"Just because you see their privates doesn't mean you're not a virgin" : adolescents' understanding of sexual terminology

Bell, Heidi
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Human Development and Family Studies

The purpose of this study was to evaluate adolescents' understanding of sexual terminology. The researcher focused on what sexual behaviors adolescents consider to fall within the range of abstinence, sexual intercourse, and virginity. Of specific interest was the issue of whether or not sexual behaviors such as oral sex and anal sex are perceived by adolescents as activities that do not fall within the category of "having sex." The sample consisted of 282 adolescents from three rural Midwestern school districts. The youth ranged in age from 12 years of age to 18 years. A questionnaire with both open and close-ended questions in addition to follow up interviews were the methods used to conduct the study. The dominant theme emerging from this study was that for the students in this sample terms such as abstinence and virginity have broad definitions. These definitions include sexual behaviors such as oral sex as acceptable to maintain the labels of abstinent and virgin. The concept that sex is limited to vaginal intercourse is a concern because the youth in this study have taken this concept one step further to infer there are no real consequences of participating in other forms of sexual behavior. As a result of these findings the researcher argues that sex education needs to be more explicit so that youth understand the consequences of each and every sexual behavior and the method to protect themselves should they choose to participate in one of these behaviors. Further, such education needs to begin with younger adolescents and continue yearly through high school.