Nothing To Lose: An Examination of Virginity, Sex Culture, And Self Image

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By 22, I expected a lot from myself. I thought I’d finish my undergraduate degree. I’d get an amazing job, or go to graduate school and trendy clubs with my friends. I also expected to be having loads of sex. Now that I am 22, I have a degree and am attending graduate school. 

But I still haven’t had sex. 

Virginity, Desirability, and My Self Image

Being so “old” and not just being a virgin, but never dating, has honestly really messed with my self-esteem. I have become so self-conscious of my looks and personality. I am constantly worrying if I am too ugly and annoying to be loved. The feeling that there has to be something wrong with me lingers. I ask myself how I reached this age and still have no sexual or dating experiences. It’s painful.

I know I am not the only twenty-something-year-old virgin. But it’s hard not feeling alone. How could I not be embarrassed when virginity (and losing virginity) have held so much importance in our society?

According to Planned Parenthood, a “virgin” is someone who has never had sex. Bu,t the actual act of having sex means something different to everyone. The organization says, “A lot of people think that having penis-in-vagina sex for the first time is how you lose your virginity. But this leaves lots of people and other types of sex out of the picture.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines intercourse as vaginal in a 2011 study. The study found that the average age for American young women to start having sex is 17 years and three months old. For men, the average age is 17. In another study, the CDC found that from the ages 20-24, 12.3 percent of women and 14.3 percent of men remained virgins.

Purity Culture As A Social Construct

Virginity is a loaded concept.

“Virginity is a social construct that is deeply rooted in sexism. It was, and is still, used with this notion that virgins are pure and to add more value to women in terms of marriage arrangements, mainly how much someone would be willing to pay a family for the woman,” says Javay Frye-Nekrasova, M.Ed, a sex educator for the sex shop, Lovehoney. 

In her book, “Behind Closed Doors: Sex Education Transformed,” Natalie Fiennes explains that the word “virgin” itself has gendered roots, coming directly from the old French word “virgine,” meaning ‘maiden’, or a sexually inexperienced woman.”

Frye-Nekrasova also brings up the hymen and the part it plays in virginity. “Virginity was typically tied to an individual’s hymen. If their hymen was still intact, they were a virgin, and if it wasn’t then they were assumed not to be,” she says. “Using the hymen as a determinant of sexual activity is flawed because every body is different which means that not everyone is going to have a hymen, not every hymen is going to look the same, and not every hymen is going to tear or rip during sex.”

Tying virginity to our hymen, causes people to view virginity as something that physically changes your body forever. It solidifies the belief that virginity is something you lose. But these physical changes, this loss, are only attributed to people with vaginas. 

Religion, of course, also attributes these notions to virginity. 

“The concept that virginity is something to lose, and that interacting with a penis is a necessary and life-changing experience, can be extremely harmful from multiple different angles,” says Ellen Mischinski, a sexuality coach and educator. “From the side of purity culture and many Christian religious teachings, losing one’s virginity is a shameful act that taints you at your core (but only if you’re a woman).” 

Mischinski also notes, “Then from the other end, seeing it as some kind of rite of passage can lead to a lot of people feeling behind or even pressure them into engaging in sexual behavior they actually have no interest in.”

I didn’t grow up in a religious household. I didn’t grow up within a purity culture or feeling like sex was shameful. As Mischinski explains, I put sex on a pedestal because it was promoted to me as being a “life-changing event” and a “rite of passage.”

Consuming Sex Without Having Sex

From a young age, sex was in every form of media I consumed. By 11, I discovered Tumblr, which opened a whole new world for me. I spent hours watching different types of porn videos. I scrolled through hard kink blogs, reading all the smut I wanted. 

It may not be weird for teens going through puberty to think about sex, but this was more than that. Every thought I had was about sex. To this day, I consume some form of explicit content every day. It could be reading smut, watching porn, listening to explicit audio, or looking at erotic art on Twitter. As a writer, it’s something I write about very often. I still think about sex all the time. If a song could describe me, it would be “ADIDAS” by Korn. 

Because I have consumed so much of this content, I expected to start having sex by the time I hit high school. And during this time, my self-esteem was through the roof. I thought I was the sexiest girl ever. As I went through high school not getting asked out, or having any crushes for that matter, I kept thinking by the time I was 18, I would finally have sex. 

Through the 2014-2018 “Lolita/Nymphet” era Tumblr, I expected that once I hit 18, I would get a sugar daddy and live out my baby girl fantasies that these Tumblr blogs implanted in my brain. 

But, of course, that never happened.

It’s Good To Move At Your Own Pace, But It’s Not Always Easy

For many late bloomers, there are many reasons to not have sex. Maybe you’re waiting for marriage or getting into a relationship. Maybe you’re waiting for the right person, or you don’t feel ready to do it yet. Any and all reasons are valid.

In my case, I want to be in a relationship to do it but haven’t found “that” person. While I honestly have never really put myself in situations where I can meet potential romantic candidates, it still hurts that no one has shown interest in me since my first year of high school. In university, I saw my peers getting into relationships and having flings. It made me feel that my time is running out to be in a romantic and sexual relationship.

“Premarital sexual activity became a norm among young adults. The downside to this: there’s a stigma associated with people being sexually inexperienced. This put a lot of pressure on teenagers to engage in sex, especially late bloomers. Those who don’t follow the same path feel like they’re the “odd one out,” and are made to feel pressured to explore this path,” explains marriage and family therapist, and Vice President of Marketing at Divorce Answers, Lauren Cook-McKay. “There are women who feel like men are not showing interest in them because they are late bloomers. This affects their self-esteem, making them fear rejection from men. It can make them feel isolated.”

I know that my worsening self-esteem is causing me to fear rejection that I am just making up in my head, but I can’t help but think that men don’t find me attractive or will find my virginity and lack of dating history as a red flag. It’s also scary to try meeting people with the intent to date when you don’t even know what you’d be like as a girlfriend, let alone as a sexual being.

There’s No Shame In Being A Late Bloomer

While being a late bloomer may cause some like me to feel insecure, much media today, such as TikTok has been helping to destigmatize late bloomers.

Through TikTok, I have seen many women making TikToks about how being a late bloomer also messed them up. One TikToker, @reese.regan, in a 2021 TikTok video said, “I am requesting that scientists do a case study on those of us that were never asked out, never asked to any dances, never were shown any romantic interest whatsoever…Because I feel like that definitely fucked me up somewhere developmentally…that shit hurts.” Many other users stitched Regan’s original video, adding their experiences of being late-bloomers.

You’re More Than Your Virginity

Hearing so many women discuss being late-bloomers made me realize that I wasn’t weird. I wasn’t the only one going through these feelings. These TikToks made me feel so comforted. I felt validated in my feelings of insecurity over something “trivial” like sex and dating. 

“I feel like you should do anything intentionally, right? If anything, you need to have a reason that you’re having sex. Not just having sex just to have sex,” Marla Renee Stewart, sexologist and author at the sex education venue, VelvetLips, advises late bloomers.

She continues, “I think that’s the part that can cause the most harm for folks…If you know your “why” around why you’re having sex, I think that’s going to help you navigate your sexuality in a different way.”

While being an adult virgin might leave you feeling undesirable and alone, you aren’t alone. You are much more than your sexual status. Everyone needs to bloom at their own pace. There is no shame in taking longer than others.