Friday Night Lights and the Teenage Virgin

I’m a huge fan of Friday Night Lights — to the point that when a student makes an especially good point in class, I sometimes intone “Clear eyes, full heart,” emulating the coach in the series.

But it was with some sadness that I watched a couple weeks ago an episode in which Julie, the coach’s daughter, lost her virginity (or at least when her parents learned that she was no longer a virgin). I agree with the discussion on Slate that the episode included one of the best parent/child conversations about sex on television (made all the more interesting because it paralleled a mother/daughter conversation two years ago on the same subject).

Nonetheless, I was somewhat concerned that the last senior on the show lost her virginity. The show has reached what the Supreme Court calls the “inexorable zero.” I am not a fan of “socialist realism,” the idea that art needs to move society toward a better equilibrium. But viewers may get the subtle message that it is really unusual to graduate from high school as a virgin.

In fact, I asked a bunch of adolescents (ranging in age from 10 to 15) who had just seen the episode to estimate the percentage of high schoolers graduating this year in the United States who are virgins, and they came back with estimates in the range of 20 percent to 35 percent.

The truth is harder to determine; but there is a very good chance that the majority of high-school graduates are virgins. According to a 2002 study conducted by the CDC, approximately 54 percent of high-school students are virgins. In 2007, the virgin percentage was still holding at 52 percent.

(Mini-bleg: If you have an adolescent, what does he or she think is the percentage of graduating high schoolers who are virgins? Let us know.)

As I’ll argue in my next post, we might do well to correct the misimpression that it’s unusual to be a virgin in high school.

A high-school diploma is just one of several observable characteristics from which a statistical inference about virginity might be drawn. For example, among high schoolers, which group do you think has the higher proportion of virgins — smokers or non-smokers? Some adolescents I asked said smokers — offering a demand-side story that fewer people would want to have sex with them because of their breath. But I once got in trouble with a beloved relative for arguing a supply-side story: high-schoolers who were willing to engage in one risky, rebellious activity (smoking) were more likely to be willing to engage in another (sex).

There’s a hilarious scene in the Woody Allen movie Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But Were Afraid to Ask where Woody inferred the probability of getting lucky from a date’s college. Counterpoint, a monthly campus magazine published by students at Wellesley and MIT, conducted a very non-scientific survey and reported the percent of MIT undergraduates who are virgins, by major:

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At least with regard to sex, MIT economics majors are not putting the freak in Freakonomics.


J

It's interesting that biology majors are the most likely to be virgins. Do they know something?

tyler

Maybe there's endogeneity issue when it comes to those biology virgins...

Ike

I agree that tv needs to show kids that it is ok, cool, normal to remain a virgin.

Yet your article starts talking about two sets of numbers. First you said in your survey that most adolescents believe that only around 35% graduate as a virgin. Then claim that the CDC says 54% of all high-schoolers are virgins. These are 2 different questions. In fact by the 2007 link 35% of seniors are virgins, which matches your survey. If that pool includes pre-prom numbers then the number of virgins will drop. So about 1 in 5 (maybe 4) graduating high school are virgins, and our culture should show this in media to decrease the pressure on teenagers.

KB

A HUGE jump from from mathematics to Chemical Engineering. It's like those students are at a different school.

E

I'm a teenager, although I've graduated from high school now. I think the 50+% numbers seem right, but I wonder if I have run into that statistic somewhere before.

(Or maybe it's because I'm a bio major in college...)

Jar Jar Binks

I'm willing to be that if you limited your sample size to football players the virginity rate would be around 0-5% upon graduation.

JMC

Great show, I am also addicted to The Lights....The show presents things to me as accurately as I have seen on a sitcom in my short life of 23 years. The fact is that kids are losing their virginity earlier and earlier and I imagine its even greater in a small town like Dillon, TX. I don't think that the show should try and teach kids when to lose their virginite, perhaps a focus on safe sex and being smart is a more realistic approach.

Chris

I teach a course in Human Sexuality and one of the questions we discuss in class is "based on media representation, what proportion of [said population] would you predict engages in whatever sexual activity" (for example extra-marital sexual relationships or premarital sex in high school). Of course media representations almost always over represent, and usually by a lot (as in the example provided by FNL above). What can be problematic about this is that one of the factors adolescents consider when making their sexual decisions is what they THINK their peers are doing.

Tim K

I'm guessing the high percentage of biology and chem majors at MIT who are virgins are so because they are pre-med and have little time for social activity. Which also explains why I was a humanities major.

xjv

Depends what you are meaning by virgin. More kids at younger ages are participating in oral sex on a regular basis than ever have before. Oprah even covered this on her April 9th episode.

Gary

"I'm willing to be that if you limited your sample size to football players the virginity rate would be around 0-5% upon graduation."

Clearly we went to different high schools... I was one of the football players, and at least 25% of the guys on the team couldn't get any if they paid for it. And we had a good team!

JH

Lying and various definitions of "virgin" can definitely make this a difficult number to obtain.

I've always heard, "It's unrealistic to expect someone to remain a virgin until marriage." Sure, many more people lose their virginity prior to marriage than after marriage, but the fact is a lot of people (millions even) somehow manage to wait. Some of them are even attractive.

Dave

In high school all the guys have had sex with several partners while all the girls are virgins, according to anecdotal research.

cjc

Reminds me of the new book, "The Purity Myth: How America's Obsession with Virginity Is Hurting Young Women," I recently saw come up on another blog (i.e. I have not read it and am not recommending or criticizing it),

http://www.amazon.com/Purity-Myth-Americas-Obsession-Virginity/dp/1580052533

But I also don't understand why virginity, however you might define it, is valued or looked at as a virtue. Like anything else in life, sex has benefits, costs, and risks. People here should realize that.

Joel

Expecting TV and movie plotlines, even on "reality" shows, to accurately reflect a statistical norm is unrealistic at best, and dangerously silly at worst. Television, and entertainment in general, has always been based on action above-and-beyond the norm, and virginity, by definition, speaks of "lack-of-action". Normal lives in TV families do not engage viewers to tune in every week, so our TV characters must always embrace the extraordinary -- even on realistic dramas like "Friday Night Lights". I actually don't think network television's job is to teach us anything at all, just engage our sense of the world and ourselves.

Perry

I think that the idea that a bunch of teens would be truthful to some CDC census taker about what sexual acts they've engaged in is probably the most difficult thing to believe in this whole story.

Robot Mistake

I believe the discussion is lacking 'good questions'.

If I remember High School correctly there is a distinction between virginity by choice and by circumstance.

Graduating a virgin when you don't want to be does not make the act admirable. Failure is failure and crushing young souls should not be rejoiced.

Classic movie: "Getting it over with (1977)"

J.V.

Oddly enough, the percentage of high school students who are attractive, clever, witty and telegenic with perfectly smooth skin, well-managed hair, and straight, white teeth is also quite a bit lower than what one sees on TV. Now isn't that just downright interesting?

P.S. Who the hell watches TV anymore?

keith

MIT has humanities majors?

Cory

Gary said "Clearly we went to different high schools... I was one of the football players, and at least 25% of the guys on the team couldn't get any if they paid for it. And we had a good team!"

Imagine my team, which went 0-8 during my Junior and Senior years. 25% would have at least given us some hope. Even as the captain of the football team, I still found myself in the majority.