Dear Mona: Did I Lose My Virginity Later Than Everyone Else?

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Photo: Maldita Mona

Dear Mona,

I was what you might call a late bloomer: I didn’t lose my virginity until college. But I’ve wondered lately — is that actually later than average? At what age do most people lose their virginity?

—L.

Dear L.,

Well, if I were answering this question a few decades ago, your story would’ve made you almost perfectly average. Consider an interesting paper published in 2007 by Lawrence B. Finer of the Guttmacher Institute, which examined surveys of 15-year-olds throughout the years, dating back to 1954. Finer found that Americans who were age 15 between 1954 and 1963 had sex — as in vaginal intercourse — for the first time at age 20.4 on average.  

Median age of first sex
22 21 20 19 18 17
20.4
18.6
18
17.3
17.6
1954–1963 1964–1973 1974–1983 1984–1993 1994–2003
Period respondents turned 15

But the median age of first-time intercourse has gotten younger over time, as you might’ve guessed. According to the latest numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the average age boys first have sex is 16.8 years; for girls, it’s 17.2 years. You may be wondering about that age gap — there are a couple of possible explanations here:

    1. Maybe, when the CDC did interviews with 9,175 adults ages 18–44 to collect these numbers, some of those people lied. Perhaps women were more likely to tweak the truth to suggest they had sex at an older age, and men tried to suggest they had sex younger than they really did. (Given that society still tends to slut-shame women more than men, this is certainly a possibility. This could also explain why that same survey found that men typically have 6.6 sexual partners over the course of their lifetimes, while women reported just 4.3.)

  1. Maybe boys tend to lose their virginity to females who are a little older than them, but I’ve found no evidence supporting this.

You may be curious as to whether this data is strictly heterosexual, or whether it includes people whose first sexual encounters were with a member of their same sex. Me too. The CDC doesn’t exactly break it down that way, but there are a few recent, relevant statistics — numbers like 6.8 percent of American women and 3.9 percent of American men identifying as gay or bisexual, according to a CDC survey published earlier this month. But when it comes to your question, L., sexual behavior is far more important than sexual identity. That survey also found that 12.6 percent of the women and 2.8 percent of men who identified as heterosexual also said they’d had at least one same-sex sexual encounter.

But can we please back up and consider for a minute what exactly a sexual encounter is? I’m not trying to get all birds-and-bees with you here, but what image did you have in mind when you used the expression “lose their virginity”? CDC researchers, for their part, would never use a word as imprecise as virginity in their surveys; instead, they collect separate data regarding first vaginal sexual intercourse and oral sex. (And anal sex, too, actually, though they don’t break that down by age.) Once you really start to drill into these numbers, it’s pretty complex, even if you’re only focusing on heterosexual behavior. For 26 percent of women ages 15 to 24, oral sex occurred before vaginal intercourse; 7.4 percent said it occurred on the same occasion. There’s a similar breakdown for men, too.

Females age 15–24 years Males age 15–24 years
30% 15% 0%
6.3%
5%
5.1%
6.5%
26%
23.6%
27.3%
24.2%
7.4%
12.2%
27.8%
28.5%
Vaginal intercourse but no oral sex Oral sex but no vaginal intercourse Oral sex occurred before vaginal intercourse Oral sex occurred after vaginal intercourse Oral sex occurred on the same occasion as vaginal intercourse No sex of any kind with opposite-sex partner

I’ve focused a lot on gender differences here because that’s what society does when it comes to sex, so I assume that’s also what you’re interested in, L. But, of course, there are so many factors beyond gender that influence the age someone first has sex. The CDC has found that a person’s race and education (hell, even their mother’s education) can affect these numbers. Specifically, the higher their mother’s education level, the less likely Americans ages 15 to 24 are to have had penile-vaginal sex, and the overall probability of any experience of sexual contact increases if young Americans are black rather than white or Hispanic.

A study in Los Angeles back in the ‘90s reached a similar conclusion, although it had a slightly different methodology – instead of the average, these researchers focused on the median age of first intercourse. (Medians, or the middle value when everyone is all lined up, are a much better indication of what’s commonplace.) The researchers found that Asian-Americans have sex for the first time at 18.1 years, while for Hispanics, it’s 17.0 years; for whites, it’s 16.6 years; and blacks, it’s 15.8 years. They also found that Americans who live with both biological parents typically have sex for the first time over a year later than those who live in single-parent or stepfamily households.  

One last thing: The mere fact that your message ended up in my in-box leads me to believe you’re a New York reader, so you might like to know how you compare to others. At the end of my last column (also about sex — but I assure you, that’s not my whole thing!) I asked readers what age they were the first time they did it. How do you compare to American averages?

At the time I’m writing this, 665 of you responded. The average age of first intercourse was actually the same for men and women: 18.4 years. And in case you’re wondering, on average, the women who responded to my survey said they had 14 sexual partners; men said their number was 76. Remember how I said averages were tricky before? That number is crazy high largely because of just three respondents: a 58-year-old man who said he’d had 14,137 sexual partners (between me and you, I’m just a little skeptical), a bisexual male who estimated 900 sexual partners, and a gay guy who thought he’d had 500 lovers. Once you take those guys out of the mix, though, the average drops to 20 sexual partners.

Hope the numbers help,

Mona

Mona Chalabi is data editor at The Guardian U.S. You can send her questions for her “Dear Mona” column at mona@monachalabi.com or on Twitter.