Unless you’ve been stranded on a desert island with no Wi-Fi for the past few months, you know that Colton Underwood, the most recent Bachelor, was (and maybe still is) a virgin. The fact that this dude had never done it was, for some reason, headline–worthy news. In fact, it wasn’t until he literally jumped over a fence that people were able to stop obsessing over his sexual history — or lack thereof — for a minute. But why is this such a big deal anyway? Why do we, as a society, care so much that this man has never had sex? Why do we think it’s so weird? In a time when we’re pushing for sex positivity, are we forcing so-called prudes into the position of the other that was once occupied by “sluts?” If we’re finally moving away from slut-shaming, why does prude-shaming seem to be totally fine?
The problem starts with the fact that so few of us realize virginity is nothing more than a social construct. “There’s always a lot of pressure around sex, whether it’s having it or not having it,” says Emily Morse, doctor of human sexuality and host of SiriusXM’s Sex With Emily. “We [only] think it means something.”
It’s also important to note that being a “virgin” has different societal ramifications for straight men than it does for straight women. In other words, the fact that Colton Underwood made headlines for being a virgin was no coincidence — he was going against a norm that says men are supposed to get high fives for losing their virginity as soon as humanly possible, while women are supposed to sit around with their legs crossed tightly until they find The One.
Even my own sexually active, heterosexual, 20-something girlfriends admit to being extremely uncomfortable with the idea of hooking up with or even dating a virgin. Each seemed to conclude that if a man makes it into his adult life without ever having had sex, there must be something inherently wrong with him. Conversely, when I talked to a few heterosexual male friends, their responses all echoed that of 27-year-old Alex*, who said, “I would be curious about what her reasoning was, but if I liked her, I probably wouldn’t really care.”
That being said, no matter what your gender, it’s undeniable that our heteronormative society is just…weird about virginity. “There’s a sort of admiration for the idea of virginity up until marriage — all of the ‘true love waits’ stuff,” says Melissa Sanchez, a core faculty member of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. “On the other hand, there’s a way in which the virgin is almost a queer figure, [in that] virgins really aren’t exactly [believed to be] heterosexual yet because they haven’t had sex. Male virgins might be feminine or closeted, and female virgins might be closeted or frigid. Even though virginity might be valued at least theoretically, it is also a cause for suspicion.”
As you can imagine, the stigma Sanchez describes has a profound effect on those who choose to hold off on becoming sexually active.
Alice*, 25, first had sex at age 21, which made her the last of her friends to do so. “I just don’t think I was ever actually ready,” she tells me of why she waited. “There was insecurity [surrounding being a virgin], but part of me that knew I wasn’t confident enough and that I wouldn’t be able to handle it emotionally.”
There’s always a lot of pressure around sex, whether it’s having it or not having it.
Pop culture didn’t make her decision any easier. If anything, it reinforced her fear that she was weird or different from her friends. “We were watching ‘Gossip Girl’ and all that shit,” she recalls. “You’re thinking it’s not happening to me because I’m not Serena Van Der Woodsen.” Sex then, was just one extra thing keeping her out of the cool-girls club. “If I was in a room, especially in college with a group of sorority girls who I was just starting to get to know, I would for sure dodge the conversation,” Alice remembers. “I was so worried about fitting in at that point in my life and [my virginity] was what made me [feel like] a social pariah.”
As a queer teen growing up in a Christian community in Alabama, Jordan, the founder of VideoOut, received the same message Alice did — that sex was reserved for the cool kids. But thanks to his sexual identity, the pressure was even stronger. “The ‘cool kids’ at school, [in] movies, and [on] TV told me that I should be having sex,” says the 34-year-old, who ultimately first had sex with a man he met on Craigslist at 18. “As a queer person, the pressure was [exacerbated]. On top of the desire most of us have to explore, I felt the need to have sex to prove that I was hetero — both to myself and to my community.”
Jane, 24, who lost her penetrative heterosexual virginity at 16 and her oral homosexual virginity at 20, struggled to find any representation of what losing virginity might be like for a bisexual woman like herself. “I feel like up until pretty recently there has been very little bisexual representation in pop culture, and I can’t think of any cases of it dealing directly with virginity,” she says. “As a teen, I only had Marissa from ‘The OC,’ when she had that quick stint with Olivia Wilde’s character. The relationship was totally fetishized through the patriarchal male gaze, but I didn’t understand that at the time.”
Mark*, 25, who defines virginity as “abstaining from anything that would be considered sex,” is planning to remain a virgin until marriage. And, like Alice and Jordan, he feels as though the media shames him for his decision to abstain. “[It makes me feel like] virginity is [uncool] or unheard of. You are in your mid-20s and haven’t been laid? Either you are a total loser, you are holding onto some sort of constricting archaic belief, or you are lying. Basically, you’re a joke. ‘The 40-Year-Old Virgin’ is a comedy for a reason.” All that makes it difficult to open up to his peers. “By telling certain people that you have never had sex, you are either claiming ‘something is wrong with me’ or ‘I am a complete prude,’ neither of which are things you want to loudly announce,” he adds.
“Pop culture is built around the fact that sex sells,” says Morse. “Even in the age of #MeToo and consent awareness, it’s pretty much impossible to find content that presents virginity or celibacy as a ‘normal’ option. If you look at a phone, a television, a billboard, whatever, you’re bombarded with media that puts sex front and center. It’s hard to ignore, and if you’re a virgin, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider.”
The unfortunate fact of the matter is that by making those who’ve chosen to abstain feel as though they’re weird, we isolate them. John*, now 24, first had sex when he was 19. “In many ways, I embodied a caricature of what Western society would call an alpha male, and I think this created some cognitive dissonance,” the former college quarterback recalls. “I remember experiencing some tough times where I felt really isolated as if I had no male role models to guide me. None of my friends could relate or, if they could, they were unwilling to say anything to me about it. I remember hearing a [Young Money] song in which Lil Wayne goes, ‘I wish I could fuck every girl in the world’ and just feeling really confused.”
Marissa*, an 18-year-old college student, is currently the only one of her friends who hasn’t had penetrative sex, and she feels like it’s something her peers sometimes look down upon her for. “One time, a friend was telling me how she was going to hang out with a boy she was talking to for the first time sober and was wondering if they were going to hook up or not. When she got back and told me they had sex, I acted a bit surprised. She replied by saying, ‘When people have had sex before, that’s just what they do when they hook up.’ Her comment made me feel weird and uncomfortable. I’m not the type of person to slut-shame or look down upon people who have casual sex, so her comment made me feel embarrassed for even asking what had happened.”
And all of these stressors just get stronger over time. “The older you get, the weirder it may seem that you haven’t had intercourse,” says Morse.
This only magnifies when you’re asexual. Courtney, 24, who says she leans more toward the “sex-repulsed” end of the spectrum, has been married to a man who is also asexual for almost five years now. Before meeting him, many people she dated took her sexuality as a sort of challenge or a condition that they could “fix.”
“I remember watching an episode of ‘House’ that had an asexual couple, but the doctor insisted it was impossible,” she says. “At the end of the episode, it was revealed that the man had a medical condition affecting his libido, and the woman was lying about being asexual. That is horrible representation.” Though characters like Todd from “BoJack Horseman” have since helped paint a more accurate picture of asexuality, there is still a long way to go.
In my conversation with Sanchez, she noted that college campuses are also making a larger effort to support asexual students by adding “IA” for intersex and asexual to what traditionally used to be “LGBTQ” support groups.
“I think that that draws attention to just how uneasy society is with virginity, especially virginity at the lifelong choice as opposed to a temporary state,” she says.
“The best way not to feel the pressure is to recognize that everyone gets to move at their own pace,” says Morse. “We all get to make our own sexual choices, and a lot more people than you think are feeling the same exact thing as you.” No matter what your sexual experience, it’s now our responsibility to start changing the conversation surrounding sex. Nobody should feel ashamed of their sexuality — whether you’ve had tons of sex or no sex at all.
*Names have been changed to protect innocent daters everywhere.