Sexuality and Culture

, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 24–38 | Cite as

“Am I Still a Virgin?”: What Counts as Sex in 20 years of Seventeen

  • Stephanie R. Medley-Rath


In this paper, I analyze what counts as sex using a qualitative content analysis of the sexuality and health advice columns in Seventeen from 1982 to 2001. These columns are a useful source for identifying adolescent sexual norms including what counts as sex. Previous sex research often assumed that sex meant penile–vaginal intercourse and was the cause of virginity loss. Thus, I use virginity-related key terms (e.g., virgin, sex) to identify the sexuality and health advice columns pertinent to this project. These columns illustrate how multiple sexual acts can cause virginity loss; however, Seventeen remains ambiguous in its discussion of what counts as sex. Letter writers are concerned with what sexual acts they can participate in and still remain virgins and what act defines virginity loss. My analysis reveals that the columns reinforce heteronormativity by telling readers virginity is lost only through penile–vaginal intercourse. Additionally, Seventeen supports the sexual double standard by placing the responsibility of sexual behavior solely on female adolescents rather than on them and their partners.


Technical virginity Traditional virginity Adolescents Heterosexuality Sexual behavior Heteronormativity 



I thank Elisabeth O. Burgess, Denise A. Donnelly, Wendy Simonds, Robert Adelman, Saori Yasumoto, Michael Lepore, Melissa Travis, Evelina Sterling, Cenate Pruitt and Rob Rath for their insightful comments on earlier drafts of this paper. I also thank Laura M. Carpenter for advice on this project and the anonymous reviewer from Sexuality & Culture. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Social Problems.


  1. Bailey, W., Young, M., Knickerbocker, C., & Doan, T. (2002). A cautionary tale about conducting research on abstinence education: How do state abstinence coordinators define “sexual activity?”. American Journal of Health Education, 33, 290–296.Google Scholar
  2. Baldwin, J. I., & Baldwin, J. D. (2000). Heterosexual anal intercourse: An understudied, high-risk sexual behavior. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 29, 357–373.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baumgardner, J., & Richards, A. (2000). Manifesta: Young women, feminism, and the future. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.Google Scholar
  4. Berger, D. G., & Wenger, M. G. (1973). The ideology of virginity. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 35, 666–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bogart, L. M., Cecil, H., Wagstaff, D. A., Pinkerton, S. D., & Abramson, P. R. (2000). Is it “sex”?: College students’ interpretations of sexual behavior terminology. The Journal of Sex Research, 37, 108–116.Google Scholar
  6. Bouris, K. (1994). The first time: What parents and teenage girls should know about “losing your virginity”. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bowker’s New Media Directory. (2003). (Vol. 2, 54th ed.). New Providence, NJ: Bowker.Google Scholar
  8. Brown, J. D., Greenberg, B. S., & Buerkel-Rothfuss, N. L. (1993). Mass media, sex, and sexuality. Adolescent Medicine: State of the Art Reviews, 4, 511–525.Google Scholar
  9. Brumberg, J. J. (1997). The body project: An intimate history of American girls. New York: Vintage Books.Google Scholar
  10. Carpenter, L. M. (1998). From girls into women: Scripts for sexuality and romance in Seventeen magazine, 1974–1994. The Journal of Sex Research, 35, 158–168.Google Scholar
  11. Carpenter, L. M. (2001a). The ambiguity of “having sex”: The subjective experience of virginity loss in the United States. The Journal of Sex Research, 38, 127–139.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Carpenter, L. M. (2001b). The first time/das erstes mal: Approaches to virginity loss in U.S. and German teen magazines. Youth & Society, 33, 31–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Carpenter, L. M. (2002). Gender and the meaning and experience of virginity loss in the contemporary United States. Gender & Society, 16, 345–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Carpenter, L. M. (2005). Virginity lost: An intimate portrait of first sexual experiences. New York: New York University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Cobb, N. J. (1995). Adolescence: Continuity, change, and diversity (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  16. Currie, D. H. (1999). Girl talk: Adolescent magazines and their readers. Buffalo, NY: University of Toronto Press.Google Scholar
  17. Denmark, F., Rabinowitz, V., & Sechzer, J. (2000). Engendering psychology: Bringing women into focus. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.Google Scholar
  18. Durham, M. G. (1998). Dilemmas of desire: representations of adolescent sexuality in two teen magazines. Youth & Society, 29, 369–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Gagnon, J. H. (1990). The explicit and implicit use of scripting perspectives in sex research. In J. Bancroft, C. M. Davis, & D. Weinstein (Eds.), Annual review of sex research (pp. 1–43). Lake Mills, IA: The Society for the Scientific Study of Sex.Google Scholar
  20. Garner, A., Sterk, H. M., & Adams, S. (1998). Narrative analysis of sexual etiquette in teenage magazines. Journal of Communication, 48, 59–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hawkins, M. I., Davis, M., Eady, C., Rausch, S., Donnelly, J., & Young, M. (2002). Meanings of abstinence and sexual activity for rural youth. American Journal of Health Education, 33, 140–145.Google Scholar
  22. Holtzman, D., & Kulish, N. (1997). Nevermore: The hymen and the loss of virginity. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar
  23. Ingraham, C. (2002). Heterosexuality: It’s just not natural. In D. Richardson, & S. Seidman (Eds.), Handbook of lesbian and gay studies (pp. 73–82). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  24. Jackson, St. (1999). Heterosexuality in question. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.Google Scholar
  25. Jackson, Su. (2005a). “Dear Girlfriend...”: Constructions of sexual health problems and sexual identities in letters to a teenage magazine. Sexualities, 8, 282–305.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jackson, Su. (2005b). “I’m 15 and desperate for sex”: “Doing” and “undoing” desire in letters to a teenage magazine. Feminism & Psychology, 15, 295–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Janus, S. S., & Janus, C. L. (1993). The Janus report on sexual behavior. New York: John Wiley & Sons.Google Scholar
  28. Laws, J. L., & Schwartz, P. (1977). Sexual scripts: The social construction of female sexuality. Hinsdale, IL: The Dryden Press.Google Scholar
  29. Masters, W. H., Johnson, V. E., & Kolodny, R. C. (1988). Masters and Johnson on sex and human loving. Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company.Google Scholar
  30. McPhillips, K., Braun, V., & Gavey, N. (2001). Defining (hetero)sex: How imperative is the “coital imperative”?. Women’s Studies International Forum, 24, 229–240.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. McRobbie, A. (2000). Feminism and youth culture (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  32. Michaels, S., & Giami, A. (1999). Review: Sexual acts and sexual relationships: Asking about sex in surveys. Public Opinion Quarterly, 63, 401–420.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Milkie, M. A. (1999). Social comparisons, reflected appraisals, and mass media: The impact of pervasive beauty images on black and white girls’ self-concepts. Social Psychology Quarterly, 62, 190–210.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Milkie, M. A. (2002). Contested images of femininity: An analysis of cultural gatekeepers’ struggles with the “real girl” critique. Gender & Society, 16, 839–859.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Pattee, A. S. (2004). Mass market mortification: The developmental appropriateness of teen magazines and the embarrassing story standard. The Library Quarterly, 74, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Remez, L. (2000). Oral sex among adolescents: Is it sex or is it abstinence?. Family Planning Perspectives, 32, 298–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Rich, A. (1980). Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 5, 631–660.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Sanders, S. A., & Reinisch, J. M. (1999). Would you say you “had sex” if...?. The Journal of American Medical Association, 281, 275–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Schlegel, A. (2001). The chaste adolescent. In E. J. Sobo, & S. Bell (Eds.), Celibacy, culture, and society: The anthropology of sexual abstinence (pp. 87–103). Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.Google Scholar
  40. Schwartz, P., & Rutter, V. (1998). The gender of sexuality. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.Google Scholar
  41. Seventeen. July 1982; August, May, 1983; December, 1984; July, November, 1988; August, October, 1989; May, June, 1990; August, 1991; June 1992; March, May, September, December, 1993; April, June, November, 1994; May, July, December, 1995; April, September, October, December, 1997; January, June, November, 1998; January, April, 2000.Google Scholar
  42. Simon, W., & Gagnon, J. H. (1987). A sexual scripts approach. In J. H. Geer, & W. T. O’Donohue (Eds.), Theories of human sexuality (pp. 363–383). New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  43. Thompson, S. (1984). Search for tomorrow: On feminism and the reconstruction of teen romance. In C. S. Vance (Ed.), Pleasure and danger: Exploring female sexuality (pp. 350–84). Boston, MA: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  44. Treise, D., & Gotthoffer, A. (2002). Stuff you couldn’t ask your parents: Teens talking about using magazines for sex information. In J. D. Brown, J. R. Steele, & K. Walsh-Childers (Eds.), Sexual teens, sexual media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality (pp. 173–89). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  45. Ulrich’s International Periodicals Directory 1999. (1998). Classified List of Subjects M-Z (37th ed.). Vol. 3 New Providence, NJ: R.R. Bowker.Google Scholar
  46. Walsh-Childers, K., Gottthoffer, A., & Lepre, C. R. (2002). From “just the facts” to “downright Salacious”: Teens’ and women’s magazine coverage of sex and sexual health. In J. D. Brown, J. R. Steele, & K. Walsh-Childers (Eds.), Sexual teens, sexual media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality (pp. 153–71). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  47. Weber, R. P. (1985). Basic content analysis. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications.Google Scholar
  48. Williams, M. (2004). What teenage girls write to agony aunts: Their relationships, perception, pressures and needs. Health Education Journal, 63, 324–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Wray, J., & Steele, J. R. (2002). Girls in print: Figuring out what it means to be a girl. In J. D. Brown, J. R. Steele, & K. Walsh-Childers (Eds.), Sexual teens, sexual media: Investigating media’s influence on adolescent sexuality (pp. 191–208). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyGeorgia State UniversityAtlantaUSA
  2. 2.Department of Sociology and CriminologyUniversity of West GeorgiaCarrolltonUSA

Personalised recommendations