It goes without saying that most sex researchers study people who have sex. Over the last few decades, we have accumulated a significant body of scientific knowledge about such persons. But what about the people who, for whatever reason, never become sexually active? What do we know about them? As it turns out, surprisingly little. However, a recent paper published in the Archives of Sexual Behavior sheds some light on this subject by describing how many people in the United States enter adulthood without any sexual experience and by identifying some of the characteristics associated with such persons.
In this study, researchers analyzed data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (known as Add Health for short). This is a huge dataset that started in 1994-1995 with over 20,000 7th-12th grade students in the United States. There have been three additional waves of data collection since, with the most recent occurring in 2008. During each wave, data were collected about a wide range of topics, including sexual behavior.
For this particular paper, researchers focused on whether participants reported having ever become sexually active by 2008. Those who reported having never had vaginal, oral, or anal sex by then were classified as “sexually inexperienced,” while those who had engaged in one or more of these behaviors were classified as “sexually experienced.” The researchers then looked to see how data collected during the other waves predicted being sexually inexperienced/experienced, including demographic characteristics, cognitive and physical abilities, and behavioral characteristics.
In the 2008 data, participants were 28.5 years old on average, with the age range being 24-34. By this stage, 3% were classified as sexually inexperienced. The vast majority (97%) of participants therefore had vaginal, oral, or anal sex at some point in their lives. Among those participants who did not have sex during adolescence, about 1 in 8 remained sexually inexperienced into adulthood.
Among both men and women, reports of “sexual non-attraction” were associated with being sexually inexperienced in adulthood. This suggests that at least part of the sexually inexperienced group consisted of asexual individuals. However, keep in mind that not all asexual persons are sexually inexperienced--some may still have sex, for example, in order to please a partner or because they feel pressure to be sexually active. Likewise, not all adults who are sexually inexperienced are asexual--some still have sexual desires, but have not had sex.
In addition, among men, other factors associated with adult sexual inexperience included: being a non-Hispanic Asian, going through puberty late, and being rated as physically unattractive. For women, the other factors linked to adult sexual inexperience included: being overweight, having lower levels of cognitive performance, and attending religious services often.
Unfortunately, the nature of this research does not allow us to say why these associations occurred. In addition, this research does not address a number of other important questions about this population, such as the number of people for whom being sexually inexperienced is voluntary as opposed to non-voluntary, not to mention people’s psychological reactions to being sexually inexperienced.
That said, these results suggest that transitioning from adolescence to adulthood and remaining sexually inexperienced is relatively rare; however, they also suggest that sexually inexperienced adults comprise a very diverse group of people and that there are likely multiple pathways to being sexually inexperienced.
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To learn more about this research, see: Haydon, A. A., Cheng, M. M., Herring, A. H., McRee, A. L., & Halpern, C. T. (2014). Prevalence and predictors of sexual inexperience in adulthood. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 43(2), 221-230.
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