Despite what the preponderance of nativity scenes on display this time of year might suggest, it seems that there’s actually a savior born on the regular here in the U.S. New research published in the British Medical Journal finds that roughly 1 in 200 pregnant young American women claim to be virgins. Researchers looked at a study from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that followed nearly 8,000 young women from adolescence onward, for 14 years, tracking all sorts of information about their lives, their beliefs, and their reproductive histories. If the women in the study reported having gotten pregnant before reporting having had sexual intercourse, they were counted. Out of 5,340 who reported a pregnancy, 45 claimed to be pregnant without admitting, to researchers at least, that they’d ever had sex.
The characteristics of the pregnant virgins are not surprising in the slightest. They were nearly twice as likely as the pregnant nonvirgins to have taken a pledge to remain abstinent until marriage, a religious ritual that sprung up in the 1990s in the U.S. and spread like wildfire in conservative circles. They were also younger, on average, than their nonvirgin peers, around 19 at the time they gave birth, compared to 22 for the nonvirgins. Parents of virgin mothers, who were also interviewed, reported higher levels of stress and inability to discuss sexual health issues with their children.
Mostly, the study’s authors stick to the flat, professional tone of public health researchers, but they did give themselves one opportunity for a bit of cheek:
While more virgins gave birth to boys (59.8%) or may have learnt they were pregnant during Advent, these trends did not reach statistical significance.
How on Earth can women think of themselves as “virgins” despite having gone through a pregnancy? Researchers have a few suggestions. The most obvious, based on how many virgin mothers experience “cultural mores highly valuing virginity,” is just plain denial. Many young people hear urban legends about girls who got pregnant by sitting on toilet seats or by swimming in pools, and it might just be easier to pretend that’s what happened rather than own up to the truth.
Another possibility is that some people have, for whatever reason, decided that penis-in-vagina intercourse is not enough to constitute “losing your virginity.” As the researchers point out, “In a study of Canadian college students, 90% considered penile vaginal intercourse with orgasm as ‘having sex.’ ” The other 10 percent did not. This might seem foolish at first, but as historian Hanne Blank pointed out in her book Virgin: The Untouched History, there isn’t a medical definition of virginity, so who is and isn’t one has always been hotly debated. It’s easy to see how people can dismiss an incident of sexual intercourse as “not counting” for a variety of reasons. Maybe it was coerced. Maybe they weren’t in love. Maybe they didn’t have an orgasm. Maybe it only lasted 30 seconds. Because we give so much cultural weight to the concepts of “virginity” and “having sex,” perhaps we’ve given young people reason to deny that the sex they’re having counts as sex. And because of that, we get all these virgin mothers. Hallelujah.