Like HowStuffWorks on Facebook!

How Many People Are Lifelong Virgins?


Determining virginity is tough, because you have to first define the term, and then get people to be honest about their sexual histories. Mary Delaney Cooke / Corbis / Getty Images
Determining virginity is tough, because you have to first define the term, and then get people to be honest about their sexual histories. Mary Delaney Cooke / Corbis / Getty Images

Lifelong virgins are not uncommon in nature. In some social insect communities — bees, ants and wasps, for example — a small percentage of individuals are "breeders," and almost everybody else works their butts off taking care of their kids (#nojudgment). In other animals, like elephant seals, a few males monopolize the mating scene, which leads to an awful lot of dudes who live in complete celibacy. Around 80 percent of male elephant seals never even get the chance to mate, but those 20 percent who do might inseminate up to 250 females in their lifetime.

So how many humans live their whole lives as virgins?

That's a tough question to answer. Biologically, losing one's virginity means having potential-baby-making sex for the first time. And though that concept makes sense when you're trying to identify patterns in who reproduces and who doesn't, sexual experience for humans is varied enough to make the social concept of virginity kind of useless past that point. Accordingly, the data's not crystal clear. After all, if all you want to know is who passes on their genes, who cares if a person touches one body part to another person's body part? What's the difference between a woman who's never had a sexual encounter, a woman whose sexual partners have all been women, and a woman who never has children due to polycystic ovary syndrome or some other condition preventing her from conceiving? And then, there are those who don't engage in the act because they've taken vows of celibacy, because they identify as  asexual, or because they just never, ever meet someone willing to share an intimate moment. In this way, the human construct of virginity and the human process of reproduction have very little to do with one another.

But in general, the human reproductive strategy is very different from those of both ants and elephant seals. We are equal-opportunity reproducers, and the vast majority of us, at some point in our lives end up trying out this whole sex thing, whether for reproductive or social reasons, which can sometimes take place at the same time.

According to the Center for Disease Control, the average American who ends up having penis-and-vaginal intercourse does so for the first time around the age of 17. This age has something to do with how stable your family life is, peer pressure, personality and, according to a recent study, even your genes. But between 12-14 percent of adults aged 20-24 have never had sex. This number drops to around five percent for adults aged 25-29, and by age 44, only around 0.3 percent of adults report never having had the type of sex that could end in somebody getting pregnant. Keep in mind that these statistics are for Americans. By contrast, in 2010, 25 percent of unmarried Japanese men over the age of 30 reported being virgins. The trend is so prevalent, there is now a term for late-in-life male virgins: yaramiso.

Lifelong celibacy is rare in humans, with almost every individual in the species biologically able to reproduce.
Lifelong celibacy is rare in humans, with almost every individual in the species biologically able to reproduce.
Uniquely India/Getty Images

When it comes to who is actually doing the work of populating the world with humans, it also depends a lot on where in the world you live. According to the Pew Research Center, childlessness in the United States is near the highest in the world, with 19 percent of women ages 40-44 reporting never having given birth, while for women living in the Congo, that number is probably around two percent. The UK Biobank examined childlessness in the U.K., and found that in men aged 60 and over, about 15 percent reported that they had not fathered any children.

In short, there's a way better chance a human's going to pass on our genes than it is for a male elephant seal.



More to Explore