Many of you will have seen this chart:
This is from the General Social Survey (GSS) in 2018, as reported by the Washington Post. This image has become a meme. This was released in 2018 and the data was collected in 2017. Six years later, it’s still floating around. We have updated GSS data that is from 2021, a little bit newer, which I have written about before. Nonetheless, I wanted to go back and revisit this meme stat.
Having dug through the GSS variables, I don’t see one that measures virginity. This seems to be based on the NUMWOMEN variable, which asks this question:
Now thinking about the time since your 18th birthday (including the past 12 months) how many female partners have you had sex with?
It’s probably a pretty good proxy for virginity, but it will underestimate it some. According to the US Census, about half of men are not virgins at age 18. Every 18-year-old who had sex at 17, but not past their 18th birthday, will be counted as a “virgin” if we interpret it this way. Nonetheless, let’s take it at face value going forward. We’ll go ahead and call it virginity for this article.
I took the GSS data and filtered by male sex, heterosexual, and age 18-30. I also applied the GSS recommended weighting variable for proportionally representative data. After weighting with the Survey package in R, this is what I got:
In this, 24.93% of men are “virgins.” My number is a little lower than the WaPo chart. I don’t know how the Washington Post analyzed the data. It could be because I excluded non-heterosexual men. It could also be because I included men who were 30 years old (it is unclear if the WaPo stopped at 29). Whatever the case may be, we’re pretty close nonetheless.
Then I split the data by age groups. Here is the result:
This shows a very strong effect of age on male virginity. In this, 50.52% of men between 18-20 are virgins. For men over age 25 (but not older than 30), only 1.9% are virgins.
I have seen the WaPo chart interpreted untold times by people who think it means that 27% of all men aged 18-30 are virgins. 27% is across the whole group. It’s a highly skewed distribution, with the vast majority of virgins falling into the youngest age cohort.
In other words, it’s really quite normal to still be a virgin at age 18. It’s very uncommon to be a virgin at age 25. Indeed, the more conservative or traditional elements of society might have argued at one point that you should still be a virgin at age 18. At age 18 you probably have very little going for you. You might still look very young (not especially attractive to women). You probably don’t have a job, an education, or money. Indeed, there is a current phenomenon of extended adolescence; young men are getting drivers’ licenses, jobs, and entering university later in life. They are living at home with their parents longer. Lots of reasons to remain a virgin.
Here is the trend of virginity in the GSS between 2008 and 2018, by age group:
You do see an uptick in virginity for the older age groups. However, most of the effect is driven by the youngest cohort. Additionally, when breaking the sample into age groups the 18-19 year cohort only has 10-20 participants for each year. The other age groups have 100+ participants across years. This contributes to the high variability that you see in the chart for the youngest men. The data is noisier and weighting a small sample means that you are also weighting the noise.
Now we can compare with 2021, the more recent data:
We see a decrease in male virginity for men over age 20 and an increase for men under age 20. Consistent with the extended adolescence observation. Keep in mind the percentage across the full group was 24.93% in the first chart; in the second it is 16.64%.
Here we can add our 2021 datapoint to the yearly plot:
Better Data: The NSFG
As I wrote in the previous section, the 18-19 age bin only has 20 subjects. This is too small; it will produce a high margin of error. This is likely why you see such high variability from year-to-year. The GSS uses a weighting variable to make disproportionate sample numbers representative of the population. We might want to look at a larger dataset for the youngest adults.
Additionally, the GSS asked how many people had not had sex since age 18. This has been interpreted as virginity (for example, in the first chart in this article). However, many people do have sex before age 18.
The National Survey for Family Growth (NSFG) asks who has ever had sex and has a sufficiently larger sample for young adults (N = about 1,700 for men in 2017-2019 NSFG; the GSS subsample only had about 120 for comparison). Here are some charts from @nuance_enjoyer on Twitter (follow him if you use Twitter; he is really doing a great job with the data on sexual and relationship topics).
Here we see the percentage of heterosexual virgins of both sexes by age. The trend is similar. We see a sharp decline in virginity that becomes pretty stable after age 25.
Here is a plot by time and binned by age group. This shows the same trend. There is a small increase in virginity in the most recent range of years. The youngest adults are more likely to be virgins, but most will not remain virgins. By age 25-30 3.9% of men and 5.8% of women will remain virgins.
The virginity statistic is driven by the youth. We don’t see an increase in extended male virginity between 2018 and 2021, although we did see an uptick between 2014 and 2018. Past age 25, very few men remain virgins. The question used in the GSS that has been interpreted as “virginity” probably overestimates it a little bit. Additionally, the small number of young male adults in the GSS contributes to high variability across years.
Nonetheless, what we see is pretty normal and maybe even good. As young as I can remember, early and risky sex has been discouraged in sex education. Now we are finally seeing a modicum of abstinence (this is true for women as well) and people are losing their minds.
Why are young men having less sex?
Part of what drives this may be due to prolonging relationships. Despite promiscuity narratives in our folk psychology, most sex occurs within the context of a relationship. Additionally, the recent Pew survey of singles found that approximately half of single young men between age 18-30 reported being voluntarily single. As people extend adolescence and prolong the formation of serially monogamous or long term relationships, sexlessness will increase for the youngest cohort. Additionally, women date up in age on average. While young men can’t date down (or they would be dating children), young women can date up, and this leaves an imbalanced sex ratio for the youngest cohort.
People are also socializing in person much less. Many of you who will read this are very young. You may be in the 18-20 demographic and it may feel like there is a sex drought. No one is having sex! Totally normal for your cohort. As you improve in your physique, your career, and your education, you will find that you’re probably not all alone at age 25.
Additionally, alcohol consumption and online socialization has increased, while in person socialization has decreased. In the 90’s, alcohol use and house parties were a mini crisis. Boomers panicked at young adults and teenagers going to parties, drinking, and having causal sex. We had people come to our schools to discourage it. Even today, about 60-70% of all casual hook-ups involve alcohol (Garcia et al., 2019). Alcohol use also predicts earlier sexual initiation and a higher number of total lifetime sexual partners. South and Lei (2021) found that the decline in alcohol use explained 30% of the variance in lower rates of casual sex for young men. Further, playing video games explained an additional 25% of the variance in the decline of casual sex. Young adults who are more oriented to a short versus long term mating strategy are also more likely to binge drink (Vincke, 2017).
What is happening? People are staying indoors, socializing online, and engaging in hobbies that don’t put them into physical contact with other individuals. The youth are not going to house parties, getting drunk, and having casual sex like they were in the 90s. People are getting their social interaction and dopamine hits in ways that don’t force them to go out into the real world.
This is part of a broad trend in the decline in adolescent risk behavior (Ball et al., 2022). It is explained in large part by less in-person interaction. We see declines in juvenile crime, alcohol use, drug use, and other risk behaviors. Additionally, we see a decrease in young adult employment and, for young adults in school, and increase in time dedicated to school work.
Here are results from a representative Gallup poll. This shows the decline in the size of friend or peer groups. Having a large peer group would have been essential the past decades for meeting potential mates.
And similarly, here we see a trend in extended adolescence across multiple domains, including going on dates:
A popular explanation for young men having less sex is that someone else is stealing all the women. Further, that online dating (Tinder) drives this. In essence, that “Chad” is monopolizing all of the women. On the one hand, women date slightly up in age, so there is an effect where other men are making it difficult for the youngest men. This has always been the case. Age 18-20 is a rough age for men to date. The early 20s have been called a “loneliness gap” in male psychology. It is not a new phenomenon.
What about Tinder and online dating? This deserves a whole article, but I will leave you with a recent study by Berkeren et al. (2022). This was a longitudinal study of 1.3M college students following the Tinder rollout. Greek fraternity members (perhaps where you might find the “Chads”) saw a 6% increase in total sexual partners. Further, STDs (a good measure of sexual activity in a population that does not rely on self reports) only increased by 0.2%. The top 25% of men saw an increase in sexual partners by 4.3%. The average number of sexual partners in that top 25% of college students, by the way? It was 2. Two sexual partners annually. The median number of partners was 1, the same as the bottom 75% of men.
Did Tinder have an effect? Perhaps. It doesn’t seem to be large, however. Certainly not enough to explain half of the youngest adults being without sex. The results are also inconsistent with the so called “80/20 Rule,” or the belief that 20% of men are having sex with 80% of women.
Perhaps unsurprising, given that more recent research has also shown most people use dating apps to find relationships, rather than to find casual sex (Castro & Barrada, 2020).
Ball, J., Grucza, R., Livingston, M., Ter Bogt, T., Currie, C., & de Looze, M. (2022). The great decline in adolescent risk behaviours: unitary trend, separate trends, or cascade?. Social Science & Medicine, 115616.
Buyukeren, Berkeren and Makarin, Alexey and Xiong, Heyu. (2020). The Impact of Online Dating Apps on Young Adults: Evidence From Tinder.
Castro, Á., & Barrada, J. R. (2020). Dating apps and their sociodemographic and psychosocial correlates: A systematic review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 17(18), 6500.
Garcia, T. A., Litt, D. M., Davis, K. C., Norris, J., Kaysen, D., & Lewis, M. A. (2019). Growing up, hooking up, and drinking: A review of uncommitted sexual behavior and its association with alcohol use and related consequences among adolescents and young adults in the United States. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 1872.
South, Scott J., and Lei Lei. “Why Are Fewer Young Adults Having Casual Sex?.” Socius 7 (2021): 2378023121996854.
Vincke, E. (2017). Drinking high amounts of alcohol as a short-term mating strategy: The impact of short-term mating motivations on young adults’ drinking behavior. Evolutionary psychology, 15(2), 1474704917707073.