VIRGINITY RISING

by Maggie Gallagher

Shocking news: Virginity is on the rise in America.

The source is sober, academic, practically irrefutable: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Its latest analysis of the sex lives of Americans age 15 to 44 includes a startling finding: Virginity is increasing among teens and young adults in the U.S.

Compared with data from the 2002 (National Survey of Family Growth), a higher percentage of males and females 15-24 in 2006-2008 have had no sexual contact with another person. In 2002, 22 percent of young men and women 15-24 had never had any sexual contact with another person, and in 2006-2008, those figures were 27 percent for males and 29 percent for females.

The survey was was drawn from in-person interviews with a national sample of 13,495 males and females. The data were collected using audio computer-assisted self-interviewing, or ACASI, in which the respondent enters his or her own answers into the computer -- known to be the most accurate way of collecting sensitive data.

The response rate for the 2006-2008 NSFG was 75 percent -- very high for this kind of data.

The increase in virginity is not just "technical virginity," mind you. These are young adults who say they have had no sexual contact of any kind: no intercourse, no oral sex, no anal sex. (Presumably, a lot of them have, however, kissed and hugged!)

I'm an old hand at stats. But even I was surprised by this finding buried in the report (Table 3): 32 percent of currently married women under the age of 45 say they have had only one sex partner in their life.

Slightly more than 50 million Americans are married. If the figures for those under 45 mirror the national figures (a conservative assumption), that means the number of women who have never had sex with anyone but their husbands is at least 8 million.

The same data show that less than 2 percent of adults under the age of 45 self-identify as "homosexual, gay or lesbians" (more if you count bisexuals, of course). If the data are accurate, they suggest there are at least as many adult women under the age of 45 who have never had sex with anyone but their husband as there are gay people in the general population.

But unlike gay folks, these women are invisible, derided, ridiculed or treated as a virtual impossibility.

Why is this good news? When young women refuse to engage in promiscuous sex, they protect themselves, our culture and our next generation of children from a variety of concrete harms -- from sexually transmitted diseases to infant mortality, welfare dependence, school failure and juvenile delinquency associated with increased risk of young, out-of-wedlock births. HIV alone costs $20,000 per year per person who contracts it, according to the Rand Corp.

While the majority of people who contract new cases of AIDS are gay, a big chunk of new HIV cases are heterosexuals -- and those most at risk are women who engage in anal sex with men.

Sadly, this CDC report also documents the mainstreaming of this dirty and dangerous sexual practice for women: Close to one-third of heterosexual women under the age of 45 say they have had anal sex at least once.

Of course, the occasional porno-inspired drunken sex act probably is not a major public health issue -- although it is an issue for each one of us who cares about that particular young woman endangering herself.

The small number of women who regularly engage in anal sex are probably at the highest risk. And there are few, if any, public resources being directed at explaining to these young women how they are endangering themselves, their future children and any of their sexual partners.

Oral sex and sexual intercourse can both transmit HIV, but a single act of anal sex by women is 30 times more likely to transmit the virus, according to the New York City Department of Health. Yet because vaginal intercourse is so much more common, it probably remains the main transmission method for HIV among heterosexual women.

What accounts for the rise of virginity among the next generation of young adults? I know of no particular factor that can explain it. We are left, by default, with believing that the Bush administration's emphasis on abstinence education may have borne unexpected fruit.

(The pessimist in me, however, wonders whether online porn is reducing men's willingness to negotiate actual sexual relationships with women.)

Given the research showing that such programs do, in fact, help teens to delay sex, it would be irresponsible for government to zero out abstinence education, which if it gets young teens to delay sex even a year or two will reduce both the costs associated with out-of-wedlock pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.

It turns out that sex is not inevitable, and young people are listening: What are we willing to tell them?

That's a question for grown-ups alone to answer.

(Maggie Gallagher is the founder of the National Organization for Marriage and has been a syndicated columnist for 15 years.)