Leaving Virginia

April 2001

“So your sister and this guy, how long have they been together?” my friend asked.

“It’ll be eight months on the twenty-third.”

“Man, so they’re probably gettin’ it on, right?”

The big brother in me felt like I should pound his face in or do something equally dramatic in response to this insult to my sister’s character. But I didn’t. It was a simple question, and, if I were honest with myself, a legitimate one.

“No, not that I know of,” I replied honestly.

“Oh, come on. Eight months? Yeah, they are. She has definitely left Virginia.” He seemed satisfied with his own answer and dropped the subject.

Left Virginia. I thought about his phrase later. I pictured a quiet, lush, green landscape early in the morning; untouched, rolling hills dappled with dew; a beautiful gray fog lingering among them yet unbroken by the sun, shrouding the area in mystery and magic. It was the kind of place outsiders would love to visit and some residents would love to share. But it was also the kind of place one could not visit without bringing change, leaving footprints in the dew on the way out. And a place to which, after leaving, one could not return.

I thought my friend’s question was legitimate because I had asked myself the same question about other people, and I’m sure others wondered the same about me while I was engaged. We generally assume that once adults date for a significant amount of time, they begin a sexual relationship. By implication, we assume that nearly everyone has had sex by the time they reach their mid-twenties. We hear people talk about their sexual exploits, good and bad. We hear rumors that a couple has finally “consummated their relationship,” as a high school friend put it. We see couples moving in together, sometimes while one of the members of the couple continues to pay rent at another apartment, suggesting that their cohabitation is not for financial reasons.

The myth of young adults’ mass exodus from Virginia is a large part of American culture. We do not know exactly what goes on in other peoples’ bedrooms, so we assume based on the evidence we see and what the myth has told us.

But is the myth true? Does anyone of college age decide to stay in Virginia until the peals of wedding bells echo off the dewy hills?

The myth is definitely rooted in fact. Of the young adults I know, the known non-virgins outnumber the known Virginians by more than two to one. Some of the Virginians only remain there due to lack of opportunity to leave. Some people whom I thought would wait quite a while ended up leaving sooner than I expected. One friend of mine, whose sex life I had previously known little about, recently surprised me by revealing that she has had four different partners since coming to college three years ago. She said only two of them were men she’d really wanted to sleep with.

In terms of sexual experience, my friends seem to reflect young people as a whole. In a report published by The Journal of Sex Research, only 11 percent of the men and 13 percent of the women at one Midwestern university were still virgins (Sprecher and Regan 8). This percentage accounts for a range of ages at the university; presumably the percentage of virgins decreased as students grew older. Another survey by the Alan Guttmacher Institute claimed that 56 percent of women and 73 percent of men have had sex by age 18, although the 17-point difference suggests that some of the men may have been exaggerating (referenced by Depain 68). Many young people move out of their parents’ houses to work or attend college at age 18 or 19. Doing so gives them a greater sense of freedom to make their own decisions regarding issues such as sexuality. This greater freedom, along with the additional experiences that come with age, help explain the difference between the high school and college statistics.

However, as these personal accounts and statistics reveal, a small but significant number of young adults remain virgins. Their reasons vary. Certainly the fear of pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases plays a large role for many. Some choose to abstain from sex for moral or religious reasons, or because they do not feel they are ready for it. Others have yet to find someone they want to sleep with, or someone willing to sleep with them (Sprecher and Regan 9).

One recent college graduate, who had remained a virgin, described a conversation she had with one of her more experienced friends about her “bizarre aberration of virginity”:

She and another pal had been delving into the gruesome specifics of their past sexual encounters. Finally, after some time, my friend suddenly exclaimed to me, “How do you do it?”

A little taken aback, I said, “Do what?”

“You know,” she answered, a little reluctant, perhaps, to use the big bad V-word. “You still haven’t… slept with anybody. How do you do it? Don’t you want to?” (Hinlicky 15).

Thinking sex was normal in a relationship, practically a given, her friend could not fathom the author’s decision to remain a virgin. The author, on the other hand, was comfortable with her current position, content to rest in the lingering mountain fog until she felt the time was right for her to leave.

The myth of a mass exodus from Virginia in the high school and college years is not entirely accurate, but the vast majority of people have indeed left by the time they finish college or reach their mid-twenties. Many of those who remain feel isolated, partly because so few of their friends remain with them. They may or may not like their location and appreciate its value. They may be simply looking for a way out. Or they may be waiting until they are ready to leave. One professor at my university proudly remained in Virginia until she married at age 53 and then just as proudly announced her departure to her students. The choice of whether to stay or leave is up to each of us. Either way, we will not be alone.