Dr. NerdLove talks about the problems with the way we think about male virginity…and how to fix our toxic thinking.
On Monday, I talked a little about the toxic culture surrounding masculinity and how it hurts men. Today, I want to start the conversation to help dismantle it. And one of the best places to start is to talk about sex. Specifically: male virginity and the shame in not having sex.
One of the things that I’ve seen come up over and over again in the aftermath of the Elliot Rodger shooting is the number of men – men of literally all ages – talking about the shame and pain of being a male virgin. They talk about feeling broken or unworthy, that they’ve missed some sort of open time frame where they could lose their virginity and now they’re (metaphorically) screwed. It feels like everyone knows – like you’ve been branded by a giant V.
Of course, because they’re so anxious about being an “older” virgin – where “older” can range anywhere from 15 to 50 – that they can’t bring themselves to talk about it. The fear of being “outed” as a virgin becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. They so fear rejection for being virgins that they can’t bring themselves to approach women. They can’t bring themselves to approach women, so they don’t have opportunities to lose their virginity. They continue to get older, becoming even more anxious. And so the cycle continues, leaving them feeling ashamed, lost, even bitter and resentful. Sex goes from being something to be enjoyed to a giant monolith of titanic proportions that casts a shadow over everything they do and who they are.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
So let’s talk a little about the problems with the way we think about male virginity… and how to fix them.
“Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me”
It’s incredibly easy to feel as though you’re the Last American1 Virgin. We live in a culture that seems to go out of its way to imply that everyone is having sex and you aren’t. Stories of blowjobs being traded as casually as handshakes in high-school, and the hang-wringing over college hook-up culture make the world sound like a never-ending bacchanal for those who are lucky enough to take part.
When you’re focused on your identity as Virgin with a capital V, it can feel like everybody else is at a party that you’ve been left out of, even as it’s going on all around you.
Except… it’s not. Not really. In fact, the number of people having sex in high school is actually declining, from 54% in 1991 to 43% in 2011. Similarly, college isn’t the hotbed of casual sex that we think it is; students tend to regularly overestimate just how much their fellow classmates are hooking up rather drastically. There are two factors at play here. The first is that we’ve been handed a shared narrative via pop-culture that directly affects how we think our lives are supposed to be. Prom goes from just a dance to THE BIGGEST NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE, a night when you’re supposed to confess your love and slip away to lose your virginity. We get convinced that college is a nonstop whirlwind of parties and fucking thanks to the “Girls Gone Wild” videos, every college movie since Animal House and pearl-clutching moral panic pieces about “hook-up culture”.
The second is that by focusing on being A Virgin – making it part of your identity – you indulge in a form of confirmation bias; you see couples together and immediately assume that they’re fucking even though they’re on their first date. You dismiss the people who aren’t having sex because it falls outside of what you expect to see; there will be any number of reasons why they’re outliers who don’t count.
But let’s be honest for a second: even if people aren’t having as much sex as you may think they are, it’s cold comfort. After all: you still aren’t having any. Your virginity hangs around your neck like an albatross. You feel like you’re defective. Like there’s a great fault within you that’s holding you back but that nobody else seems to have. What are you supposed to do about the fact that you’re one of the Great Untouched?
Virgin Anxiety and The Standard Narrative
One of the reasons why men tend to freak out about the idea of being a virgin – especially being a virgin past college – is that we’ve grown up in the shadow of a cultural narrative that we believe to be law.
The Standard Virginity Loss Narrative tells us that men are supposed to lose their virginity by a certain age – sometimes by age 18, sometimes by 21. The earlier you lose it, the better off you are (no matter how unhealthy that act may actually be), but you should be actively trying by high school. According to the Standard Narrative, the ideal time is at some suitably momentous occasion: the “big game”, at prom… by graduation if you possibly can manage it. If you can’t manage it in high school, then you need to accomplish it in college… otherwise you’re well into Terra Incognita and 40 Year Old Virgin territory and nobody wants to be there because here there be dragons. We get the Standard Virginity Loss Narrative burned into our minds early on, reinforced over and over again by pop-culture until we start to believe it’s the TRVTH, carved into stone tablets delivered to us at the base of Mount Sinai.
And the hell of it all? It’s almost entirely made up.
The narrative is fiction. It’s an idealized, heteronormative, suburban middle class ideal that the vast majority of us don’t live in. The story turns our sexual development into a performance, just as masculinity is often a performance. And just as traditional masculinity is a fragile thing, any minor deviation from the Virginity Narrative throws the whole thing into disarray. The story that we’re supposed to lose our virginity by X milestone doesn’t take into consideration that navigating relationships – romantic, sexual or platonic – can be difficult, stressful, evenalienating. When men fail to live up to this entirely arbitrary standard, we feel not just as though we’ve failed but that we’re failures. We’re defective. Wrong. And there will be plenty of people eager to reinforce the narrative, to mock us, and tell us that this deviation from the narrative calls our masculinity into question. Just as the gender police are eager to punish people who don’t live up to the traditional definitions of manhood.
What makes this especially twisted is the way we internalize the pressure to fuck, to not be a virgin. When we fail to follow the narrative we get angry, lashing out at others and haranguing ourselves in turns. We blame others for somehow depriving us of sex, as though it were something we were owed. We blame ourselves for whatever flaws make us perceive ourselves as unfuckable. We come up with increasingly baroque reasons why we have been uniquely disadvantaged – we’re too “beta”, for example, for the notoriously “hypergamous” women. The PUAHate forums that Elliot Rodger frequented take this to an almost fascinating extreme, comparing brow ridges and jaw angles and eye space in some sort of unified theory of sexual phrenology.
Because when we fail to follow the Standard Virginity Loss Narrative, the fault lies with us and not the story.
Losing My Virginity
Speaking of stories: I want to tell you the story about my first time. Not the details – although I’m fairly certain that losing it on Halloween means I’m secretly Goth – but the drama that surrounded it.
I was 19 before I finally lost my virginity. A sophomore in college. Not too far off from the average age of 17 actually, but even had I known, it wouldn’t have made me feel better at the time. I was convinced I was the last male virgin on campus. And like many of my friends I was bitter about it. As far as I was concerned, it was profoundly unfair that everybody else had gotten lucky. I resented it when my more experienced friends would talk about sex and compare their various exploits; it felt to me like they were bragging, showing off in front of someone who couldn’t possibly understand. I was so embarrassed about being one of the great untouched that during my Freshman year, I made up a story about having gotten laid during Spring Break just to feel like I was one of the “normal” people.
I don’t know if my friends actually believed me, but they had the good grace to at least pretendthat they did. But my fictional deflowering didn’t make things any easier. I was focused like a laser on getting laid, forcing myself into relationships with women I didn’t even like that much in hopes that I might hit that metaphorical home run. And believe me, it wasn’t much better for the women I tried to date, either. I hurt a number of people in my quest to get my dick wet and, at the time, I didn’t care. My bitterness and resentment made me a prime, self-pitying asshole who was focused on only one thing and one thing only: losing my virginity at all costs.
Well, not all costs. I wasn’t quite ready to, say, find an escort. Like many virgins, I was convinced that doing so would be a cheat or would render it invalid. It only “counted” if I were able to seduce someone with my own skill and charisma. Y’know. If I had any.
Long story short2 I slept with my first “serious” girlfriend after an off-campus Halloween party.
The next morning, I’d come to an astonishing revelation: nothing had changed. I was the exact same person I was the day before. I didn’t feel different (aside from “holy shit I had sex”). I wasn’t imparted any special wisdom. I hadn’t been magically cured of all my ills and insecurities. And my first thought – y’know, besides “lets do it again” – was simply: “Shit. Now what?”
Losing Your Virginity is The Starting Line, Not The Goal
That confusion I felt was directly tied to an issue I find a lot of men have when struggling with their feelings about virginity: the belief that losing their virginity is a major milestone after which everything will be different and better.
It’s not really surprising, to be honest. We fetishize virginity in men and women, just in opposite ends of the spectrum. As I’ve said before: men are valued for the sex they have while women are valued for the sex they don’t have. Virginity is prized in women – it’s a mark of “purity” and innocence. Virginity in men is vilified; being a virgin past a certain point is a sign of flaws and weakness. But losing his virginity on the other hand… that’s when the world is supposed to open up for you. The coming of age narrative for men inevitably links losing one’s virginity with becoming a man. Movies constantly make sex either the reward for the hero or the goal, after which they’re no longer the loser they were before. Sex becomes a way of taking a level in man.
Except life’s not a movie and that’s not how things work. The credits don’t roll as your penis starts singing the score from the Throne Room scene in Star Wars. Losing your virginity isn’t the end of sexual maturation, it’s the beginning. You’re only just starting to learn about sex, not proving that you’ve finally mastered it.
There’s a zen koan that I like: “before enlightenment: cut wood, carry water. After enlightenment: cut wood, carry water”. Life remains the same, even after you’ve achieved what you think you’ve always dreamed about. Imagining that sex is going to make you different is a mistake. When you start to fetishize your status as a virgin, you’re setting yourself up for an inevitable disappointment when you do have sex because your life isn’t going to be any more fundamentally different than if you’d just ridden a roller-coaster for the first time. You’re going to be the exact same person you were, with the same issues, anxieties, fears and doubts. As with other forms of external validation, it doesn’t solve any problems and can actually make them worse.
Changing The Stigma Starts With You
As with most issues, if we want to change the way that we treat male virgins, especially older ones, then we need to start with ourselves and our own relationship with our sexuality. And the first step is to quit letting yourself perpetuate the stigma of male virginity and the fucked up narrative. When you cry and moan about how awful that it is that you haven’t had sex yet, you contribute to the problem. You’re helping to perpetuate the idea that virgin = defect. Even when those complaints are turned inward and you’re silently castigating yourself , you are continuing to reinforce that there’s something wrong because you haven’t had sex yet.
Let go of the labels. Let go of the blame. Both of these only serve to reinforce the idea something is wrong. Phrases like “incel” or “love-shy” just serve as a form of self-othering, making you out to be something besides human.
I’ll be the first to tell you: it’s not easy. Not in the slightest. You have to consciously choose to throw off a cultural narrative that permeates just about every aspect of our entertainment. It’s one more part of the traditional masculine gender role that so many people will gleefully try to force you back into and punish you if you deviate from. You have to learn to let go of being defensive about it or feeling embarrassed, to stop responding as though being a virgin means you’ve done something wrong or that there’s something wrong with you. It means you have to consciously reframe your own thought patterns, reminding yourself that not having had sex yet has no bearing on your value as a person no matter your age.
“You’re still a virgin.” “Yes, and?” “Have you ever even seen a woman naked before? “Not yet, so?”
The people who will mock you and try to shame you are of no account; they’re showing themselves to be assholes and why should you care about the opinions of assholes?
Your value doesn’t come from who you have or haven’t slept with. It doesn’t come from where you fall on the bell-curve of starting sexual activity, whether you were precocious or a late bloomer. Your value as a person comes from how you act and how you make others feel. It’s about what you bring to the table as a whole person, not how many vaginas you’ve managed to talk your way into.
Don’t spend your time focused on getting laid for the first time, spend your time on becoming a better person. Cultivate an amazing life. Learn to connect with people, to build relationships. Don’t throw your hands in the air and just assume you’re uniquely cursed, work to fix things. Practice your social skills – getting good with women, getting good with people, is a skill that you can learn. Yes, you may have problems. You may have circumstances in your life that make things harder for you. But harder isn’t impossible, no matter how daunting it may seem.
Focus less on being a virgin and focus more on being a person. The sex will come.
And when you focus on building an amazing life… you’ll be that much better prepared when you do lose your virginity.
Originally appeared at Paging Dr. NerdLove