants classied
oral-genital contact as sex, while Hans and Kimberly (2011) reported
that, among studentparticipants, 23% did not consider oral-genital con-
tact to be sex and 90% indicated you could engage in oral-genitalcontact
and still maintain virginity. Further highlighting the variability in how
university students dene oral-genital contact, Chambers (2007) re-
ported that approximately 40% of self-identied virgins had previously
given and/or received oral sex. Other groups of self-proclaimed virgins,
labeled technical virginsby Gagnon and Simon (1987), refrain from
penile-vaginal intercourse, but engage in not only oral sex, but penile-
anal intercourse as well (Uecker, Angotti, & Regnerus, 2008).
With such variability in respect to sexual attitudes, simply advising
individuals to not have sexor to be abstinentis unlikely to be an ef-
fective risk prevention method. It is important for sexually active indi-
viduals to be fully aware of the risks of engaging in specic sexual
behaviors such as oral-genital contact, where transmission risks include
herpes simplex virus, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and human papil-
lomavirus (HPV; Chambers, 2007; Moore & Harris, 2014). Furthermore,
while the potential risks for men and heterosexual women who use sex
toys do not appear to be well explored in extant literature, women who
have sex with women and share sex toys without proper maintenance
and cleaning may be at risk for bacterial vaginosis (Marrazzo, Coffey,
& Bingham, 2005; Marrazzo, Thomas, Agnew, & Ringwood, 2010) and
HPV (Anderson, Schick, Herbenick, Dodge, & Fortenberry, 2014). Be-
cause of the potential risks for sex toy use and to determine how indi-
rect genital stimulation ts in the hierarchy of sexual behaviors, this
study sought to examine both how many students have engaged in
sex toy use, as well as the way they dene the use of sex toys.
Gender differences play a meaningful role in understanding sexual
denitions. Men and women tend to have different attitudes about sex-
ual interactions, as men are more apt to havea permissive viewpoint re-
garding sexual behaviors (Wilson & Medora, 1990) and report having a
larger number of sexual partners than women (Wiederman, 1997).
Gender differences have been examined in past sexual denitions re-
search with no clear consensus; while some have reported signicant
ndings (e.g., Gute, Eshbaugh, & Wiersma, 2008; Hans et al., 2010;
Pitts & Rahman, 2001; Rawlings, Graff, Calderon, Casey-Bailey, &
Pasley, 2006; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999), others have reported the con-
trary (e.g., Bogart et al., 2000; Cecil, Bogart, Wagstaff, Pinkerton, &
Abramson, 2002; Horowitz & Spicer, 2013; Randall & Byers, 2003).
Carpenter (2002) researched the loss of virginity by gender and found
that men and women tend to assign different meanings to virginity.
While Pitts and Rahman (2001) found that women were more likely
to endorse penile-anal intercourse as having sex, men and women typ-
ically show comparable results when dening what it means to have
sexwith regards toboth penile-analintercourse and penile-vaginal in-
tercourse (Randall & Byers, 2003; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999; Sawyer et
al., 2007). For other behaviors, men have been found to be more likely
to incorporate breast contact, genital touching (Gute et al., 2008;
Sanders & Reinisch, 1999), and oral-genital contact (Gute et al., 2008;
Hans et al., 2010) in their denition of having sex.This study sought
to investigate further the gender differences amongdifferent sexual be-
haviors as well as across the denitions of having sex, maintaining vir-
ginity, and being abstinent.
The Sexual Denition Survey (SDS; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999) is a
measure that has been previously used in sexual denitions research.
As discussed below, this instrument has been expanded a number of
times. Although some sexual denitions studies have utilized large
samples, they were either conducted with simpler versions of the SDS
or did not utilize the SDS at all. Of the studies that utilized or were in-
spired by the SDS, we have found only one (Hans & Kimberly, 2011)
that measured the denitions of having sex, abstinence, and virginity
together, and none that examined gender differences among these
three denitions. Furthermore, the only two sexual denitions studies
we found that examined how individuals dene sex toy use primarily
focused on gaymen (Hill, Rahman,Bright, & Sanders, 2010) and lesbians
(Horowitz & Spicer, 2013). Furthermore, Horowitz and Spicer (2013)
used terminology that might not be as familiar for U.S. participants
(i.e., sex aid) andpresented examples of toys (i.e., strap-ons andvibra-
tors) during their questionnaire that might not be as relevant to male
participants. The purpose of this study was to investigate sexual deni-
tions among a large sample of university students using the most recent
version of the Sexual Denition SurveyExpanded (SDSE),further mod-
ied to be used acrossthree denitions (having sex,maintaining virgin-
ity, and being abstinent) and to include two new sexual behaviors
pertaining to sex toy use.
2. Method
2.1.1. Participants
Participants consisted of 982 undergraduate students enrolled in a
psychology course at a large public university in the southern U.S. All
participants were recruited online through the university's psychology
department research website. There were too few participants who
identied as transgender to be included for gender comparisons and
these participants were excluded. As we primarily wanted to look at at-
titudes among emerging adults, who are likely to differ from older age
groups in levels of sexual experience and sexual education, participants
over the age of 29 were alsoexcluded. The nal sample consisted of 956
participants, comprising 275 men (28.8%) and 681 women (71.2%). The
age of the participants ranged from 18 to 29 years (M= 20.4). Ethnicity
and sexual orientation demographics are displayed in Table 1.
2.2. Procedure
This study was approved by the university committee for the protec-
tion of human subjects. The survey was administered online(remotely)
and participants received course credit for participation. In order to en-
courage self-disclosure, the survey instructions emphasized that re-
sponses were anonymous and condential, and no identifying
information was requested from participants.
Table 1
Demographics of study sample.
N%
Gender
Male 275 28.8
Female 681 71.2
Ethnicity
White/Caucasian 503 52.6
Black/African-American 145 15.2
Hispanic 194 20.3
Asian/Pacic-Islander 80 8.4
Native-American 3 0.3
Other 31 3.2
Sexual orientation
Straight 856 89.5
Gay/Lesbian 33 3.5
Bisexual 44 4.6
Other 23 2.4
204 M.D. Barnett et al. / Personality and Individual Differences 106 (2017) 203208
2.3. Measures
2.3.1. The Sexual Denition SurveyExpanded (SDSE)
The SDSE was used in this study to assess participants' denitions of
sex, virginity, and abstinence. Sanders and Reinisch (1999) created the
original Sexual Denitions Survey (SDS), asking participants if they be-
lieved they would have had sexwith someone if they had engaged in
each of 11 sexual behaviors (deep kissing,oral contact on your breasts/
nipples,oral contact on other's breasts/nipples,person touches your
breasts/nipples,you touch other's breasts/nipples,you touch other's geni-
tals,person touches your genitals,oral contact with other's genitals,oral
contact with your genitals,penile-anal intercourse, and penile-vaginal
intercourse).
Randall and Byers (2003) adapted the SDS to create the SDSE by
adding resulting in orgasm and not resulting in orgasm scenarios to four
of the sexual behaviors (genital touching,oral contact with genitals,pe-
nile-anal intercourse, and penile-vaginal intercourse). They also added
three new sexual behaviors (masturbating to orgasm in each other's pres-
ence,masturbating to orgasm while in telephone contact with each other,
and masturbating to orgasm while in computer contact with each other).
Further adapted from Randall and Byers (2003),Trotter and
Alderson (2007) created four scenario items for the SDSE to specify
which party reached orgasm (you,the other person,both of you,ornei-
ther of you). They included these items for ve of the sexual behaviors
(masturbating to orgasm in each other's presence,masturbating to orgasm
while in telephone contact with each other,masturbating to orgasm while
in computer contact with each other,penile-anal intercourse, and penile-
vaginal intercourse).
To further expand on the research of Sanders and Reinisch (1999),
Randall and Byers (2003), and Trotter and Alderson (2007), two new
sexual behaviors were added to the SDSE for the purpose of this
study: you stimulate their genitals with a sex toy and they stimulate your
genitals with a sex toy. Following Trotter and Alderson (2007), each in-
cluded two orgasm scenarios: [they/you]reach orgasm and [they/you]
do not reach orgasm. As was done by Hans and Kimberly (2011), partic-
ipants were asked about each sexual behavior across three denitions:
having sex,”“virginity,and abstinence.
2.3.2. Sexual behavior engagement questionnaire
Similar to Byers et al. (2009), a short questionnaire was created for
this study to determine how common sexual behaviors were among
university students. Participants were asked to indicate if they had
ever engaged in each of the 14 behaviors included in the version of
the SDSE utilized for this study.
2.4. Statistical analyses
Descriptive statistics were used to explore sexual denitions. Similar
to past sexual denitions literature (e.g., Hans & Kimberly, 2011;
Rawlings et al., 2006; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999), we created tables to
display thepercentages of individualsoverall andbroken down by gen-
derwho categorized each behavior as having sex, maintaining virgini-
ty, and being abstinent. Chi-square tests were performed for all items to
identify signicant gender differences in participants' responses. To
identify gender differences across denitions, MannWhitney Utests
were performed on the summed responses to all items (where Yes =
1 and No = 0) for each denition.
3. Results
Descriptive statistics are displayed in Table 2. When examining both
genders together, the largest majority of individuals indicated that en-
gaging in penile-vaginal intercourse constitutes having sexacross all
orgasm scenarios (89.292.4%), while the second largest majority en-
dorsed penile-anal intercourse (80.082.6%) as sex. Thelargest minority
of individuals endorsed oral contact with genitals as sex (40.848.3%),
followed by genital touching (25.234.2%), sex toy stimulation (27.7
32.8%), oral contact with breasts/nipples (17.117.6%), masturbating
in each other's presence (13.816.0%), deep kissing/tongue kissing
(15.4%), masturbating while in telephone contact (11.913.6%), then
masturbating while in computer contact (11.813.5%).
For the virginityitems, the largest majority indicated that individ-
uals who engaged in deep kissing/tongue kissing would still be virgins
(90.3%), followed by oral contact with breasts/nipples (83.283.7%),
masturbating while in telephone contact (80.080.8%), masturbating
while in computer contact (80.080.6%), masturbating in each other's
presence (78.679.2%), genital touching (70.173.6%), sex toy stimula-
tion (62.366.8%), then oral contact with genitals (61.263.0%). Pe-
nile-anal intercourse (15.416.2%) and penile-vaginal intercourse
(7.48.4%) were the only behaviors without majority endorsements.
For the abstinenceitems, there was only a majority agreement on
one behavior as maintaining abstinence: deep kissing/tongue kissing
(76.8%).The largest minorityendorsed oral contactwith breasts/nipples
(44.045.0%), followed by masturbating while in telephone contact
(44.044.8%), masturbating while in computer contact (43.144.5%),
masturbating in each other's presence (41.842.2%), genital touching
(28.731.2%), sex toy stimulation (26.427.7%), oral contact with geni-
tals (22.223.7%), penile-anal intercourse (8.29.3%), then penile-vagi-
nal intercourse (5.86.4%).
We conducted chi-square analyses to identify gender differences for
specic scenarios using a Bonferroni correction for each of thethree def-
initions (α= 0.001) to protect against Type 1 errors. Three scenarios in
the abstinence denition were signicant: they stimulate your genitals
with a sex toy and you do not reach orgasm,χ
2
(1, N= 956) = 10.99,
pb0.001, φ=0.11; masturbating while in telephone contact and
they reach orgasm,χ
2
(1, N= 956) = 10.89, pb0.001, φ=0.11;
and masturbating while in computer contact and they reach orgasm,χ
2
(1, N= 956) = 11.63, pb0.001, φ=0.11. To examine gender differ-
ences across denitions, we conducted MannWhitney Uanalyses on
the summed endorsement totals for each denition: having sex, virgin-
ity, and abstinence. The abstinence denition was signicant, with men
(Mdn = 12.0; n= 275) endorsing more activities than women (Mdn =
4.0; n= 681), U= 83,464, p= 0.008, r=0.09.
4. Discussion
Consistent with previous research (e.g., Byers et al., 2009; Hans &
Kimberly, 2011; Sanders & Reinisch, 1999; Sawyer et al., 2007), our par-
ticipants unambiguously indicated that penile-vaginal intercourse and
penile-anal intercourse constitute having sex, do not maintain virginity,
and are not abstinent behaviors (see Table 2). There was also consider-
able agreement that an individual who engages in deep kissing or
tongue kissing has not had sex, lost their virginity, or is being abstinent,
while an individual who engages in oral contact with breasts/nipples or
masturbation with another person has neither had sex nor lost their vir-
ginity. However, there was more ambiguity over the denition of absti-
nence for both oral contact with breasts/nipples and masturbation, with
approximately 4045% of participants endorsing these as abstinent ac-
tivities. Responses for genital touching and sex toy stimulation were
less ambiguous, but there was still no clear consensus on these behav-
iors across all three denitions. Responses for oral-genital contact
were largely ambiguous across the having sex and virginity denitions,
with 4148% of participants endorsing oral-genital contact as sex and
6061% of participants indicating that someone could engage in oral-
genital contact and maintain their virginity. Similar ambiguities regard-
ing oral-genital contact have been reported by Byers et al. (2009),
Horowitz and Spicer (2013), and Sanders and Reinisch (1999).
The larger range of percentages across the had sexorgasm scenar-
ios for genital touching than sex toy stimulation might indicate that the
presenceof an orgasm has more of an impact on students' denitions of
sex for direct genital contact (skin-to-skin touching) than indirect gen-
ital contact (sex toys). A similar pattern is seen for the oral-genital
205M.D. Barnett et al. / Personality and Individual Differences 106 (2017) 203208
contact items, where both men andwomen were more likely to endorse
scenarios as having had sexwhen they included the presence of an or-
gasm. The endorsement percentages for the sex toy stimulation behav-
iors in the had sexdenition were slightly lower than the genital
touching behaviors for the scenarios where orgasm is reached and
slightly higher in thescenarios where orgasm is not reached. For the vir-
ginity and abstinence denitions, all sex toy stimulation endorsement
percentages were lower than the genital touching endorsement per-
centages when compared across the same scenarios. When sexual de-
nitions is examined hierarchically, this places sex toy stimulation on a
level comparable to genital touching when considered as sex, and a
level above genital touching as behaviors that do not maintain virginity
or abstinence. This hierarchydiffers from that reported byHorowitz and
Spicer (2013), who found that sex aidstimulation was below penile-
vaginal and penile-anal intercourse, and above oral-genital touching
and genital touching, when considered as a behavior constitutive of
having sex.However, Horowitz and Spicer (2013) utilized a different
sample (U.K. rather than U.S.), terminology (sex aidrather than sex
toy), and scales (graded rather than dichotomous) than this study, mak-
ing direct comparisons more difcult. It should also be noted that while
Horowitz and Spicer (2013) gave examples of sex aids (vibrator, strap-
on, etc.; p. 144) in their questionnaire items, the sex toy items included
in this study did not specify between receptive, penetrative, and other
sex toys, and these items could thus have different meanings for differ-
ent participants.
Our results indicate that participants considered the concept of ab-
stinence to be more restrictive than the concepts of virginity and not
having sex; that is, fewer participants endorsed behaviors as maintain-
ing abstinence than those who endorsed them as maintaining virginity
or those who did not endorse them as having sex. For example, while
over 84% of participants did not indicate that someone engaging in
mutual masturbation would be said to have had sex and approximately
80% indicated that someone who engaged in mutual masturbation as
their most intimate act would still be a virgin, fewer than half of partic-
ipants considered mutual masturbation to be an abstinent act. While
virginity and not having sex are closer in concept, there are clear
Table 2
Percentages by gender for participants indicating that behaviors count as having sex, maintaining virginity, and being abstinent.
Had sex
a
Virgin
b
Abstinent
c
Behaviors Male Female Total Male Female Total Male Female Total
Deep kissing/tongue kissing 15.3 15.4 15.4 88.0 91.2 90.3 77.8 76.4 76.8
You have oral contact with their breasts/nipples 18.9 16.3 17.1 84.7 83.3 83.7 48.4 43.6 45.0
They have oral contact with your breasts/nipples 16.4 18.1 17.6 83.3 83.1 83.2 47.6 42.6 44.0
They touch your genitals and
you reach orgasm 33.1 34.7 34.2 73.1 68.9 70.1 34.5 26.3 28.7
you do not reach orgasm 22.9 28.8 27.1 77.1 72.2 73.6 37.1 28.8 31.2
You touch their genitals and
they reach orgasm 32.7 34.2 33.8 72.4 72.8 72.7 34.5 28.5 30.2
they do not reach orgasm 23.3 26.0 25.2 76.0 71.7 72.9 38.5 28.2 31.2
You have oral contact with their genitals and
they reach orgasm 44.0 48.6 47.3 64.0 61.2 62.0 28.0 19.8 22.2
they do not reach orgasm 35.6 42.9 40.8 67.6 61.1 63.0 30.2 20.9 23.5
They have oral contact with your genitals and
you reach orgasm 46.2 49.2 48.3 64.7 59.8 61.2 26.9 20.6 22.4
you do not reach orgasm 38.2 43.9 42.3 66.9 60.2 62.1 30.5 21.0 23.7
You stimulate their genitals with a sex toy and
they reach orgasm 29.1 30.1 29.8 66.9 66.4 66.5 32.7 25.7 27.7
they do not reach orgasm 26.9 28.0 27.7 68.7 66.1 66.8 33.8 24.4 27.1
They stimulate your genitals with a sex toy and
you reach orgasm 30.5 33.8 32.8 64.7 61.4 62.3 31.6 24.2 26.4
you do not reach orgasm 25.5 31.1 29.5 66.2 60.9 62.4 34.5 23.8⁎⁎⁎ 26.9
Penile-vaginal intercourse and
you reach orgasm 92.0 92.1 92.1 10.5 7.5 8.4 8.4 5.3 6.2
they reach orgasm 92.0 92.2 92.2 8.7 6.9 7.4 7.6 5.6 6.2
you both reach orgasm 92.0 92.5 92.4 9.8 7.3 8.1 8.0 5.7 6.4
neither of you reach orgasm 89.5 89.1 89.2 10.9 6.8 7.9 6.5 5.4 5.8
Penile-anal intercourse and
you reach orgasm 84.4 81.5 82.3 17.5 14.5 15.4 11.3 8.1 9.0
they reach orgasm 84.0 82.1 82.6 17.1 15.4 15.9 10.9 7.8 8.7
you both reach orgasm 84.0 81.8 82.4 17.1 15.4 15.9 11.6 8.4 9.3
neither of you reach orgasm 79.6 80.2 80.0 17.1 15.9 16.2 9.8 7.5 8.2
Masturbating in each other's presence and
you reach orgasm 14.5 15.0 14.9 82.9 76.8 78.6 48.4 39.6 42.2
they reach orgasm 16.0 15.0 15.3 84.0 77.2 79.2 48.7 39.5 42.2
you both reach orgasm 16.7 15.7 16.0 83.3 77.2 79.0 48.4 39.2 41.8
neither of you reach orgasm 15.6 13.1 13.8 83.3 77.2 79.0 47.3 39.8 41.9
Masturbating while in telephone contact and
you reach orgasm 13.1 13.8 13.6 85.1 78.4 80.3 52.0 40.8 44.0
they reach orgasm 12.4 13.2 13.0 83.6 78.6 80.0 53.1 41.1⁎⁎⁎ 44.6
you both reach orgasm 12.7 13.8 13.5 85.5 78.7 80.6 52.7 41.6 44.8
neither of you reach orgasm 11.6 12.0 11.9 83.6 79.6 80.8 52.0 41.4 44.5
Masturbating while in computer contact and
you reach orgasm 11.3 13.4 12.8 86.2 77.5 80.0 52.7 40.8 44.2
they reach orgasm 12.0 13.5 13.1 86.5 78.3 80.6 52.7 40.4⁎⁎⁎ 43.9
you both reach orgasm 13.1 13.7 13.5 85.1 78.7 80.5 52.0 41.4 44.5
neither of you reach orgasm 9.8 12.6 11.8 85.5 78.6 80.5 49.5 40.5 43.1
⁎⁎⁎ pb0.001.
a
Actual question: Would you say you HAD SEXwith someone if the most intimate behavior you engaged in involved
b
Actual question: Would you say you were a VIRGINif the most intimate behavior you engaged in involved
c
Actual question: Would you say you were BEING ABSTINENTif the most intimate behavior you engaged in involved
206 M.D. Barnett et al. / Personality and Individual Differences 106 (2017) 203208
discrepancies between these two denitions and that of abstinence
among our participants; similar ndings are reported by Hans and
Kimberly (2011) among both student and health professional partici-
pants when presented with the three denitions of having sex, absti-
nence, and virginity.
In this study, three signicant gender differences were found for the
abstinence denition: men were signicantly more likely to consider
others stimulating their genitals with a sex toy where they do not
reach orgasm, as well as both masturbating while in telephone contact
and in computer contact where the other party reaches orgasm, as ab-
stinent activities. Due to the small number of signicant items found
for specic scenarios, it is difcult to nd and interpret any patterns
from these results; however, by conducting analyses for the denitions
as a whole, men were found to be signicantly more likely to classify a
behavior as maintaining abstinence than women. Furthermore, an ex-
amination of the endorsement percentages shows that men had higher
endorsement rates than women for 33 of the 35 scenarios for virginity
and only 8 of the 35 scenarios for having sex (see Table 2). Although
men typically report a larger number of lifetime sexual partners than
women (Wiederman, 1997), our data indicate that men were less inclu-
sive than women in their denitions of sex and more inclusive than
women in their denitions of virginity and abstinence. Thus, it seems
unlikely that men's sexual partner reports are inated by denitional
differences for activities such as mutual masturbation, genital touching,
and oral-genital contact. Instead, it is more likely that men and women
use different estimation strategies to arrive at their sexual partner totals
(Brown & Sinclair, 1999) or that gender norms inform how men
and women respond to questions about personal sexual activity
(Alexander & Fisher, 2003).
Sexual denitions research has important implications for sex edu-
cators, clinicians, and health professionals (Byers et al., 2009). While
the majority of participants agreed that penile-vaginal and penile-anal
intercourse were sex acts, there is still considerable disagreement
about the status of oral-genital contact. In her study, Chambers (2007)
reported that approximately 20% of her participants were unaware of
the potential STI risks for oral sex. Given that 75% of our participants re-
ported having engaged in oral-genital contact before (see Table 3), it
seems particularly important for university students to be aware that
the transmission risks of oral-genital contact include herpes simplex
virus, chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea, and HPV (Chambers, 2007;
Moore & Harris, 2014). Furthermore, approximately 16% of our male
participants and 27% of our female participants reported having re-
ceived sex toy stimulation from another person before (see Table 3),
which, for women, may carry transmission risks of its own in the form
of bacterial vaginosis (Marrazzo et al., 2005; Marrazzo et al., 2010)
and HPV (Anderson et al., 2014). These results strongly suggest that
health practitioners should be very concrete and clear when discussing
the potential risks of sexual activities and inquiring about sexual histo-
ries. When administering sex education, advising individuals to use
protection when they have sexmay be insufcient; these results sug-
gest that specic activities should be listed for clarity. Furthermore, use
of the words virginityand abstinenceshould be limited, as the
meanings of these words vary from person to person.
This study was limited in several ways. First, we utilized conve-
nience sampling to recruit our participants. Second, our sample
consisted entirely of undergraduate students and was over 70% female,
so the extent to which these results are generalizable to the general
population is unknown. Finally, data were gathered with self-report
questionnaires and were thus subject to response biases. Nevertheless,
this study further highlights the variability in sexual denitions and
suggests a number of directions for future research. Of particular inter-
est is the clear distinction between students' denitions of virginity and
abstinence, with the latter being perceived as a more restrictiveconcept.
Future studies could further examine this relationship as well as the
potential factors behind the gender differences in how students dene
virginity and abstinence. Future studies could also explore other
sociodemographic differences in sexual denitions such as ethnicity
and sexual orientation.
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Table 3
Percentages by gender for having ever engaged in a behavior before.
Behaviors Male Female Total
Deep kissing/tongue kissing 86.2 88.1 87.6
Oral contact with someone else's breasts/nipples 81.5 52.4 60.8
Someone having oral contact with your breasts/nipples 58.9 81.5 75.0
Touching someone else's genitals 81.5 82.4 82.1
Someone touching your genitals 83.6 81.5 82.1
Oral contact with someone else's genitals 70.9 75.5 74.2
Someone having oral contact with your genitals 75.3 76.4 76.0
Stimulating another person's genitals with a sex toy 24.7 18.1 20.0
Someone stimulating your genitals with a sex toy 15.6 27.3 24.0
Penile-vaginal intercourse 64.0 70.8 68.8
Penile-anal intercourse 32.4 26.4 28.1
Masturbating in the presence of another 50.9 39.2 42.6
Masturbating while in telephone contact with someone 42.2 38.3 39.4
Masturbating while in computer contact with someone 40.7 26.1 30.3
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Does everyone mean the same thing when they talk about having sex, losing their virginity, or who they would consider to be a sexual partner? The researchers were interested in (a) determining if students differ in their definitions of these terms; (b) examining the relationship between students' own sexual experience and their labelling of behaviours comprising these terms; and (c) determining whether such factors as orgasm, dating status, the sex of the partner, and the sex of the participant influence their definitions. One hundred fifty-five undergraduate students completed five questionnaires, three of which asked them to indicate whether they would consider a list of hypothetical behaviours as involving having sex, sexual partner, and a loss of virginity, and one of which asked them to indicate whether they had engaged in a list of parallel sexual behaviours with a member of the opposite or same sex. Students reported a broader definition of sexual partner than of having sex and a broader definition of having sex than of virginity loss. Students' definitions were more likely to include scenarios involving a longer dating status, an opposite-sex partner, and the presence of orgasm. Females reported a broader definition of having sex than males and no relationship was found between students' sexual experience and their sexual definitions.
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In this study 164 heterosexual Canadian university students were asked about their definitions of the terms having sex, sexual partner, and unfaithful. Students were asked to indicate which from a list of 18 sexual behaviours they would include in their definition of each of the three terms. Significantly more behaviours were included in students' unfaithful definition than were included in the sexual partner definition and significantly more behaviours were included in the sexual partner definition than in the having sex definition. For example, while less than 25% of participants considered oral genital behaviour to be having sex, more than 60% thought that the giver or receiver of oral sex was a sexual partner, and more than 97% considered a partner who had oral sex with someone else to be have been unfaithful. Similarly, while masturbating to orgasm in the presence of another was considered to be having sex by less than 4% of participants, 34% reported that this behaviour was sufficient to consider that person a sexual partner and 95% considered it to be unfaithful. Students were more likely to include a behaviour in their definitions if orgasm occurred than if orgasm did not occur. There were no significant gender differences. Multiple regression analyses revealed that older and less sexually experienced students reported a broader definition of sexual partner than did younger and more sexually experienced students. The implications of these findings for sex research and sexual health promotion are discussed.
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This study provides a description of an innovative workshop that educated college students about the risks of unprotected sexual behavior, particularly oral sex, and methods of risk reduction using a metaphor of “sharing and eating jelly beans.” Intervention development was guided by the Information-Motivation-Behavioral Skills model. Ninety-five students attended this workshop, with 69 (73%) participating in a workshop assessment in the form of a one-group pretest-posttest design with no control group. The surveys obtained information about participants’ demographics, sexual experience, protective sexual behaviors, perception of risk, motivation to engage in protective behaviors, and response to the workshop. Most participants rated the workshop as “very useful,” and many reported the jelly bean metaphor specifically interesting and effective. Motivation to use condoms during oral sex significantly increased after the workshop, as did motivation to use condoms during vaginal and anal sex. Most participants were also motivated to get tested for sexually transmitted infections and obtain human papillomavirus vaccination. This educational workshop is easy to implement to promote engagement in protective behaviors and could be adapted to be part of an existing health program or delivered as a stand-alone workshop.
Article
Ambiguous definitions concerning which behaviors constitute sex, abstinence, and virginity may lead to arbitrary interpretations of meaning or miscommunication, which could be particularly problematic in health care, educational, and research contexts. The purpose of this study was to examine and compare definitions of sex, abstinence, and virginity between samples of 454 university students and 126 AASECT-certified sexuality professionals. Compared to the AASECT professionals, students were less likely to classify 10 of 11 behaviors as sex, they were more likely to indicate that oral-genital contact maintains one's virginity, and they were more likely to indicate that oral-genital contact and hand-genital contact is consistent with abstinent behavior. Relative to previous studies, these findings also suggest that conceptualizations of abstinence and the classification of oral-genital contact may be changing among young adults. Overall, the primary implication of these findings is that sexual health professionals should be mindful of the interpretative latitude afforded to individuals when using terms intended to refer to a range of sexual behaviors rather than explicitly identifying the targeted behaviors.
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Ambiguity surrounds virginity loss as defined and interpreted by young people in the contemporary United States. Drawing on in‐depth case studies of 61 women and men of various sexual orientations, ages 18 to 35, I explore the influence of that ambiguity on conduct and identity. Although uniformly agreeing that virginity loss could occur through first coitus, most respondents claimed that other kinds of genital sex could also sometimes result in virginity loss. Many argued that virginity could not be lost through rape. Respondents offered three primary interpretations of virginity—as a gift, stigma, or part of a process—which were associated with distinctive presentations of self, choices of virginity‐loss partner, and contraceptive practices. Different definitions and interpretations of virginity loss gave distinctive shape to individuals ‘ choices about the transitions from virgin to nonvirgin identity. Understandings of virginity loss were further patterned by gender and sexual orientation.
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This article draws on in-depth case studies of 61 women and men of diverse sexual identities to show how gender, while apparently diminishing in significance, continues to shape interpretations and experiences of virginity loss in complex ways. Although women and men tended to assign different meanings to virginity, those who shared an interpretation reported similar virginity-loss encounters. Each interpretation of virginity—as a gift, stigma, or process—featured unequal roles for virgin and partner, which interacted with gender differences in power to produce interpretation-specific patterns of gender subordination, only one of which consistently gave men power over women.