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November 24, 1999

Attitudes Toward and Definitions of Having Sex

Author Affiliations

Phil B.FontanarosaMD, Interim CoeditorIndividualAuthorMargaret A.WinkerMD, Deputy EditorIndividualAuthorStephenLurieMD PhD, Fishbein FellowIndividualAuthor

JAMA. 1999;282(20):1916-1919. doi:10-1001/pubs.JAMA-ISSN-0098-7484-282-20-jbk1124

To the Editor: The article by Drs Sanders and Reinisch1 is poorly conceived and reasoned. The implication is that these questioned college students speak for the American population in general. But, as a psychiatrist/psychoanalyst who works with adolescents, I can say that it is nonsense. Sexuality plays a central role in the psychological and social phase-specific developmental tasks of the adolescent who is struggling to make sexual intimacy a part of his or her love relationships for the first time. Losing one's virginity is the act that serves as the lightning rod for all of the anxieties associated with this task. Although the authors briefly acknowledge these points, they fail to see what it means about the data their study produced. An adolescent's statements as to what is and what is not "having sex" are not expressed with words that have an objective, dictionary definition. The words they use have phase- and age-specific situational definitions, designed to reassure them that, although they are sexually active, they have preserved their "virginity" for their wedding night, or to create an image of themselves as sexual athletes. They shift back and forth between the 2 images. Their words are selected to protect them and rationalize their behavior as they navigate stormy seas.

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