Can we talk about how man’s worth is not really related to his ability to score sexual partners?
Will: “I have never put my penis in a lady”
Alison: “That’s alright, you’re a virgin, that’s cool.”
Will: “It’s definitely not cool. If anything it’s famously uncool.”
– The Inbetweeners Movie (2011)
The words “adult virgin male” perhaps evoke the caricature of an overweight, socially awkward figure, heavy into gaming and confined to the solace of his mother’s basement.
In what appears to be the obverse situation to “slut-shaming” females for high sexual activity, the heterosexual adult virgin male is seemingly mocked for his sexual inactivity. He’s definitely not cool.
According to a large study by the National Center for Health Statistics, the mean age at which someone in the US has sexual intercourse is about 17 years old. To reach a quarter of a century with one’s virginity still intact is to enter a domain shared by only two percent of other US males (and three percent of females.) This is an achievement that, within academic circles, sometimes attracts the moniker “adult virgin,” but within wider popular culture, often invites more disparaging terms.
From countless teen movies to comments on online forums, the adult virgin male is branded as a bit of a loser. While female virginity may still retain some virtue in modern western society, male virginity certainly does not.
Such stigma is likely entwined with unhelpful notions of masculinity, where a man’s worth is equated with his perceived “ability” to have sex. I use the term “ability” here, not in the sense of a person’s physical capacity to have sex. Rather, I am referring to having the perceived confidence, personality, looks, social nous and whatever other seemingly elusive factor that is necessary to attract a sexual partner in the first place. To have failed to have sex with a woman is an inability to embody these qualities, which in turn is a failure to be a man.
Indeed, the logic and vernacular of professional pick-up artists (PUAs) suggests that men who bed multiple women “demonstrate higher value.” They’re the sought-after “alpha males” with something to offer society. They have high social status. Reasoned this way, the adult man who has not even slept with one woman, let alone multiple women, is the “beta male”. He has low social status. He is a male of little value.
Such devaluation of the sexually inactive man (but not woman) is also plausibly a by-product of the gendered dynamics of dating. According to their “sexual economics theory”, psychologists Roy Baumeister and Kathleen Voh suggest sex is “essentially a female resource.” Men demand it; women supply it. In the resulting marketplace then, men will trade financial, social and emotional resources in exchange for sex.
Fancy gifts, high social status, a shoulder to cry on – from an economic perspective, these are all offered by men in return for sexual gratification. But, a man unable to get laid is one who wields little power in the sexual economy. He’s been outbid for sex by his more valuable male opponents. Like the wistful entrepreneur with little cash, the adult virgin male is spurned by the free market of dating.
As social animals, sensitive to hierarchy, humans do not react well when devalued by society. The adult virgin male is no different. He may experience what psychologist Paul Gilbert dubs “defea”’: a sense of powerlessness, failed struggle and a perceived loss of social rank. Defeat has been linked to thoughts of suicide, a link that becomes apparent when perusing discussions in the online havens of adult virgin males.
“I would rather die than have to be alone for another second”
“I feel so unwanted”
“Going to kill myself, cannot take this anymore”
Countless threads with comparably sombre titles litter ForeverAlone – a subreddit where virginal males come to vent their frustration, lament their lack of intimacy with women and seek solace in their shared experience of loneliness.
Similar online forums were frequented by Elliot Rodgers; the 22-year-old virgin shooter who killed six students in Isla Vista in what he claimed was “retribution” for the “injustice” of “girls (who) never desired (him) back.”
Yet, where the misogynistic Rodgers displaced his ire onto innocent people around him, other adult virgin males turn inwards on themselves. Sexual frustration and loneliness quickly morph into self-loathing. They notice they’re different from the vast majority of other people their age, people who have had some sexual experience. They feel alienated and inferior to these “normies” – as they often designate this out-group of non-virginal, coupled-up people. Alas, dividing people in this way, based solely on sexual experience, only serves to heighten their sense of alienation and increase their self-loathing.
The adult virgin male will naturally question why he’s different. Why does everyone else get laid and have relationships while he struggles? Several are quick to pin their prolonged virginity on immutable factors such as looks, height, or the apparent pickiness of women. Wilkes McDermid, a food blogger who leapt to his death citing his difficulties having romantic relationships, wrote the following in his final blog entry:
“Height, power/money and race seem to be the determining factors in human attractiveness for women. I’ve lived with this for all my life, I am 37 right now so should I just suffer for another 37 years?”
People like McDermid think they are resolutely fated to be, as the title of the subreddit suggests, forever alone.
That said, many adult virgin males do make a concerted effort to increase their likelihood of having sex. Online dating, bulking up at the gym, buying fashionable clothes, joining hobby groups – they’ll try them all. When none of these seem to lead to relationships or sex, however, the adult virgin male starts to despair.
“I feel like I have so much to offer. But life just always kicks me in the ass. Why get back up again when I’ve been knocked down so many times? At some point I feel like it’s time to call it quits.”
It is this perceived lack of contingency between one’s actions and their ability to have sex that leads many adult virgin males to define themselves as “involuntarily celibate” or “Incel.” Never having had sex is not the most depressing issue, per se. Rather, it’s the continued inability to access sex when one wants it.
Ah, but doesn’t this reek of entitlement? Surely no one, man or woman, is entitled to sate the desire to have sex, whenever one wants, however one wants and with whomever one wants?
On describing Elliot Rodgers, feminist commentators were quick to rightfully criticize his sense of entitlement to sex and male entitlement more broadly. It’s true; no one is owed sex.
But now, vicariously at least, the adult virgin male finds himself lambasted from two fronts. On one side, pick-up artists denigrate his low value, lack of masculinity and inability to get laid. On the other side, feminists fault his sense of entitlement in wanting to get laid in the first place. Quite naturally, the adult virgin male internalizes these viewpoints and feels a profound sense of shame.
Ironically, the sexual economics theory outlined earlier predicts that adult male virgins and feminists ought to be on the same page. According to this theory, greater gender parity leads to more sex for everyone (would-be adult virgin males included). Allow me to elaborate.
Women, as suppliers under this theory, exchange sex in return for financial, political and social resources from men. By restricting men’s access to sex, they can command a greater price for it – marriage, long-term financial and emotional investment: in short, more resources. In a society where these resources are distributed equally between the sexes, however, women will rely less on sex in exchange for wealth, power, education etc.
Given that sex is enjoyable for both women and men, the former will be less incentivized to restrict access to sex. Put crudely, they will “put out” more easily. Indeed studies show that people from more gender equal countries such as Sweden, Finland and Norway, have more sexual partners, more casual sex and lose their virginity earlier. Adult male virgins then, ought to be ardent feminists.
Alas, a cursory glance at their online refuges at first often reveals a breeding ground of misogyny and bitterness. But probe deeper and you’ll find that the adult virgin male is suffering from what Thomas Wolfe described as “the central and inevitable fact of human existence” – loneliness. The frustrated, suicidal and admittedly self-pitying posts of ForeverAlone are merely the distress signals of the lonely.
Their species of loneliness is one that results from never having been kissed, never having had sex, never having sated a fundamental desire that has been hardwired by thousands of years of evolution. Like all of us, the adult virgin male craves intimacy and acceptance. So, while not entitled to sex, surely he’s entitled to some sympathy?
 This is a term that has been borrowed and misused from the biological sciences. Unlike in baboon or wolf hierarchies, it is debatable whether alpha males actually exist in modern human societies.
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Photo: Getty Images